- The Asian arowana, also known as the dragon fish, is the most expensive aquarium fish in the world.
- The fish is considered a valuable commodity for its red and gold colors – one was rumored to have sold for $300,000 in 2009.
- Most people who buy dragon fish are middle-class Chinese men, who collect the fish as status symbols.
As far as fish go, the Asian arowana is one of the most expensive aquarium species sold in the pet trade. It is a freshwater fish that has people paying in the tens of thousands of dollars for the most sought after colorations.
Narrator: What would you rather have, a new car, or this fish? Turns out they cost around the same. A single dragon fish can go for tens of thousands of dollars. So, what’s so special about it? Well, it might not look it, but this endangered fish is so coveted, people have actually gone to prison over it.
The dragon fish gets its nickname for how it resembles a dragon in flight as it swims. However, its real name is the Asian arowana. It’s a freshwater fish native to Southeast Asia, and it has taken the aquarium market by storm. Today, these fish are so prized that some have their own motorcades, and breeders protect their stock with layers of concrete walls, complete with guard dogs and watchmen. There’s even a market for cosmetic surgery to help subpar fish who need eye lifts or chin tucks. And that may sound like overkill, but it’s really not.
Emily Voigt: It’s a very valuable commodity, and that had driven a tremendous amount of crime around the areas where it’s bred.
Narrator: That’s Emily Voigt, who explores this world for her book, “The Dragon Behind the Glass.” We’re talking murder and midnight fish-napping. This wasn’t always the case, however.
Up until the second half of the 20th century, these fish weren’t flaunted. They were filleted and eaten by locals. Then, in 1967, an aquarium trader traveling through northern Malaysia saw a dead arowana at a food market and found it so attractive that he sought one out to keep as a pet. By the 1980s, arowanas had turned up in Taiwan, and eventually people all over Asia wanted one. In particular, the red and gold varieties of arowana came to symbolize luck and wealth in several Asian cultures.
Voigt: All that has led to a whole mythology about the fish. It’s supposed to bring good luck and prosperity, even to jump out of its tank to save its owner.
Narrator: Nowadays, breeding for new color combinations is all the rage. Like this fish, called the chili red, which you can get for around $1,400 each. Or the emerald violet fusion super red, which goes for about $12,000 each. But no fish is more rare and valuable than the albino. In 2009, one of these supposedly set a record, selling for $300,000 to an anonymous high ranking official in the Chinese government. In fact, most people who buy dragon fish are middle-class Chinese men, who’ll collect the fish as a status symbol.
Voigt: So keeping this fish is very much a macho hobby. There’s not a lot of women that do it. And it’s almost like collecting cars or something like that.
Narrator: So in the mid-90s, when dragon fish were successfully bred in captivity on certified farms, it was a big deal, because they were becoming rare in the wild due to overfishing and harvesting for the pet trade. Since then, more demand has led to breeding operations all over Southeast Asia. And while it’s perfectly legal to buy a dragon fish in the area, it may not be in other non-Asian countries. In the US, for example, you can only find the Asian arowana on the black market. And in fact, you can’t bring it into the country legally, because it’s banned by the US Endangered Species Act. People have actually gone to prison for trafficking this fish. So if you have an itch to have a dragon-like pet, maybe you should stick to something safer, like bearded dragons.