Finding Nemo Spotlights Dark Side of Pet-Fish Trade
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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
"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 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
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.
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
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 the 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."
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
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
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
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