Catfish, betta and flower horn: How COVID-19 spawned interest in fish keeping among Indonesians
JAKARTA: When Teguh Satrio chanced upon a video on breeding dozens of catfish in a plastic bucket in late May, he was intrigued.
“All it took to breed catfish was a space no bigger than a bucket? Is that true?”
“I found myself browsing article after article on how to breed catfish. I spent hours that night watching tutorial videos. I wanted to know everything I could about breeding catfish. That night, I even calculated how much it would cost to breed catfish on my own,” he told CNA
Over the next few days, Satrio ordered a 6 sq m tarpaulin sheet, a water pump, a water purifier and several PVC pipes.
The 40-year-old heavy equipment salesman then constructed the braces for his makeshift pond and brackets for his water pump out of used wooden planks he got from a neighbour who was renovating his home.
Two weeks after he first saw the video, he was breeding 100 catfish on an open air deck at his two-storey house in the suburbs of Jakarta.
With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing people to work from home and businesses to close, some people in Jakarta who suddenly have lots of time to spare find themselves breeding fishes either for fun or for extra income.
An aquarium fish store in Jakarta reported up to 50 per cent increase in sales since Indonesia began imposing the large-scale social restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19 on Apr 10.
Meanwhile, fish hatchery owners said they have seen a rise in the number of individuals looking to breed edible fishes from their homes, particularly catfish and tilapia which can live in small spaces and require less maintenance.
Before the pandemic, the hatcheries’ clients were large fish farm owners who buy fish fingerlings in the thousands.
Between Apr 10 and Jun 8, non-essential services were not allowed to open, which spelled disaster for Akif Nugroho, the owner of a batik store inside a shopping mall in Central Jakarta.
“I had to close my store because of the social restrictions. My income was completely gone,” he told CNA. “So when a friend had the idea of starting a betta fish business together, I immediately said yes.”
The two then bought dozens of young betta fish of the more common varieties to raise and resell when they are older.
Although the business is starting to see some profit, it will still take several months before they see real money.
The 28-year-old said that he and his friend have invested in 12 more exotic breeds in the hopes of cross-breeding them to produce new varieties.
“From the cross-breeding effort, we have 300 fingerlings. They are now one month old. It will take two to three more months before their colours start to show. Only then will we see if the young ones resemble their fathers, their mothers, a combination of both genes or have neither of their parents’ traits,” he said.
While common breeds of betta fish can fetch between 50,000 and 75,000 rupiah (US$3.50 and US$5.20) each, the more exotic ones can be worth ten times more.
“Sometimes they can command a price of 15 million rupiah each if we produce a color combination and traits no one has ever seen before. So it will be one to two months before we see real money,” he said.
Satrio is also thinking about someday capitalising on his new pastime but it will be a long time before he would break even.
He said he had so far spent 700,000 rupiah to get his makeshift fish pond set up and buy 100 fingerlings.
When his fishes would be ready to be harvested in late August, his 100 catfish would only fetch a total retail price of between 200,000 to 300,000 rupiah.
“I plan to eat some and give the rest to my neighbours and friends. I consider the first few batches as a learning experience,” he said. “If I have three successful batches with small death rates, I plan on building a bigger pond.”
THE JOY OF FISH-KEEPING
But not everyone is keeping their fish for profit.
Jap Kam Fat, 56, said he merely enjoyed the discipline and care that go into owning flower horn fish.
“I can spend hours a day just staring at my aquarium. Looking at the fish is just like looking at your kids. It gives me joy to see how much they have grown and how much they have changed,” Jap told CNA.
The retiree said he was drawn to flower horn’s vivid colours, patterns and distinctive head shapes when he began keeping them early last month.
Since then, he has been giving his six flower horn fish different combinations of food - fish feed, earthworms, crickets and mealworms - as he believed that the feed would affect the fish’s sizes, head shapes and colour vibrancy.
“That’s the joy of raising flower horns. There’s an art behind raising the perfect flower horns. And that is what I am really drawn to when I started keeping these fishes,” he said.
Jap said some friends of his had expressed interests in his young flower horns. “So far, I’m not interested in selling. But if a right buyer comes offering the right price, I would consider selling,” he said.
An adult flower horn aged more than eight months can command a lofty price of between 3 million and 15 million rupiah each.
Another Jakarta resident, Budi Wibowo said initially he never thought of making money from his newfound hobby.
Since being told to work remotely in late March, the 53-year-old began keeping arowanas at home to keep himself busy.
“It wasn’t long until a colleague took interest in my arowanas and asked if I was willing to sell,” he told CNA.
Wibowo said he eventually sold one of his four fish to his friend for nearly twice its initial price.
“Since then, I have been breeding more and more arowanas and started branching out to other types of fish.”
But Wibowo said that profiting from his latest passion is more of a bonus than a goal.
“I didn’t do this to make money,” he said. “I enjoy keeping the fish. I get a sense of satisfaction watching them grow.”
“I even enjoy going from one fish store to the next looking for rare arowana feed like live shrimps or centipedes. I also like going to the markets trying to sell my tilapias and learn just what exactly the vendors are looking for.”
JUST A FAD OR HERE TO STAY?
Widi Andini, the owner of an aquarium fish store in East Jakarta said she had seen sales rising up to 50 per cent.
“Before the pandemic, our store could make 500,000 rupiah a day. For the last two or three months, the amount of sales we made ranged between 750,000 and 1 million rupiah daily,” she told CNA.
Andini said the number of aquariums and fish tanks sold had doubled since the pandemic hit the country in early March while the number of fishes sold grew between 40 to 50 percent.
“More and more people are starting to keep fishes for the first time,” she said.
But with Jakarta starting to ease the large-scale social restrictions and allowing people to go back to work, Andini said she is worried that sales would return to the way it was.
“We realise that the rise in sales cannot last forever. But we are hopeful that more and more people realise the fun of owning pet fish and become our loyal customers,” she said.
Meanwhile, Nugroho is hopeful that the demand for betta fish will remain strong after the restrictions are eased.
“People have been keeping betta fish for decades and the demands have been constant. Perhaps it will go down slightly after the restrictions are lifted but it will not go away.”
For Satrio, breeding catfish is something he is looking to master and do for a long time. He has plans of one day opening a full-scale fish farm in his hometown in Central Java.
“Right now, I am curious to see if I have what it takes to breed catfish. When I reach the point where I am comfortable with what I have learned, I might do this commercially,” he said.
For the time being, Satrio said he is grateful for having a wife who supports his new pastime.
“The fish had to be fed twice a day. I am lucky to have someone at home who can do that now when I have to come to the office or travel out of town for work,” he said.