Craze for ornamental fish unleashes 'killer' in Malaysian waters

by AFP/Hazlin Hassan, Feb 14, 2003 | Destinations: Malaysia / Kuala Lumpur

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 13, 2003 - An obsession with ornamental fish in Asia has unleashed a killer hybrid in Malaysia which is terrorising local fish in the wild, anglers claim. The flowerhorn, an odd-looking creature with a hump on its forehead and patterns on its body resembling Chinese letters, is the focus of a major craze in Malaysia and other parts of Asia.

Depending on the size of the hump and the quality of colour and markings, the carnivorous fish can fetch thousands of dollars. A particularly prized flowerhorn was expected to reach 1.2 million ringgit (315,790 US dollars) at an upcoming auction here. "The craze for rearing the fish all started when someone claimed to have made it rich after getting his lottery numbers from the black markings on the fish's body," Raymond Yen, a flowerhorn breeder told AFP.

The distinctive hump is also found on the Chinese God of Longevity. "People believe it brings them wealth and good luck," he said. First introduced to Malaysia about four years ago, the flowerhorn is believed to be a hybrid between two cichlid species from Central and South America which has since been crossed with other species and therefore lacks a scientific name.

But despite the craze, not all flowerhorns look pretty enough or "lucky" enough for an aquarium, so many of the fish are tossed into the wild where they are believed to be wreaking havoc, according to the Malaysian Angling Association. "It is the biggest con job that the aquarium industry has ever seen. You're talking about 80,000 to 100,000 ringgit (26,315 dollars) for a fish," the association's vice-president, Ismail Feisol, told AFP. "But not all fetch that much. A poor boy can afford a fry for three ringgit," he said.

When the fish mature and fail to display the sort of colouring expected from a quality flowerhorn they are invariably dumped into the nearest drain, pond or waterway. Raymond Yen said many breeders toss unwanted flowerhorn. "Most of them are superstitious. They know their fish won't fetch a high price but they believe that since it's a fish that brings good luck it will bring you bad luck if you kill it."

Ismail Feisol said that some Malaysians also buy them specially to release into the wild. "They think they can get rid of their 'suey' (bad luck) that way."

"From a pair, you could get 200 fry every six months. The situation is critical." He said every water body in Kuala Lumpur and neighbouring Selangor state was infested with flowerhorn, while the fish had also found its way into rice fields and canals in the far north. An experiment involving throwing bread on the waters of seven lakes in Kelana Jaya, Selangor, showed that most of the fish which rose were flowerhorn, some of them hideously mutant.

The fear is that they could start wiping out local fish, much like the Asian snakehead which recently caused alarm bells to sound in the United States. Concerned about the potential damage to its inland fisheries, the US banned imports of the fish, which is known for its razor-sharp teeth and voracious appetite.

Although aquarium specimens average about 25 centimetres (10 inches) in length, flowerhorns can grow up to three kilogrammes (more than six pounds) in the wild, Raymond said. "Nearly all local fish would be affected. The flowerhorn eat anything," Ismail said. "We have realised that where this fish is in abundance, there are no more snakehead because they attack the fry. The three-spotted gurami, which is a slow-moving fish, is badly affected. The fighting fish too.

"At the end of the day, there will be no more local fish." In an effort to fight back, he said: "We will try to catch the present stock and add local predator fish like the Malaysian jungle perch, featherback, giant snakehead, and pray that nature will take its course. "These are vicious buggers, hopefully they will wallop the flowerhorn."

Environmentalist Chris Shepherd of Traffic Southeast Asia told AFP he had not heard that the flowerhorn had spread in the wild in Malaysia, but said if they did this could create a potentially serious threat to the native species and their habitat. "There has been little or no research done on the impact these fish will have, but it is pretty safe to say that releasing them into the wild will come to no good."

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