This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost Australia, which closed in 2021.

The 'Finding Nemo Effect' Is Plundering Wild Clown Fish Stocks

Let wild clown fish grow up on the reef.

It's a heartbreaking scene -- plucky little clown fish Nemo is caught by a diver and pulled from the reef, leaving his dad distraught.

Yet the hit film 'Finding Nemo' inspired just that -- a wave of demand for pet clown fish spurred unscrupulous collectors to bag and sell these wild fish around the world.

As sequel 'Finding Dory' is set to be released, Australian scientists have set up a captive breeding program to keep up with clown fish demand without resorting to the wildlife trade.

Catching Nemo

In the weeks after the 2003 release of 'Finding Nemo', aquarium fish sellers noticed clown fish were suddenly the star of the tank.

We're seeing local extinction in areas where they're collected.

"Clown fish sales skyrocketed," University of Queensland school of biological sciences PhD candidate Carmen da Silva told The Huffington Post Australia.

"I think a lot of people fell in love with the character Nemo and they wanted one for their aquarium.

"There's nothing wrong with owning a marine fish in an aquarium but I think a lot of people didn't realise 90 percent of clown fish sold are taken from the wild."

Clown fish swim in a Japanese aquarium.
Toru Hanai / Reuters
Clown fish swim in a Japanese aquarium.

This demand pushed an already threatened species to the brink, and Flinders University Faculty of Science associate dean Karen Burke da Silva said it had devastating consequences.

"We're seeing local extinction in areas where they're collected," Burke da Silva told HuffPost Australia.

"In places like Thailand and Indonesia and the Philippines they are collected using cyanide poisoning.

"A bit of cyanide in low concentrations is squirted on the coral area you want to collect fish from and it acts as a bit of an anesthetic."

In Australia, clown fish can be legally collected from parts of the Great Barrier Reef and Burke da Silva said that while there weren't areas of localised extinction, numbers were certainly down due to the wild fish trade and climate change.

"Clown fish are impacted by coral bleaching and warming sea temperatures because anemones become bleached in pretty much the same way as corals.

"Then there's new research from the University of Queensland that shows ocean acidification also affects clown fish larvae.

"It stops them from being able to smell an anemone, which they need to settle into once they become juveniles."

A juvenile clown fish trying to live on a bleached anemone.
ullstein bild via Getty Images
A juvenile clown fish trying to live on a bleached anemone.

Saving Nemo

While these researchers can't stop people from wanting to have a pet Nemo of their own, they can find a more sustainable way to produce them.

da Silva said The Saving Nemo Foundation was created to breed clown fish in captivity to take pressure off wild stocks and provide education about 'ornamental' marine species.

"The surprising thing is that clown fish are actually very easy to breed in captivity," da Silva said.

The foundation can send clown fish to aquariums and private punters around the world, and da Silva said it would hopefully be a proof of concept for private breeders as a pair can breed every three weeks and produce thousands of eggs.

A Million Kisses For Nemo

To spread the word about clown fish stocks, the foundation has launched #FishKiss4Nemo, asking people who care about wild capture to make a fish kiss face and share it on social media.

Da Silva said there was one person they especially wanted to see pull a kissy face -- comedian Ellen DeGeneres.

"She has an incredible profile and it would mean so much for her to share this message."

What About Dory?

Dory the blue tang with Nemo the clown fish.
UIG via Getty Images
Dory the blue tang with Nemo the clown fish.

The loveable character Dory, voiced by DeGeneres is the focus of the Nemo sequel, raising concerns for the fish she's based on -- the blue tang.

Burke da Silva said that unlike clown fish, blue tangs could not be bred in captivity.

"Blue tangs are a fascinating species and they're gorgeous big fish to have in aquariums but they release their eggs into the ocean," Burke da Silva said.

"Clown fish glue their eggs down on the substrate but blue tang eggs are more complicated.

"First you'd have to get a blue tang to spawn, and know when it spawned into the water, then collect those fertilised eggs and raise them in the right situation -- it's very difficult."

Burke da Silva said their challenge was educating people about where their marine fish come from.

Her team is currently engaged with contacts in Thailand to look to repopulate areas where clown fish are now extinct and has also received a National Science Week Grant for a citizen science project involving clown fish homes -- the anemone.

Meanwhile, she encouraged people to have sustainably bred clown fish as pets.

"Clown fish are fascinating to keep. We'd like to make clown fish the panda of the Great Barrier Reef -- making them the symbol of conservation. Everyone knows and loves Nemo, maybe that love will get them to care about conserving the reef."

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