Endangered species status sought for ‘Finding Nemo’ star

Global warming, aquarium trade taking a toll on clownfish

Orange clownfish may need protection under the Endangered Species Act. Photo courtesy Center for Biological Diversity/G.R. Allen.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — “Finding Nemo” may be harder than ever, as global warming devastates coral reef habitats that tiny clownfish need to breed and feed, so environmental activists this week petitioned the federal government to protect the fish, along with several other related species, under the Endangered Species Act.

“We risk losing the striking fish that inspired ‘Finding Nemo’ forever if we don’t put the brakes on global warming and ocean acidification,” said Shaye Wolf, climate science director with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Carbon pollution harms these fish and destroys their coral reef homes. If we want these beautiful animals to survive in the wild, not just in a movie, we have to protect them under the Endangered Species Act.”

The seven coral-dependent species are also harmed by the marine aquarium trade, but ocean acidification is probably the biggest threat, damaging their hearing, sight, and smell. Ocean acidification interferes with the ability of young fish to avoid predators and find their coral reef homes.

Experiments have shown that some of these fish suffer predation rates five to nine times higher than normal at carbon dioxide levels expected later this century.

Ocean acidification and warming also threaten to destroy the coral reef habitat of clownfish and damselfish. Scientists have warned that coral reefs are likely to be the first worldwide ecosystem to collapse due to global warming. Ocean warming is rapidly degrading and destroying coral reef habitat by increasing the frequency and intensity of mass bleaching events that can kill corals. Ocean acidification has already caused coral growth in some areas to become sluggish.

“Coral reefs are the rainforests of the ocean, but carbon pollution will bulldoze their biodiversity,” Wolf said. “The longer we wait to provide Endangered Species Act protection and reduce the greenhouse gases harming reef fish and destroying their homes, the harder it’s going to be to save these unique creatures.”

The United States is the world’s largest importer of ornamental marine fish, and damselfish and anemonefish are by far the most commonly traded species. Studies indicate that the orange clownfish and black-axil chromis damselfish are suffering population declines in the wild because of overharvesting for the aquarium trade.

The reef fish in today’s petition include the orange clownfish, which spends nearly its entire life protected within anemones on coral reefs, and seven species of damselfish that occur in U.S. waters and depend on branching corals particularly vulnerable to climate change threats.

Those fish are: the yellowtail damselfish that inhabits waters in Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean; the Hawaiian dascyllus and blue-eye damselfish, which inhabit Hawaiian waters; and the black-axil chromis, Dick’s damselfish, reticulated damselfish and blue-green damselfish that live in the Indo-Pacific, including U.S. territorial waters in American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands.

The Center is working to protect the coral reef habitat that these reef fish depend on, and in 2006 we successfully protected two Caribbean coral species — elkhorn and staghorn corals — under the Endangered Species Act.

The Center also petitioned to protect 83 other corals in the Caribbean, Hawaii and the Indo-Pacific in 2009. The National Marine Fisheries Service determined that 56 of these corals are likely to go extinct by the end of the century, primarily because of ocean warming, ocean acidification and disease. The Service will decide whether these corals merit protection under the Endangered Species Act in December 2012.


4 thoughts on “Endangered species status sought for ‘Finding Nemo’ star

  1. Agreed, rising ocean temperatures and acidification are huge issues for ALL marine species… but before condeming the aquarium industry, perhaps look into what GOOD it has done to help keep some fish and corals off the “extinct” list. There are even organizations that have reintroduced corals that had died off from some reefs. By putting A. percula (Nemo) on the US endangered list it will be hampering conservation in the long run. Ocean temps and rising CO2 levels are not something that can be fixed in a generation… on the other hand MANY species of clownfish can and are bred in captivity. With a US Endangered Species lable though, the aquarists, companies and groups that are maintaining clownfish would be out of business and have no viable way/reason to continue to maintain them. Even moving them across statelines would be illegal along with import, even if they are captive bred. With a maximum lifespan of 20-23 years, in a couple of short decades all the clowns in captivity would be dead… where would that leave us if the wild populations continued to decline from other pressures?

    Personally I maintain freshwater fish mostly, one species is considered extinct in the wild last I checked(with rumors of a possible isolated population still in existence) and another that is critically endangered. I feel it is important to keep these fish alive and well in the hobby with as many people as possible to keep genetics strong.

    I’d suggest a “threatened” status may serve the Clownfish better under US law since it would still allow for aquarists and large scale breeding operations to continue to keep, sell, breed and move them, while still limiting (or stopping) wild collection.

    24 year aquarist
    16 years breeding
    5 years maintaining “at risk” species

    1. Thanks for the comment, Chris, that’s a really interesting perspective. I know there are some government aquatic labs that work on maintaining endangered and threatened species, but I hadn’t thought of how private stakeholders could be involved in those efforts. This kind of opens a whole new realm of thinking for me. I agree that global warming and ocean acidification are long-term threats and simply putting species on the list is going to do much to solve the problem. I hope you’ll offer your comments formally to the NMFS as they go through the process of considering the listing.

      1. Bob, thank you! I’m very glad my point of view came across as intended, all to often on the internet such discussion can degrade horribly.

        I wish I could put in my 2 cents with NOAA/NMFS, but I’m Canadian. Really, any such legislation has little effect on me directly, but I’d still hate to see a serious detriment to conservation no matter where it is.

        If you’re interested at all, do a little looking around at Ameca splendens. It’s a little drab, brown fish from Mexico that will never get the attention “Nemo” does. Last I heard it only existed on aquarist’s tanks and a small hotspring on a resort that had been tiled in… This little fish (and it’s family) is interesting because it gives birth from an actual womb. There’s an organization that has been working very slowly at reintroducing it to the wild with contributions from aquarists.

        Another example is Lake Victoria in Africa. In the last 60 years dozens (if not hundreds) of species have gone extinct from the introduction of the Nile Perch and raw sewage eutrifiying the lake. Again, some of these species only exist in aquarists tanks and with some groups trying to keep them alive for future generations.

        There’s also the ACA’s (American Cichlid Association) Project CARES. It’s basically a group of people who maintain clean genetics through breeding and trading species of Cichlids that are facing severe pressure.

        Bringing it back to Clownfish, there are few groups of people as passionate about the oceans and reefs than Reef Aquarists. If given the chance, they (we) will do everything they can to keep the species alive.

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