Asian Arowana or ‘dragon fish’ as they have commonly been known to be called, would be a prized get for any large aquarium owner. They are one of the most stunning fish to see in an aquarium setting. That’s because they have vibrant colored scales that brightly shine throughout their long slender bodies. Asian Arowana can also be found in a variety of different colors. Just a single one of them can make your home fish tank come to life. There is only one problem. If you are caught with one of these fish in your home aquarium your pockets will be a little lighter after you have paid a hefty fine. This species of fish is illegal to own in the USA.
What is an Asian Arowana?
As was mentioned, Asian Arowana are popular among aquarium owners because of their long slender bodies and brightly shining large, metallic looking scales. Arowana have been found to grow as big as 36” long. These fish have large tail fins and they will live about 10 – 15 years in an aquarium setting if taken care of properly. They are also very active swimmers that require large aquarium tanks to keep them in. These have become by far the world’s most expensive aquarium fish because of their scarcity.
Part of what makes Arowana popular aquarium fish is the several different colors that they come in. The red variety of the species is considered to be the most sought-after type of Arowana. Gold is probably the second most popular color among them for collectors. They also can be found in green, orange, tan, blue, silver and multi-colored varieties too.
The rarest of these fish is the albino variety. In countries where they are put on display, they are moved around and displayed under the supervision of professional security teams.
Why Are Asian Arowana Illegal to Own in the US?
Asian Arowana’s are illegal in the United States because they are currently on the endangered species list. Arowana are covered under the US Endangered Species Act. They first appeared on the world’s endangered species list in 1975 and have remained on it up to the current time.
One of the world governing bodies that control the trade of exotic fish that go on the endangered species list is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. This governing body has placed Asian Arowana’s under category 1. That is the most restricted category of their classification system. That’s why they cannot be legally imported or sold in the United States.
Another big concern the United States has with this species of fish is their eating habits. They are fierce predators that could potentially dominate a local ecosystem if released from captivity. The fear is that hobbyists will release these fish into the wild once they become too big for the fish tanks that hold them. This has gotten Arowana placed on the Department of Natural Resources published list of banned species.
Despite these restrictions, thousands if not more of this fish species find their way into American aquariums every year.
What is the Asian Arowana’s Natural Habitat?
Asian Arowana (Scleropages formosus) are most commonly found in such Southeast Asian countries as Indonesia and Malaysia. They are freshwater fish that prefer to inhabit blackwater rivers. They especially like the sanctuary that the slow-moving waters through the forested swamps and wetlands have to offer. This also provides the adult Arowana with plenty of choices for the fish they like to eat and an abundance of insects for the young to feed on. Arowana are night feeders that hang out among roots and other subsurface water structure during the day.
Why Are Their Numbers Declining?
Like many fish and mammals that are found on endangered species lists, the Asian Arowana’s natural habitat has been increasingly encroached upon by man. Areas like the Malay Peninsula where Arowana once thrived are now uncommon places to find many Arowana still living.
That declining habitat combined with this particular fish species slow advance to sexually maturity for the females (as long as 3 to 4 years) has made successful breeding for them harder and harder. Arowana females also only produce around 30 – 100 eggs after fertilization. These eggs are a favorite of big fish and other water predators because of their large size.
Asian cultural beliefs, especially those of the Chinese, are also a problem. They are an extremely popular fish to put in aquarium tanks in China because they are thought to bring good luck and prosperity. Dragon Fish are so well thought of in China that they are the type of fish depicted in the paper kite style mock-ups that are always found in Chinese New Year’s day parades.
What Are The Possible Penalties If You Are Caught With One Illegally?
Although the laws are not strictly enforced in many cases regarding endangered fish species, the penalties if convicted can be substantial. As far as prison time goes it is highly unlikely that will happen to most anyone caught owning an Asian Arowana. But the violation of the endangered species act does carry the potential for a year in jail. In worst case scenarios such as possessing many asian Arowana, someone can probably expect to do at least some jail time. Probation is the most likely scenario for first-time offenders.
The biggest worry for someone who gets caught in possession of Asian Arowana is fines. These can be very substantial, to say the least. For violations of the National Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can impose civil penalties that range from $20,000 to $50,000. This would be a substantial blow to most people’s pocketbook. Maybe that’s not the case though with someone that is willing to pay well upwards of $10,000 to have an Asian Arowana in their aquarium.
Those who sell and import Dragon Fish into the USA have the most to fear legally. Law enforcement has been known to aggressively pursue charges in cases relating to the sale and trafficking of Asian Arowana into the USA. Not only do illegal fish traffickers get charged with violation of the endangered species act but additional crimes like fraud for using the internet to help commit illegal activities also come into play. These types of crimes can carry fines into the hundreds of thousands of dollars and jail time of 5 to 10 years.
Confiscation of the fish has also been known to happen to illegal Arowana owners. If a state gets wind of someone possessing Asian Arowana you can bet they will get a visit from a state enforcement agency. If they find someone in possession of Arowana without a permit, they will most definitely confiscate those fish. Hopefully, that’s not one of the Arowana fish that cost an exotic fish collector over $100,000 to purchase.
Wait, I See Arowanas at My Local Pet Store
Worry not, the type of arowana you see at your local fish store is probably not an asian arowana. There are several other types of arowana fish, silver arowana, black arowana, jardini arowana, african arowanas, and leichardti arowana. If you’re wondering if they’re legal to own in the US, yes they are.
Fish Farms Are Trying To Bring Asian Arowana Numbers Back Up
One of the ways that people are trying to bring the numbers of this fish species back up is through fish farming. These fish farms are very unusual in nature in that they more resemble a high-security prison than what a traditional fish farm looks like. They are surrounded by high concrete walls with barbed wire at the top and constantly patrolled by foot. Many of them even have Rottweiler dogs on the premises for security purposes. All this shows just how valuable this species of fish has become.
Some of the fish that are produced by these Arowana farms are now being allowed to be traded on the open market if certain conditions are being met. Some of them are that each fish has to come with a certificate that details the place and date of their birth. Many of these farm-raised Arowana even have identifying microchips inserted into their bodies. All of this would explain why these fish typically fetch upwards of $10,000 each when openly traded.
Arowana are One of The World’s Most Sought-After Exotic Fish
Because of their scarcity, the Asian Arowana has become one of the most in-demand exotic fish species in the world. Some of the more vibrant colored ones are said to be sold for anywhere from $150,000 to $300,000. They are such a prized species of fish that many collectors of exotic fish are willing to risk jail time and big fines to possess one.
There are legal ways to obtain these fish in the USA too. That is by applying for and receiving a permit. To date, there is no known person that has ever applied for and received a permit for personal ownership of an Asian Arowana. Most of the approved permits are for public aquariums and zoo aquariums.
Even if fish farming does increase the numbers of these fish that they are no longer on the endangered species list, there are no guarantees they will once again become legal to own in the USA. The reason for that is the fear that these fish could end up being dumped into American freshwater streams and lakes and upset their delicate ecosystems.