Eco Mural Project 2: Arowana, Red Lotus Spa, Philadelphia, PA – Painted and designed by Olivia Losee-Unger

Asian Arowanas are freshwater bony fish that are native to the lakes, slow-moving rivers, forested wetlands and swamps of Southeast Asia. Since the 1970s, Asian Arowanas have caught the attention of aquarists internationally for their captivating scales and brilliant colors. Arowanas have become infamous for being the most expensive fish in the world; however, the economy surrounding their breeding and purchase has failed to benefit their native habitat.

Arowanas are coveted for their brilliant armored scales, which come in a variety of naturally-occurring colors. They are considered primitive fish, with little evolutionary differences noted between modern members of their genus and their ancestors from over 140 million years ago. Arowanas are within the family Ostieoglossidae, meaning “bony-tongued,” a reference to the appendage used to crush prey between a bony spur and the teeth along the roof of the mouth. Arowanas breed only once a year, and are mouthbrooding fish, meaning the male incubates fertilized eggs within his mouth until they become free-swimming fry. These formidable predators prefer to dine in the upper water column, often leaping out of the water to capture insects and small amphibians. A fully grown adult can reach three feet in length, requiring large tanks to properly house them. They grow slowly and only breed once a year, making them expensive showpieces in many wealthy aquarists’ collections.

Asian Arowanas have become culturally important to the Chinese for a few key reasons. When swimming with their pectoral and pelvic fins flared, they bear a good resemblance to classical Chinese representations of dragons, leading to a commonly used nickname, “dragonfish”. The coloring of Asian Arowanas is also significant to the Chinese: the red, super red, and gold varieties are particularly desirable as they represent good fortune, health, and success in business dealings. Following a boom in the international aquarist trade, Arowanas were poached from their native habitats en masse, resulting in a steep decline of their populations since the 1970s. In 1975, CITES (The Convention on The International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna) placed them in Appendix 1, the most restrictive category of regulated trade. In 2006, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICUN), evaluated Arowanas as an endangered and decreasing population and placed them on their Red List. In an effort to take advantage of the economic benefits of the Asian Arowana trade while preventing wildlife poaching, CITES allowed the first trade of captive-bred Arowanas in 1994.

Since captive-breeding programs have grown and become the standard for purchasing Asian Arowanas, wild poaching has decreased. Unfortunately, climate change and environmental degradation have surpassed poaching as the most imminent threat to this species. Wastewater pollution, oil spills, and human encroachment have devastated the Asian Arowana’s natural habitat, pushing them closer to extinction in the wild. While businessmen trade and raise these spectacular fish for recreation, little funding is currently allocated worldwide to ensure that their habitats are defended from human-caused environmental degradation.

Arowanas depend upon the same basic resources that we do: healthy forests, wetlands, and freshwater. When species like the Arowana are threatened by human encroachment and pollution, the balance of extensive and complicated ecological networks is thrown awry, threatening not only those wild species, but the future of all residents of Earth. In order to maintain spectacular species like the Arowana for future generations to enjoy, we must commit to curbing our fossil fuel consumption, our waterway and landfill pollution, and ensure irreplaceable habitats receive special protections from poachers and polluters.

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