NOV 02,  2003

Monster fish
Luohan fish-breeders' grotesque 'mistakes' are being dumped in rivers
By Arlina Arshad

IF YOU think luohan fish are ugly, just look at this specimen with its Mick Jagger lips and ball-like body. Probably the result of breeding gone wrong, say marine biologists and those who rear fish.

Enthusiasts have been breeding them, then dumping the 'mistakes' in ponds and rivers.


Two breeders and three other people who rear fish admitted they'd done this. The Sunday Times also spoke to fishermen who have spotted sick and dead luohan, four aquarium owners, two marine biologists, and officials from agencies that have to deal with this problem.

Two luohan breeders said they sought to breed exotic-looking luohan, with blue or white eyes instead of red, or all-blue or all-red bodies instead of the usual red-green-black.

When the experiments went awry, they had to get rid of these mutants with 'elephant-trunk lips' and 'monkey faces'. Neither would agree to be named, fearing flak from fish lovers and repercussions from the authorities.

Said one breeder: 'Some fish had bloated bodies and no humps on the heads; others were skinny and had no fins. What do you expect me to do with them?'

The other one said: 'At least I release them in the water, not like some I know who flush them down toilet bowls!'

MOST fish enthusiasts like the look of luohan fish. But there are some who prefer to eat them.

Foreign workers have been known to fish them out of ponds and rivers to supplement their dinner, and at least one fish rearer said he has heard of people cooking them and sucking their brains out with a straw.

'My friend eats it for good luck,' said Mr Jumari Buang, 35, a technician, adding, 'He told me that the bigger the hump on the head, the luckier the eater will be'.

A 30-year-old salesman, who wanted to be known only as Mr Lim, said his friend, who rears luohan, said they tasted yummy when steamed or fried.

'She told me there are too many of them at home.'

The Sunday Times spotted three Thai workers setting a net at a Public Utilities Board pond in Yishun New Town in the middle of the night last week to catch fish, including luohan, to eat.

Fishing is forbidden at the pond, which collects storm water and drains it to Lower Seletar Reservoir. But it goes on.

One man, who wouldn't give his name, said he catches tilapia, parrot fish and luohan for fun.

He said: 'I give them away to passers-by. Singaporeans want to eat tilapia; the Bangladeshis go for luohan.'

Abandoning fish is an offence under the Birds and Animals Act, punishable by a $10,000 fine and 12 months' jail.

'This is an act of cruelty,' said Dr Leow Su Hua, head of the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore's animal welfare education.

Dumping luohan into public ponds can also turn the ponds' ecology upside down, because they are aggressive and breed quickly.

Said Professor Chou Loke Ming of the National University of Singapore's department of biological sciences: 'They may outcompete for food with local species and take over ponds and rivers.'

The National Parks Board (NParks) and Public Utilities Board have found reptiles and non-native fish in ponds, lakes and reservoirs. Said an NParks spokesman: 'The released fish may not survive. They could carry disease and this would affect the native animals in the ponds.'

Luohan fish, also known as flowerhorns, are believed to be descended from wild cichlids. A year or two ago, they were all the rage because people thought they brought good luck. High-quality ones, characterised by red eyes and large humps on their heads, went for as much as $8,000.

But now, they are no longer hot. One breeder said he'd released about 100 into Tengeh and Punggol rivers in the last three years.

He said: 'Some had holes in their heads and others had eyes popping out of their sockets.'

'One had a diseased mouth and rotting lips like this,' he said, turning his lips inside out. 'I couldn't save it; it was too sick.'

Aquarium owners also say people leave buckets of luohan at their doors in the dead of the night.

Madam Shirley Lim, owner of aquarium shop Yun Feng in Pasir Ris, said she would receive 'fish mail' three times a month.

'Nobody wants them any more. They're being chucked into dustbins like those unwanted babies in China. I could sell one at $4,000 last time, but now if I can sell one for $20, I'm very lucky,' she said.


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