:::... The first batch of 250 Malayan Masheer hatchlings or the majestic iikan kelah was bred in captivity ...:::
RAUB: History was made at the RM3.7 million hatchery at Kampung Ulu Sungai here when the first batch of 250 Malayan Masheer hatchlings (Tor tambriodes) or ikan kelah was bred in captivity. At 60 days old, the fry are reported to be in good health and growing under a controlled environment.
The result came from the research and work by aquaculturist Ng Chee Kiat, who published a book on the freshwater species titled King of the Rivers three years ago.
The 46-year-old said his project was self-funded and took shape last December.
:::... The RM3.7 million hatchery is modelled on those in India, Thailand and the Netherlands ...:::
To enable captive breeding of the Malayan Masheer, Ng had sourced for a large quantity of brood stock across Peninsular Malaysia.
"I built a hatchery complex to house mature fish stock aged one and above because these are fish that have reached maturity and are the right age for their reproduction cycle. I acquired more than 200 specimens."
For location, Kampung Ulu Sungai was the first choice for its good quality water.
Ng modelled the hatchery on facilities he had visited in India, Thailand and the Netherlands.
"India has been successful in breeding the Indian Masheer.
"And much of the technical aspect of my hatchery was adapted from the Netherlands where technology is incorporated into breeding species like the trout."
He said the adult fishes (70 per cent of his brood stock are female) were ready for breeding in March.
To harvest the eggs, he used a synthetic hormone and milked the sperm from the male Masheer to carry out artificial fertilisation.
Larvae development takes shape in 72 hours. But his first attempt to breed it ended in failure. In his second attempt, he came close to accomplishing his goal, but the hatchlings turned out to be deformed.
According to him, the paired brood stock had not reached its mature age. And instead of destroying the deformed fry, he kept six surviving hatchlings.
In September, the fish larvaes hatched with a clean bill of health.
"It was just a matter of time. I am happy with the results and, with this achievement, we can now breed the Masheer at any time."
He said since the species was also a biological indicator of the health of the country's rivers, it was imperative that efforts be made to conserve the fish.
The Masheer, which is found in Indonesia, Thailand and Indochina, can only survive in water that is high in dissolved oxygen.
"Ikan kelah needs fast-flowing water. It will die if there is insufficient oxygen and if the water quality is poor. On the average, the species spawns only twice a year. One flaw in this fish breed is its slow growth rate and reproduction cycle."
The Masheer is also threatened by the decline of its natural habitat and overfishing due to the demand for premium freshwater fish at restaurants.
Ng cited one example in Sarawak where a large specimen was landed and sold for more than RM9,000. Such demand has also threatened ikan kelah, which can fetch up to RM450 per kg.
"It is no secret that large quantities of the Masheer were harvested from the wild and ended up on dining tables. And if no one puts a stop to this, the species is doomed."
Captive breeding of the Masheer, he said, provided a chance to restock the species in the wild. He said he hoped that in five years, his hatchery could produce enough hatchlings for conservation.
He said there were efforts to save the Masheer.
At Kem Melantai in Taman Negara, a part of Sungai Tahan has been closed to fishing to breed the Masheer in its natural habitat.
"With a stable brood stock and a well-conditioned number of fishes, I can breed the Masheer all year round. This means that their fry can be made available on demand. Rivers can be restocked faster than the fish's reproductive cycle."
He said the Masheer was not an easy fish to breed in captivity due to its slower larvae development period.
An average commercial freshwater fish like the tilapia or grass carp takes fewer than 24 hours to hatch after fertilisation.
"The fish thrives in cooler temperature and in conditions where water quality is rich with dissolved oxygen. One of the drawbacks of the young hatchlings is that their parents are not around to care for them."
The omnivorous Masheer feeds on aquatic plant and fruits and has a life expectancy of 30 years.
Asked what he planned to do with the first batch of hatchlings, he said the fry would be kept under close watch.
"Now that I have stabilised the first generation of captive-bred Masheer, my goal is to condition them for spawning and hopefully, we will have a steady supply in the future."
~ By Sam Cheong, NST Online