IT can cost a whopping RM900 per kg at the national high-end market or RM800 locally for a fish that weighs 3.8kg and above. And a good sized catch would be tantamount to hitting the jackpot.
The rare Empurau — or “Wang Bu Liao” in Mandarin — from Song and Kapit is considered among the best of the best in the region and the most sought after that only the rich can afford as a single fish alone can easily cost several months’ pay of an ordinary office worker.
It’s the most expensive edible freshwater fish in Malaysia, famous for its delicate flesh and firm texture, often described as creamy, savoury, and a little sweet with hints of wild fruit taste.
Nowadays, few natives would eat the Empuraus they caught in the wild as these highly valued fish are worth their weight in gold in the market, contrasting starkly to the 70’s when Empuraus barely fetched RM15 per kg. Most of those caught usually ended up in the cooking pot or barbeque stand in Kapit.
An industry insider, known as KT Hee, said prices varied according to demand, adding that the sourcing price had soared in recent years, reflecting the market sentiment.
“Locally, Empuraus, caught in the rivers for the top-end segment, now cost about RM800 per kg but the price can shoot up to RM900 or RM1,000 per kg when it comes to buyers from the peninsula,” he noted.
Prices of exports to Hong Kong and other international markets are much higher due to more stringent controls and licensing required by more sophisticated and lucrative markets.
The price is lower for smaller fish — RM480 to RM600 per kg for two and three kg in the local market.
Catching a mature Empurau is akin to hitting the lottery, and one fisherman in Sungai Katibas, Song, hit the jackpot by reeling in a whopping 21.6kg specimen on July 24, 2018, which he sold to one Kapitan Fung Haw Hui who operated a restaurant in Song bazaar.
Fung later sold the fish outside Song at RM500 per kg — with a profit of RM10,800 in mind.
Empuraus belong to the tor tambroides species, found throughout Southeast Asia, and also known as kelah or belian in Semenanjung Malaysia. The species is also found in Thailand’s Chao Phraya and the Mekong River.
What makes the Borneo Empurau special — and more valuable — is its diet, comprising riverine fruits such as engkabang, dabai, ensurai, ara and kepayang. It also feeds on small fish, insects and molluscs.
Studies show the Empurau’s normal growth to be about 500g to 600g per year for the first three years but the subsequent growth is usually faster.
Unregulated fishing threats
As Empuraus and other valued fish native to Sarawak are threatened by unregulated fishing, the Modernisation of Agriculture, Native Land and Regional Development Ministry has taken action to address the situation.
Recognising the potential of an Empurau goldmine in big inland lakes, a pilot project to boost the survival rate of the fry upon release into the wild, was initiated in November last year in Bakun Lake through a collaboration between Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) and the State Agriculture Department.
It was an ambitious step towards making the lake an Empurau production hub in the country by way of smart fisheries development programmes.
The Department’s Inland Fisheries arm supplied 3,000 Empurau fry while Koperasi Belia Bakun adopted an award-winning nursery concept to enable the fry to grow bigger and fitter before being released into the wild for a higher survival rate.
Unimas associate professor Dr Saiful Bahari Yusoff believes the top quality product, supported by ecosystem studies for smart fishing and the digital approach, has a high rate of success that could send ripples across the country.
According to him, in the lake, the fry will grow bigger through systematic feeding and be released only months after acclimatising to the local environment.
The survival rate of the fry is 95 per cent using this method compared to immediate release into the wild under the conventional method. Moreover, the conditions in Bakun Lake are even better than Lake Kenyir’s in Terengganu.
Assistant Minister of Agriculture Dr Abdul Rahman took a flight to Long Jelini in Bakun, site of the pilot project, to lend his support.
He hoped it would be breakthrough in the efforts to replenish the lake and river systems which serve as the natural habitats of highly prized indigenous fish species such as Empurau, Semah, Laban, Tengadak and others.
Eight months later in July this year, Assistant Minister for Water Supply Datuk Liwan Lagan told thesundaypost the signs were good.
“The fry have grown to a good size of about three to four fingers in width and been released into the wild,” he said.
He added that there were many useful lessons the local community had learnt from the project, including the importance of not over-feeding the growing young fish as it could prove fatal.
These fish are projected to grow to a marketable size within three to four years in Bakun Lake, fed by the many tributaries and streams, which are ideal for fish breeding and regulated fishing to sustain resources.
The Tengadak and Semah species may be poorer cousins of the Empurau but they also fetch good prices in the market and are ripe for replenishment in Bakun Lake.
Looking ahead, Liwan called for a fish hatchery centre to be set up in Bakun to overcome the logistic challenge of sending fry over long distance, saying this could cover the central region and the three major lakes in Bakun, Murum and Belaga.