SINGAPORE: Wading through a murky pond on a private property deep in the farmlands of Lim Chu Kang, farmer Shannon Lim is on a mission to capture a monster lurking just beneath the surface.
After seeing a flash of pink scales, the 32-year-old reached into the water and grabbed an arapaima that was so big, his hands could not touch when they wrapped around the fish. (He later estimated the fish to be 2m in length, weighing 150kg.)
His next move was to trap the arapaima with a net then move it to shallower ground, where six people could somehow jump on it and haul it out of the fast-draining pond.
But as Mr Lim dug his toes in, the torpedo-shaped monster pushed back.
The arapaima moved all 92kg of him – “like when a mum drags a kid through a mall” – before knocking back its head against his chest, creating a furious splash and sending him flying into the water.
Fortunately, Mr Lim’s protective vest absorbed most of the impact. If not it would have been an emergency trip to the hospital, “or I’d be dead”.
“It’s one of those things where you have to recognise that as a person, you can’t win,” he told CNA on Friday (Jul 5).
UNDERSTANDING THE ARAPAIMA
Still, Mr Lim is trying to rehome the arapaima and other fish in the pond before they face almost certain death beyond 2021, when the lease for the plot in Lim Chu Kang runs out.
If no-one adopts the fish, their owner, who declined to be named, said they would have to be transferred to a nearby pond that supposedly leads to Kranji Reservoir, where chances of survival are low.
The private show pond in Lim Chu Kang. (Photo: Aqil Haziq Mahmud)
Native to South America, the arapaima is one of the world’s largest freshwater fish, capable of reaching 3.5m long and weighing up to 300kg. Common prey include a variety of fish, crustaceans, insects and land animals small enough to fit in its mouth.
Unlike most fish, the arapaima breathes oxygen through its mouth, meaning it comes up every now and then for a gulp of air. This allows it to live in murky, slow-moving waters that are usually very low in oxygen.
The fish owner said his father bought some 50 arapaima babies about a decade ago to keep as pets. As the years went by, people put other unwanted fish – like alligator gars, pacus and catfish – into the pond.
Now Mr Lim said there are about 90 fish – including at least two arapaimas – in the pond, and he has pledged to adopt and move all of them to another site at Dempsey Road. There, most of the fish would be ornamental.
As for the arapaimas, Mr Lim plans to breed them and export their meat – which he said costs more and tastes better than the locally popular sea bass – to major markets like Japan and China. He will also sell “small amounts” in Singapore.
This kind of business is lucrative, as arapaimas grow much faster than sea bass: Mr Lim said they can go from babies to 10kg in 14 months, while the latter can only hit 1kg in the same amount of time.
For those living in the Amazon basin, the arapaima has for centuries been part of their staple diet. So much that since the 1960s, its population has been in steady decline due to increasing human pressure.
In 1975, the arapaima received protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and was listed under appendix II, meaning commercial trade is allowed only with the relevant CITES permits.
Mr Lim going into the pond to catch alligator gars. (Photo: Aqil Haziq Mahmud)
When it comes to breeding and exporting, Mr Lim will work out local regulations and partner experts in Peru who have CITES permits and experience handling thousands of the fish each day.
Ultimately, he sees his business model as “conservation through food”.
“Basically, every domestic animal runs almost no risk of going extinct because businesses have a very strong financial incentive to keep them alive,” he said.
GRAPPLING WITH FISH
It is a lofty ambition that must first start with the successful capture of the pink-scaled arapaimas, which has gone on for slightly more than two days without success.
The initial plan was to use ketamine to sedate the fish before carrying them out, but that failed when authorities would not grant permission for the use of the drug.
Mr Lim (extreme right) and his team of volunteers. (Photo: Aqil Haziq Mahmud)
The current plan of trapping the arapaima with a net and moving it to shallower ground was not working either, especially as Mr Lim has on each day been working with a team of about five inexperienced volunteers who are understandably afraid.
“The main challenge right now is getting them to put their hands on the fish,” said Mr Lim, who runs a number of farms and has experience handling giant fish.
“A lot of people are unwilling to put their hands on something that could potentially kill them.”
The arapaima would only reveal its pink scales for a split second before disappearing again. (Photo: Aqil Haziq Mahmud)
To give a sense of the risk, Jeremy Wade, the British host of the popular Discovery Channel series River Monsters, was in 2012 slammed in the chest while drawing an arapaima in with a net.
“From nowhere, I had 100 pounds of solid bone smash into me,” he said.
“Weeks later, a doctor described my injury as similar to the impact of striking a steering column during a car crash.”
During the first arapaima attempt on Jun 30, Mr Lim and a plucky volunteer managed to jump on the fish as a team-mate stood by almost in shock. The arapaima wriggled away and left the pair in a heap, before evading a second but equally futile attempt.
Volunteers transporting a red-tailed catfish. (Photo: Marcus Ramos)
Even before the arapaimas, the relatively large catfish and alligator gars had proven a handful for the motley crew of volunteers, who wore black tactical vests but used basic tools like basins and fishing nets.
Once trapped, the catfish writhed in the basin and swung their muscular tails around like slabs of rubber, while the gars chomped through the nets to create a slimy, tangled mess.
Sometimes the catfish were hoisted out using fishing nets. (Photo: Aqil Haziq Mahmud)
The sweaty and exhausted volunteers then carried the fish to makeshift holding tanks made from kiddie pools, before transferring them into a large white tank in the back of a pick-up truck. This truck made the half-an-hour journey to Dempsey.
With a process that long and physical, there are bound to be injuries.
Mr Lim has cut and bruised himself from traversing the rough base of the pond and wrestling the fish. He also felt his shoulder pop out after getting hit by the arapaima.
The fish were put in makeshift holding tanks. (Photo: Aqil Haziq Mahmud)
Every few minutes, it was not uncommon to hear roars, shrieks and expletives ring through the cavernous pond.
DANGERS OF REHOMING
Amid all the chaos, Mr Lim still has to ensure the safety of the fish.
So he came up with a new plan: Remove everything except the arapaima from the pond then drain it completely, causing it to be stuck in the mud. The volunteers would then throw a net over it and try to wrap a yoga mat around its head, protecting it from cracking its skull against concrete.
Then there was the small task of hoisting it up the sloped sides of the pond, when the arapaima was “most likely” to lash out.
“If someone takes a bad hit, everyone’s going to let go of the fish,” Mr Lim said. “That’s when all the s*** happens.”
The team began its mission near the evening of Jun 29 to reduce the fish’s exposure to heat. (Photo: Aqil Haziq Mahmud)
Mr Lim said nine fish have so far died during rehoming, from causes like overheating and a lack of oxygen during transport. But it was not for a lack of trying.
Mr Lim said he tried to get the most qualified personnel to help with the move, including seasoned fish farmers, divers as well as zoo and aquarium experts. None came.
He also tried getting a crane to help carry the fish, but the companies he approached said their equipment could not fit into the narrow spaces at Lim Chu Kang or Dempsey.
“Singapore is a small country and we exhausted our list,” he added.
Nevertheless, the operation rumbled on. Mr Lim said about 40 fish have been successfully rehomed in the ponds beside Huber’s Butchery at Dempsey Road.
As each day went by, he tried to improve the process. During the transportation process, he used a smaller tank to make it easier to remove the fish from the truck. He also put ice cubes in the water for species of catfish that prefer cooler temperatures.
The crowd that had gathered at Dempsey. (Photo: Aqil Haziq Mahmud)
As soon as the truck pulled up, a posse of curious onlookers gathered around the back, whipping out their mobile phones and gawking at the large fish in the tank.
Mr Lim knew there was no time to lose. Panting heavily, he told people to stay clear before dragging a hefty block of plants away from the pond, creating an entry point for volunteers to release the fish.
The fish have a new home at Dempsey. (Photo: Aqil Haziq Mahmud)
The catfish, by now visibly weak, gratefully slipped into the water and slowly swam away to explore their new home. Children clung to their parents and gestured at the giants, intrigued by how fish could be so big.
But the bigger fish, the arapaimas, still prove elusive. Mr Lim said they will try again on Sunday.
When asked if he would ever give up on his mission, his reply was simple: “No.”