Importing Asian Arowana
Original to Aquarticles
Author's first RTG Asian arowana (Scleropages
So, you want to import Asian arowana (Scleropages formosus) to Canada, but are
not sure how to do it. The following article will guide you through the process I followed
three times in 2005 to import 30 Asian arowana to Vancouver, Canada. I will begin by
providing a very brief history of the Asian arowana market in South East Asia. I will then
explain how I contacted the various farms there and detail the step-by-step process you
must follow to import the fish into Canada. It is important to mention here that as of now
there is no way to legally import Asian arowana into the United States, so don't even
contemplate it. I believe, however, that the process I followed would be similar to what
one would do in Europe, and possibly soon for Australia (Asian
arowana and Australia) Finally, I should note that this article is aimed at the
experienced aquarist who already knows how to care for this amazing fish.
History of the Asian Arowana Market
The fact that Asian arowana are available for sale in Canada today is remarkable. Due
to a combination of severe habitat destruction in Indonesia and Malaysia, and to the high
demand of aquarists, the fish was declared a Class 1 Endangered Species by CITES
(Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) in 1975. This is the same level
of protection afforded the African Rhino and the Asian Tiger. CITES reclassified the Asian
arowana in the 1980's, allowing for the commercial breeding of the fish in Indonesia. The
hope was that local people would conserve wild fish stocks and breed the fish if there was
an economic incentive. The program proved a success and commercial breeding later expanded
to Singapore and Malaysia. All Asian arowana legally for sale in the aquarium trade today
are at least F2 offspring and are tagged with coded microchips called Passive
Integrated Transponders (PIT). These microchips can be read with hand held scanners
and allow the fish to be identified as farm bred animals. Along with the microchip, fish
are also sold with a birth certificate that includes its microchip number and the name of
the CITES registered fish farm where it was raised.
A PIT (Passive Integrated Transponder) microchip
photo Kenta Umezawa
Same chip next to a Canadian penny - photo Kenta Umezawa
Examples of Panda Aquatics "birth certificate" that
accompanies each fish
After being illegal to import to Canada for many years, Asian arowana, first became
legally available in the late 1990's. Initially prices were stratospheric, with Asian
Green arowana, the lowest colour grade, selling for over $2,500 US. Gradually retail
prices in Canada came down to the level in 2006 where a Green sells for about $250 US, a
Red Tail Gold (RTG) for about $750 US, a Super Red for about $1800 US, and Cross Back
(Xback) for $3,500 US. The occasional Very Fine Super Red (Chilli, Blood, or Purple
Fusion) will sell for as much as $5,000-7,000 US.
Super Red (Blood Red) on left; Malaysian Cross Back on right
Photos courtesy of Shuuhei Yada
In my case, I was simply unwilling to spend that kind of money on a fish, no matter how
beautiful it is; when I found that the large Aquarium chain store in my area was unwilling
to negotiate a better price for a group purchase I arranged for a number of hobbyists, I
hit upon the idea of importing the fish myself. I discovered I could save 50-80% off the
local posted price by purchasing directly from a CITES certified Asian arowana farm. When
you are dealing with hundreds and even thousands of dollars, this is no small amount of
Contacting Commercial Asian Arowana Farms
The number of Asian arowana farms located in South East Asia seems to grow all the
time. It will be your task to choose a breeder who you think you can trust. Many farms
insist either on very large imports (up to 50 fish per shipment), and so do not deal with
smaller orders from hobbyists. I was tempted to order from some of the arowana farms in
Indonesia; in the end I chose to order from Panda Aquatics, one of the oldest and most
respected arowana farms in Singapore; I felt confident I would not be cheated and was
proven right over time. I would definitely order from them again (Panda Aquatics).
Arranging the Arowana Import
Part 1 - The Paperwork
I phoned and emailed Panda Aquatics and ended up dealing with the manager Derek Goh. I
explained that I wanted to order a dozen RTG arowana for local hobbyists in Vancouver; he
provided me a satisfactory quote. Out of respect for the confidentiality of their business
I will not specify the amount, but it was much cheaper than the regular retail price in
Vancouver. There was an additional shipping cost of about $500 US. I agreed to his terms
and was then emailed an invoice and a copy of a Singaporean CITES export permit for the
fish. I then applied for my Canadian CITES import permit, which took about 3 weeks to
Part 2 - Assembling a Group Order
While you are waiting for your paperwork to be processed, you have time to find any
more people you might need to join you in your group order. Panda Aquatics has a minimum
order in place of 12 fish or two shipping boxes. Since most people are not looking to own
so many fish, it makes sense to assemble a group order for many hobbyists. Internet
forums, classified adds, and word of mouth are all good ways to assemble a group order.
You will be surprised at how easy it is to find people to join a group purchase.
Part 3 - Paying for the Fish
Once you have received your Canadian CITES import permit, you will need to wire the
payment for the fish to Asia. I always arranged to meet at a local bank with all of the
people going in on the group order, wired the money to Singapore, and then gave everyone a
photocopy of the money transfer. I also had people sign a sheet agreeing that they
understood that I was a broker and had no control over the quality of the fish. Panda
Aquatics has a 24 hour DOA (dead on arrival) policy for replacement, but I was still
nervous about possibly being liable for any loss. Thankfully in all three of my imports
the fish arrived perfectly healthy.
Once the money has been wired, you will be looking at about a week or two before the
fish arrive. This gives everyone time to make sure their tanks are ready.
Part 4 - Arrival of the Fish
Assuming you order from Panda Aquatics, here is what you do on delivery day. The flight
from Singapore lands around 1:00 PM. Once it has landed, it takes about 1-2 hours for the
waybill for your fish to be processed. I usually go to the cargo clearance area for
Singapore Airlines in the Aeroground building (located on Jericho Road off Miller Road,
not far from the main Vancouver terminal), around 2:00 pm. You will probably have to wait
another half hour or so in the waiting area (there are chairs). Once the waybill has
cleared, you pay the clerk a small fee of around $30-40. Then you must drive to the Canada
Customs center located further down Miler Road (a few doors down to the East of the Runway
Cafe, on the left side of Miller Road).
After about thrity minutes of paper work you will have finally cleared your fish
through Canada Customs! Now head back to the Aeorground building (Singapore Cargo bay
area) back at Jericho Road. Go back into the office, give the clerk your Canada Customs
papers, pay another "landing fee" of around $50, get your receipt, head out the
door and go about 30 meters to your right to the main cargo area. Enter the door to the
cargo area, give the warehouse man your receipt, and wait for him to retrieve your fish.
He'll probably drive up with your fish loaded on a mini-fork lift.
The asian arowana in the warehouse
At this point the wildlife inspector may show up to have a look, and then the fish are
Now, if you do the division of fish the way I do, it will go as follows:
Open the box and find the "birth certificates" in a plastic bag. Take them out,
make a fan, and have each customer choose one blind. Then quickly find the corresponding
fish in the numbered bags, get any payment owed (landing fees, GST and PST, etc.) and
everyone goes their separate ways. One time the fish bags had the CITES numbers wiped off
due to water mixing with the felt pen ink. You just figure it out on the spot somehow if
What you see when you open the boxes
I'd recommend that you bring along a small calculator and a pen and paper to figure out
the final book-keeping with everyone. The last few minutes of the import, when you divide
the fish up and get the final money owed are definitely the most stressful. You don't want
to get your final book keeping wrong now!
Everyone should have a bucket or box with a towel for transporting the fish to their
Happy hobbyists with their new RTG Asian arowana
Concerning the release of your fish - remember that they have been drugged/sedated.
Once you add some aquarium water to the bag the fish come to pretty fast. The addition of
the fish to your aquarium follows the standard procedure you'd follow with any expensive
fish (add some water wait, 15 minutes, repeat, repeat, release).
Super reds! (Blood and Chilli)
As an aside, in my third import I had one hobbyist who was late meeting me to pick up
his fish. When he finally arrived and held it up to pose for a photo, there was a
quizzical look on his face. I asked what was wrong and he told me "I think the fish
is dead." The fish in question was a high value super red. Muttering expletives I
checked the fish for myself and had to agree that it looked dead - upside down at a 45
degree angle and no movement of the gills. My muttering went up in volume as I ran with
the fish inside my home where I promptly opened the bag it came in and dumped it headlong
into a 5 gallon bucket. I was shocked at how cold the water was that the fish had been
transported in. Hurriedly, I siphoned some water directly from my 180 gallon arowana tank
into the bucket. Within 20 seconds the fish came to and began thrashing about. I had to
cover the bucket to keep it from jumping out! In retrospect I know the fish had simply
been heavily sedated due to the shipping drugs and cold water. The fish was eating later
that night in its owner's tank and has gone on to become a beautiful specimen showing no
ill-effects of its transport.
So far, everything I have written assumes you are importing the fish only to Vancouver.
Those of you who live elsewhere in Canada will be encouraged to hear that I have helped a
hobbyist import a shipment of RTG Asian arowana to Vancovuer and then on to Regina,
Saskatchewan. This fellow intended to pick the fish up in Vancouver and then on the same
day personally fly with them to Regina. Unfortunately he was delayed overnight in
Vancouver; becuase he could not replace the pure oxygen placed in the bags in Singapore,
he decided to keep the bags closed until he arrived in Regina. By the time he arrived in
Regina the next day the fish had been inside their closed shipping bags for aproximately
55 hours! All of his fish have gone on to be healthy specimens. If nothing else, this
story shows it is at least possible to clear the fish in Vancouver and then trans-ship the
fish to other places in Canada on your own. Before doing so, however, make sure that your
air carrier will allow you to fly with the fish as accompanied cargo.
If you are not keen
on coming to Vancouver in person, it may be possible to hire a local customs clearance
company to clear the fish through customs and then forward them on to you. This would
require more research on your part.
As with many things in life, the process of importing Asian arowana only gets easier
with practise. The first time I imported them, I spent half the day at the airport on the
arrival day, while by my third import I spent little more than an hour. It also becomes
easier to negotiate better prices from Asian arowana farms once you become an established
customer. As far as what to charge for taking on the responsibility of setting up a group
order, that is of course up to you. I was happy to earn myself a fish out of each deal and
to enjoy the adventure of importing such a wonderfully mysterious creature. Meeting other
Asian arowana keepers was fun too!
As a post-script to this article, you can join a group order for Asian
arowana from Panda Aquatics by visiting www.dragonfish.ca.
(Note: Due to the illegality of importing Asian arowana
to the USA, I will not reply to questions asking for advice. Current penalties are fines
of up to $250,000 and/or 5 years in jail! See here for an example)