Breeding The 'King' Of Sarawak Rivers

By Edward Subeng Stephen

PAKAN (Sarawak), Nov 6 (Bernama) -- Twenty years ago, it would be habitual for Japar anak Itam and his three buddies to journey for two days to their favourite fishing spot.

From their longhouse in Kemalih, Ulu Entabai in the Pakan district, the four friends would begin their trip early in the morning in a longboat powered by a 30hp outboard engine, cruising up the Kanowit and Rajang rivers.

They would reach Kapit town later in the afternoon where they put up for the night. The next morning, they would travel up the Balleh River before reaching Menggiong late in the evening.

All this effort was due to the lure of the "Empurau" (Tor tambroides) and "Semah" (Tor douronensis) fish. Menggiong, then, was still teeming with these fishes.

The Empurau is no ordinary fish for it is dubbed the king of the Sarawak rivers and a very expensive dining fish while the Semah is comparatively cheaper.

Back in the 1960's, the Empurau was already highly sought after and not as pricey like today.

Over the next few days of their outing, Japar and his friends would fish to their hearts content before leaving for home.

For Japar, it is the absolute taste of the Empurau, also known as the Malaysian Mahseer (Kelah/belian) and the skills required to hook up one, had drawn him to this activity.

AS YEARS PASSED BY

But as the years passed by, Japar had to give up on such gratification.

When Japar was into his late 20's, he was appointed the "tuai rumah" or chief of the 52-door longhouse where he stays in, a responsibility the Iban holds until today.

Japar had also switched from being a full time farmer and is now an agriculture entrepreneur. Due to Japars leadership quality, he had also served as a councillor for the Meradong-Julau-Pakan District Council.

However Japar, now 52, continues to scour along the Entabai and Kanowit rivers and their tributaries looking for the Semah.

But by also being an entrepreneur, he has to participate in various courses and seminars held by the State Agriculture Department.

One such seminar had him visiting the Agriculture Department's Indigenous Fisheries Research and Production Centre (Inland Fisheries Division) in Tarat, Serian near Kuching city.

The department, after years of research and experiments, has developed the method to successfully breed the Empurau and Semah in an artificial environment.

This had re-ignited Japar's passion for the Empurau and Semah fish. Thus, three years ago Japar decided to do what he had always wanted to do, that is to breed the fish commercially.

This effort is a rare practice among the farmers due to the time, costs and risks involved. But Japar is unperturbed.

"The fish in Tarat is able to survive and in fact thrive in artificial environment. So I told myself that if I could offer something more, then why not?" Japar told Bernama.

With the money earned from his pepper, fruit and rubber orchards, Japar prepared six fish breeding ponds at the cost of RM20,000.

PILOT PROJECT

The site he chose for his Empurau-breeding project is ideal as the ponds are constantly refreshed by unpolluted water from the Sungai Kerengit, a tributary of the Entabai River.

Japar released 1,600 Empurau fingerlings that he obtained from the Tarat station and some 400 Semah fry which he had either caught or bought locally.

And, being a person who does not carry all his eggs in one basket, Japar released another 900 Semah fingerlings into two other ponds and an equal number of Tilapia fry in the rest of his breeding ponds.

The Agriculture Department provided Japar an initial grant of RM35,000 for him to buy the fish feed that he needed for this project.

"I use 15 bags of fish feed for all the ponds per month. Each 20 kg bag costs RM50.00. The Empurau consumes about six bags monthly but I they will consume more as they grow bigger," he said.

Japar also feeds his fish with bananas, fruits and leaves.

PREDATORY BIRDS, MONITOR LIZARDS

Initially, he had problems with predatory birds and monitor lizards that threatened the fingerlings that were comparatively resilient against diseases.

Officers from the Tarat station would visit the ponds to monitor the projects progress every four or five months.

Japars now weighs about kg each and he expects to harvest and sell the fish in a years time.

By then, each of the Empurau would weigh around three kg and could fetch a price as high as RM450.00 a kg.

Obviously there is a lot of money swimming in Japar's pond!

Meanwhile, Kapit and Limbang are reputed to produce the best tasting Empurau in Sarawak.

According to James Ling, a Kapit-based journalist, the Empurau is considered as the fish for only the very rich.

The occasional lucky fisherman would rather sell the fish rather than eating it as they could make a fortune from selling the fish.

Ling said he used to see the red and the white varieties caught and sold.

THE PREFFERED CHOICE

"The white (Empurau) is the preferred choice but the size of the individual fish will determine the price. The smaller (under 1.5 kg) fish is priced about RM300 a kg but that weighing some kg is priced RM430 to RM450 a kg", he said.

Ling said the red variety would cost much less for according to food connoisseurs, it has tougher flesh.

But even if you have the money, you may not get your fish, as the Empurau supply is very limited.

Connoisseurs from outside the state are known to make their bookings with local sellers many months before each Chinese New Year celebration. Dishes of the Empurau are also made as gifts to business associates.

Ling said, September last year saw a fisherman making a small fortune when a 20kg Empurau that he caught in the Rajang River was sold for a whopping RM9,000 (at RM450 per kg) to a businessman.

As for the Semah, Ling said the fish is usually sold at between RM100.00 to RM150.00 a kg.

At leading Sibu's leading hotels and restaurants, the Empurau is usually served steamed at the cost that could reach as high as RM700.00 a kg.

The price of steamed Empurau could be as high as RM1,500 in Kuala Lumpur restaurants.

Too much farming and logging activities that destroyed as the fish's natural breeding habitats as well as excessive fishing have contributed to Empurau's scarcity in the wild.

-- BERNAMA