Finding Nemo Spotlights Dark Side of Pet-Fish Trade

By John Roach
for National Geographic News
May 30, 2003
As a young clownfish named Nemo enchants moviegoers with his epic
adventure from the ocean to a fish tank and beyond, the actor whose
voice brings the animated character to life is urging protection for
tropical fish and coral reefs.

"Practically the whole world depends on coral reefs, so if the coral reefs get all killed, then the ocean will start going out of whack, and if the ocean goes out of whack something might happen on land," said Alexander Gould, the nine-year-old actor who is the voice of the namesake character in the movie.

Finding Nemo

The dark side of the aquarium trade is the use of cyanide by some collectors to stun tropical fish, making it easy to scoop the fish up. The very poisonous chemical also kills smaller fish, irreparably harms the corals, and is dangerous to divers, according to conservationists.

Gould, who lives near the beach in Southern California and is passionate about the oceans and coral reefs, has teamed up with the Honolulu-based Marine Aquarium Council to promote sustainable practices in the aquarium trade.

The council's certification system enables consumers to know that the fish they buy for their home aquariums were collected, handled, and transported according to a set of internationally-approved "best-practice standards."

"There are good guys and good practices and bad guys and bad practices," said Paul Holthus, executive director of the Marine Aquarium Council.

The council awards certificates to those in the aquarium trade who practice the good. Pet stores that carry fish that were properly collected and transported carry the council's label.

Nemo Craze?

The certification system is just a few years old and the council is hoping to capitalize on the anticipated boost in interest in the aquarium trade generated by Finding Nemo to raise awareness.

In the movie, Nemo is kidnapped from his home in the Great Barrier Reef and plopped in a fish tank at a dentist's office in Sydney. One of the tank residents, a butterfly fish named Gill, tells the newcomer that "fish aren't meant to be in a box, kid. It does things to ya."

The movie then follows the adventures of Nemo's father, Marlin, and a cast of friends as they hatch plans to rescue Nemo, who has a few escape plans of his own.

Holthus says he is not sure if the movie will be a boon or bust to the aquarium trade, but suspects that just as pet stores saw a rise in demand for spotted dogs after the 1996 release of 101 Dalmatians kids will be as equally interested in pet Nemos.

With the help of their new spokesperson, the Marine Aquarium Council hopes to get the message out that the demand for tropical fish should be met with marine life that was captured from the sea or captive-bred in a manner safe for the fish and the environment.

"The Marine Aquarium Council really wants us to keep the coral and the fish safe," said Gould. "They are not saying it is bad to have an aquarium in your house, just that you should make sure when you buy fish for your aquarium…they have been Marine Aquarium Council-certified."

Aquarium Trade

Most of the tropical fish that end up in home aquariums are caught in Indonesia and the Philippines. To this day, some of the collectors use cyanide and then place their catch in plastic bags instead of floating pens prior to transport.

Holthus said the more environment-friendly method for catching fish is to place a 20-to-30-foot (6-to-9-meter) barrier net on the reef and then use an air-compressor hose to move the desired prey into the barrier where it can be scooped up with a little net.

"It's not rocket science," said Holthus, whose organization works with communities involved in the aquarium trade to teach them these sustainable practices. Keeping the catch in floating pens is the preferred method for holding these animals prior to transportation to pet stores.

In addition, Marine Aquarium Council certification requires collection areas to have a reef management plan that includes sustainable collection practices and no-take zones to safeguard tropical fish populations against over-harvesting.

So-called non-destructive collection techniques alone are not enough to protect tropical fish, agrees Niclas Kolm, a marine biologist with Uppsala University in Sweden.

Kolm co-authored research in the June issue of Conservation Biology on the impact of net fishing on Banggai cardinalfish, a finger-sized silver fish with black stripes found only in the Banggai archipelago off the east coast of Sulawesi, Indonesia.

The fish are popular with aquarium hobbyists in North America, Japan, and Europe and fishermen lure them into cages with sea urchins, which the fish use as a shelter when threatened.

Kolm and his colleague Anders Berglund found that even this non-destructive fishing practice reduced populations of the fish by half when compared to a control population that was not fished.

"I suggest that our results may apply for other species with limited dispersal in the first place," said Kolm. "But certainly negative effects on a local level may apply for most species of reef fish as they are commonly very stationary."

As an alternative to capturing wild fish on the coral reefs for use in the aquarium trade, Kolm suggests captive-breeding programs. Most clownfish already in home aquariums, he notes, are captive-bred.

"The ideal way in my opinion to protect the reefs while still maintaining an income for local people in these areas is to start projects breeding fish not necessarily in aquaria but at the locations where you find them," said Kolm.

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