On a foggy morning in February 2017, federal brokers in an unmarked automotive pulled over a white Toyota Corolla in Orange County, California.

Weapons on the prepared, they cautiously approached the car.

Within the driver’s seat sat Shawn Lee, a 29-year-old clad in a black baseball cap. Because the brokers drew nearer, they might see that he was cradling a big plastic bag.

Inside this bag was the topic of the manhunt. It wasn’t a brick of heroin, a bootleg firearm, or a bundle of soiled cash.

“What’ve you bought in there?” one of many brokers requested.

“Fish,” stated Lee.

And never simply any fish: 8 writhing Asian arowana — the world’s most respected aquarium pet.

Asian arowana retrieved from a bust in Orange County, California, in 2017. (US Fish and Wildlife Service, by way of courtroom filings)

An endangered species within the wild, the Asian arowana is unlawful to import, promote, and, typically, personal within the US.

Each every now and then, tales like Lee’s will floor within the information, shedding mild on a bizarro black market.

However elsewhere on the planet, the fish is a extremely coveted (and completely authorized) luxurious good. They’re prized by Yakuza gang members in Japan, enterprise magnates in China, and superfish collectors in Europe — and a single prime specimen can price greater than a Ferrari.

How did this fish develop into such a scorching commodity? Who controls the market? And why is it unlawful on US soil?

How a swampy creature grew to become swanky

For hundreds of years, the Asian arowana was nothing greater than a meal foraged from the blackwater rivers and swamps of Southeast Asia.

Apart from native markets in Malaysia, the fish wasn’t broadly traded — and it definitely wasn’t fascinating, and even recognizable, to most overseas aquarium lovers.

Then, in 1975, every little thing modified.

As Southeast Asia’s wetland habitats declined, Asian arowana started to dwindle in quantity. CITES, a treaty that limits the trafficking of endangered wildlife, categorized the Asian arowana as a threatened species.

The transfer was meant to ban industrial commerce of the fish.

However in line with Emily Voigt, who spent almost a decade monitoring down the story of the Asian arowana for her guide, The Dragon Behind the Glass, it ended up having precisely the other impact.

“That official stamp of rarity completely backfired,” she tells The Hustle. “And it truly turned the fish into this restricted version luxurious good.”

An arowana purchased by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono at a worth of 200m rupiah ($20k USD) swims throughout an exhibition in Jakarta in 2008. (ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Photos)

Malaysian smugglers started sneaking Asian arowana into Taiwan. From there, the fish discovered its option to Japan, the place it grew to become a Veblen good amongst Yakuza gang members.

In a bid to dampen this illicit commerce, CITIES allowed farmers in Southeast Asia to legally breed, harvest, and promote Asian arowana. The logic was {that a} flood of recent fish would drive down costs and make them a much less fascinating commodity.

However as soon as once more, issues went off the deep finish.

Over the following a long time, a whole bunch of arowana farms popped up all through Indonesia and Malaysia and the fish all however disappeared from the wild.

Right now, the Asian arowana’s largest market is in China.

Dubbed the “dragon fish” on account of its shiny scales, lengthy whiskers, and fierce disposition, the arowana has taken on a religious aura. 

“It has develop into this mystical creature that supposedly protects you and helps you make good enterprise choices,”Voigt tells The Hustle. “It’s thought to deliver wealth and prosperity. There are even accounts of arowana leaping out of their tanks to warn of a nasty omen.”

House owners will go above and past to maintain their fish aesthetically pleasing.

Devoted “fish beauticians run worthwhile companies performing cosmetic surgery on fish. In a bid to flaunt probably the most stunning specimen, house owners give their pets eye lifts ($90), chin jobs ($60), and tail alterations ($60).

Gong Hengliang, who has been a “fish beautician” for 4 years, performs beauty surgical procedure on an Asian arowana fish in 2020 in Lanzhou, China. (Picture by Gao Zhan/China Information Service by way of Getty Photos)

This fanaticism has turned farm-bred Asian arowana (that are authorized in most nations) into an estimated $200m/12 months international market.

The $300k fish

Within the mid-Eighties, an Indonesian printing government named Tris Tanoto stop his job and acquired 12 Asian Arowana for $170.

With assist from associates, he purchased a small farm in East Jakarta, launched the fish in a pond on the property, and, by trial and error, taught himself the artwork of breeding.

Right now, Tanoto’s operation is one in every of no less than 250 CITES-approved Asian arowana farms throughout Southeast Asia, the vast majority of that are centered in Indonesia and Malaysia.

His firm, PT Munjul Prima Utama, is one in every of Indonesia’s largest exporters of Asian arowana — notably, the “Tremendous Crimson,” a brilliant crimson varietal that’s extremely fascinating to Chinese language patrons, who view the colour crimson as a illustration of vitality and success.

Scenes from Tanoto’s farm in Indonesia. (Photos by way of Toro Tanoto)

Every year, the corporate sells round 1k of its 7k inventory of Asian arowana, netting ~$3m USD in annual income.

This works out to $3k per fish on common, however costs can differ tremendously primarily based on quite a lot of components:

  • Coloration: The fish will be present in crimson, inexperienced, gold, and silver variations. However a market has emerged for “designer-bred” colours like Crimson Tail Golden Splendor, Violet Fusion Tremendous Crimson, and Blue Base Golden.
  • Pedigree: Fish bred from earlier generations of wild-caught arowana are likely to fetch greater costs.
  • Fin dimension and head form: Bigger dorsal fins up the value.

Tanoto sells 8 kinds of Asian arowana, ranging in worth from $1.2k to $5.5k. As soon as, he says he offered a “flawless” Tremendous Crimson to a purchaser in China for $30k.

Extraordinarily uncommon Asian arowana can fetch as much as 10x that quantity.

A breeder in Malaysia who makes a speciality of albino Asian arowana, purportedly offered one in every of his inventory to a high-ranking member of the Chinese language Communist Celebration for $300k.

A few of these farms are so profitable that they’re publicly traded firms.

In her guide, Voigt tells the story of Kenny Yap (AKA, “Kenny the Fish”), a 55-year-old ex-pig farmer who — when not taking nude images along with his fish — runs Singapore’s largest arowana farm.

Yap’s firm, Qian Hu, distributes fish to 80 nations, has 5 international export hubs, and is listed on the Singapore Change. In 2019, the agency offered ~$30m price of fish and spawned greater than 7k Asian arowana. (You possibly can take a peek at their annual report right here.)

Kenny Yap takes dip along with his arowana (Qian Hu)

This potential for giant paydays makes the commerce extraordinarily aggressive — and infrequently harmful — for farm house owners just like the Tanotos.

“Competitors is fierce and really unhealthy,” Tris’ son and enterprise accomplice, Toro, tells The Hustle by way of e mail. “There have been a whole lot of frauds utilizing our firm’s identify, each domestically and globally. They fake to be us and ship pretend Arowana images to international prospects on social media.”

Voigt says it’s not unusual to listen to tales of arowana-related sabotage, theft, and even homicide. She calls the fish “an agent of chaos.”

In 2004, a Malaysian store proprietor was killed by thieves who had been after his trove of 20+ Asian arowana. Armed robberies are frequent — and breeders typically safe their heaps with concrete partitions, barbed wire, watch towers, and canines. 

Some farms additionally run elaborate worldwide Ponzi schemes, promoting the identical fish to a number of purchasers across the globe. 

The availability chain

Fairly than go on to prospects, many farms in Southeast Asia promote in bulk to sellers in different nations.

Amongst these sellers is David Carr, who runs Planet Arowana, a 100-tank specialty fish store in London.

A customer snaps a shot of the a prize-winning arowana at Singapore’s Aquarama, the most important commerce present for unique fish lovers. (ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP by way of Getty Photos)

Carr, a 41-year-old ex-chef, first obtained into fish at 17. What started with guppies in a small glass bowl quickly developed into a college of African Cichlids in an 8-foot tank.

Sooner or later, he requested himself: “What’s the most prestigious, most sought-after, most stunning fish on the planet?”

“I realized in regards to the Asian arowana and have become obsessed,” he says. “There’s nothing else prefer it. It’s the majestic dragon.”

The Londoner moved to Malaysia, the place he spent a 12 months studying every little thing he might in regards to the fish from native breeders. Whereas there, he arrange his personal 55’x30’ pond with traders.

The method, he says, works like so:

  • The pond is full of 20 arowana (6 males, 14 females).
  • At round 3 years of age, the fish “get jiggy.” Every feminine produces between 10-80 eggs.
  • Each 2-3 months, child fish (referred to as fingerlings) are harvested.
  • The fish are shipped to the UK and offered at ~4-6 months of age for between $300 and $4k+ every.

In captivity, Asian arowana can reside for 25+ years, making the recurring cycle interesting to traders.

“It may be very profitable should you do it proper,” Carr informed us. “Individuals who make investments $50k-$100k in Asian arowana ponds positively get their return again.”

Carr sells his arowana to patrons all around the world. Lately, he says demand has expanded from Asia to the Western world.

“As quickly as somebody sees the Asian arowana, they fall in love,” he says. “When aquarists need one belter of a fish — the crème de la crème — they [trade] up and get one.”

A number of Asian arowana shade variations: Tremendous Crimson, 24k Gold, and Platinum. (Collage, by way of images from Getty Photos)

Glen Mickle, a 32-year-old carpenter who lives in Alberta, Canada, the place Asian arowana are authorized, obtained into the fish 6 years in the past at an area public sale.

He began out with an $800 Blue Base Golden Crossback which he named “Einstein.” Six months later, he splurged on a Tremendous Crimson for $1k, then one other, imported from Indonesia, for $1.7k.

“They’re my prizes,” he says of the fish.

Mickle created United Arowana, a personal Fb group for “arowana lovers” that boasts ~19k members. The neighborhood is one in every of many hubs — together with the boards Arofanatics and Monster Fish Keepers — the place Asian arowana lovers speak store.

One subject comes up notably typically: The unlawful nature of the fish in america.

The black market

Whereas Asian arowana are legally purchased and offered in most worldwide markets, shopping for and promoting them is strictly prohibited within the US underneath the Endangered Species Act.

However that hasn’t stopped Individuals — or breeders in Asia — from making an attempt to create their very own underground fish pipeline.

“I learn about 10 folks within the US who personal Asian arowana,” Mickle informed us. “I might say it’s much more widespread than folks assume. It’s simply not [talked about] as a lot, for apparent causes.”

The Hustle

The Fish and Wildlife Service has commandeered no scarcity of Asian arowana busts over the previous decade:

  • In 2010, 7 folks had been arrested in Los Angeles for making an attempt to smuggle in 12 juvenile Asian arowana from Indonesia.
  • In 2011, a 49-year-old Chinese language meals supply driver was caught making an attempt to import 16 fish from Malaysia to NYC in a suitcase.
  • In 2014, two males in San Diego had been caught with 13 of the fish, which they had been making an attempt to promote on Craigslist for $2.8k every.
  • In 2018, a Chicago chef was busted for making an attempt to purchase 24 Asian arowana for his dwelling aquarium. 

Most frequently, perpetrators obtain a sentence of probation and fines of between $5k and $15k — a small price to pay for the potential upside of such underground operations.

In a single case, a smuggler paid a Vietnamese farmer $6.6k for 16 Asian arowana ($412 every) and offered for them within the US for $1.9k a pop — a revenue margin of 78%.

Organising a deal like this requires secretive communication between smugglers in Southeast Asia and patrons within the US. 

Each events are nicely conscious of the excessive stakes.

A transaction between Shawn Lee (a 29-year-old from Backyard Grove, California) and Mickey Tanadi (a breeder from Jakarta, Indonesia) started with the next change over a global texting app:

A recreation of actual texts exchanged between Lee (blue) and Tanadi (grey) in 2017, by way of US District Courtroom filings (The Hustle)

Lee despatched Tanadi a wire switch for $2,550.

In flip, Tanadi secured 8 Asian arowana in water-filled plastic luggage hidden inside ceramic pots. He shipped them to the US by way of DHL with a remaining textual content which will as nicely have been addressed to the fish themselves:

“…Don’t get caught.”

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