The empurau – a swimming gold mine
By Puvaneswary Devindran
IT is often said nature and development can complement each other on the basis of a “sustainable” co-existence. This binary tie-up with an eye on nature conservation is important if we want the future generations to still be able to see wild life in their natural habitats rather than on a web page for extinct animals.
Consider the empurau(Malaysian Mahseer/Tor tambroides) — a local fresh water fish. Its numbers are dwindling but certainly worth replenishing because of the good price the fish can fetch — reportedly RM380 or more per kilogramme. Sarawak Timber Industry Development Corporation (STIDC) Forest Resource manager Dr Elli Luhat is currently experimenting with breeding the empurau in the backyard of his home at BDC. Elli, who grew up in Belaga, took naturally to fishing because of the many streams and rivers in the district. But he was especially drawn to the empurau, intrigued by its vulnerable and somewhat elusive character.
“In the last decade, people have been talking about how difficult it is to catch the empurau. What’s more, its numbers are decreasing. So I feel it is my role as an environmental scientist to look into why the fish is likely to become extinct,” he said. According to him, the empurau is found mainly in trans-Himalayan countries like Nepal, Afghanistan and all the way to Burma. It is known as “mahseer” in some of these countries. Touted as the undisputed king of the Himalayan rivers, the mahseer belongs to the Tor family of fishes and is the largest member of the carp species.
The local empurau (Tor tambroides) is the most exotic big indigenous fish, and often confused with the Semah from the same family. Elli said the empurau is found in most of the major rivers in Kapit, Belaga, Limbang and Lawas with some in Ulu Baram, depending on the environment. The fish thrives in swift, clear streams with rocky bottoms. “The empurau needs a quiet place to breed and survive, and is very sensitive to pollution. Its breeding is seasonal — normally three times a year, particularly during the Landas when it will swim upriver in search of a conducive place to spawn,” he explained.
Elli pointed out for the empurau to thrive, three conditions were essential — a temperature between 19 and 33 degrees centigrade, dissolved oxygen content in water between 3.5 and nine milligrammes per litre, and cleanliness. Despite the stringent requirements, Elli believes breeding the empurau in an artificial environment can be done, pointing to his three-year-old brood stock as proof. He started out with four parent fish trapped from streams in Kapit and Limbang. Hook and line were not used because the empurau is notorious for shunning bait, making it the angler’s ultimate challenge. After examining both pairs, Elli found one of them ready to breed, and from the first successful try, 2,000 fry were produced.
Under ideal conditions, one fish can produce 10,000 to 20,000 fry, excluding the mortality rate. The empurau is a slow breeder and will not produce eggs even if induced with chemicals.
Elli has 12 pools at home and eight more in Serian where he keeps the bigger fish. The setup has cost him not less than RM40,000. He breeds the empurau mainly to assess the economics involved. For the moment, however, he is doing it more for research and development purposes.
He said a lot could be discovered and done to help boost the empurau’s depleting population like coming up with the type of food to help it grow faster, stressing that this was very important given the species’ slow growth rate. “We hear of people catching 20 to 30kg empuraus in the wild but we do not know how long it takes for the fish to grow to that size,” Elli noted.
Another aspect of his research is to investigate the nutritional values of the fish which he believes produces a substantial amount of Omega 3 nutrients. Elli does not rule out the possibility of commercialising his stock but reckons now is a bit too soon.
“Right now, I don’t have the numbers to talk about going commercial. But if I can do breeding in a controlled environment, perhaps I can get thousands and thousands of fry to make commercialisation viable,” he said. With a roughly 800-strong brood stock in hand, he reckoned a 50 per cent yield would be good enough to produce a sizeable number of fry a month.
Moreover, from the productive stock, he could also select “an elite or plus fish” for breeding to keep genetic disorders at bay. Although presently doing his own the project, Elli hopes to collaborate with the Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry to secure research funds and facilities, and work closely with the Tarat Indigenous Fisheries Research and Production Centre which is carrying out a similar project. “We should look into this seriously. This is our natural resource, our wealth from the environment, so we must tap the economic potential of this fish and turn it into a huge industry for the State and the Dayaks in particular,” he said.
The market price for a kg of empurau is RM380 but there are reports of people paying up to RM450. So, in simple arithmetic, a 30kg empurau can send a fisherman laughing all the way to the bank … with more than RM10,000 in his pocket. There have also been reports of people catching empuraus weighing up to 30 kg and of gourmets who won’t mind splurging just to get a taste of the fish. The empurau is much sought after by the Chinese community who regard it as a symbol of prestige and prosperity … and of longevity as well. There are three common local species — white, red and black — and market preference for the white variety has also pushed up its price.
According to Elli, those who have eaten the fish say the taste depends on where it is caught. For instance, empuraus caught in Limbang taste different from those caught in Kapit. This could be due environmental and nutritional factors. Although he sees no difficulty marketing the empurau, Elli believes the main reason it’s not considered a favourite option by food business operators is that they do not understand or are aware of its economic potential.
The other thing is, of course, the difficulty in finding empurau fry. “I’m trying to encourage empurau-rearing among the Dayak community and had presented papers on the fish at seminars in the last few months not only about ordinary breeding or rearing but also smart farming,” he added.
Elli suggested promoting smart farming to make fish rearing and production profitable, saying businessmen should venture into different areas of the industry. “Like right now, I’m breeding empuraus. Perhaps others could explore different areas like producing feed for the fish or bigger-scale rearing. Such collaboration will prevent us overlapping each other’s specialties.”
Breeding empuraus can create a win-win situation for both the State’s environmental conservation efforts and economy. Towards this end, Elli is trying to promote rearing the big fish in areas set aside for forest plantation. While some quarters welcome his move, others feel the empurau can breed on its own. Unfortunately, the latter have failed to realise that without conservation efforts, the species could soon become extinct. Indiscriminate logging is affecting the empurau’s population as its food source comes from some of the vegetation and trees along the riverbank.
Even with a policy to conserve certain trees in force, wanton logging has resulted in the trampling of trees that sustain the habitats of the empurau and other fish.
The empurau’s food source comes from the ensurai trees and the engkabang which are as highly demanded as the meranti. These trees also provide shade to keep streams cool and adequately oxygenated for the empurau’s survival.
“During my school days, we ate empuraus nearly everyday. As Orang Ulus, we pride the empurau as the king of fishes because of its size and value. Personally, I dub it to a swimming gold mine,” Elli said. He can be contacted at ordrelliluhat@ gmail.com.