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July 13, 2010

Saving Nemo

Marine aquariums, which are becoming increasingly popular, are stocked with wild-caught coral reef wildlife, including fish, coral and other invertebrates

  • Clownfish stocks saw a sharp decrease in numbers after the release of Disney's "Finding Nemo". Don Bayley/iStockphoto

by Marcie Berry and Inga Gibson

The Disney-Pixar animated movie "Finding Nemo" is the story of a little clownfish who is captured from the wild for display in an aquarium. Imprisoned potentially for life, he suffers in a stark tank far from his coral reef home.

The HSUS and Humane Society International are working to better regulate the aquarium trade, and many of its inherently inhumane practices, to help prevent fish like Nemo from suffering a similar fate.

Wild-caught fish trade destroys reef ecosystems

Fish are the third most popular pet in the United States, right behind dogs and cats. Most pet fish live in freshwater tanks and come from captive-breeding operations. However, marine aquariums, which are becoming increasingly popular, are stocked with wild-caught coral reef wildlife, including fish, coral and other invertebrates. The capture of these animals for the exotic pet trade results in their inhumane treatment and the destruction of wild populations and the coral reefs upon which they—and we—depend.

Coral reef ecosystems provide important services to people, protecting beaches and coastlines from storm surges and waves, generating income from tourism and recreation, and serving as nurseries for the young of many fish. Yet, coral reefs are under threat from a number of factors, primarily overfishing, pollution, and climate change.

The impact of the trade in coral reef fish and other organisms creates additional stress and the consequences can be seen on reefs all over the world. One of the most discernible impacts is the significant reduction in populations of certain species corresponding to consumer demand. For example, despite the take-home message of 'Finding Nemo," clownfish quickly became more popular with aquarists after the film came out and these lovable fish saw a sharp decrease in numbers. Many other species are similarly vulnerable.

This issue is especially relevant for the United States, both the largest importer and a source country. Coral reef wildlife sold for home aquaria come from two states in the U.S. where their collection is allowed—Florida and Hawaii—or overseas countries, including Indonesia and the Philippines.

The U.S. imports coral reef wildlife both as exotic pets and (in the form of dead corals and shells) for the home décor and jewelry markets. This lucrative trade removes up to 30 million fish, 1.5 million live stony corals and thousands of tons of dead coral and shells from our oceans each year. Globally, this trade increased an astonishing 1500 percent between 1988 and 2007.

Putting protections in place

The coral reefs surrounding the state of Hawaii are teeming with life and bring the state substantial tourism revenue; yet the animals who live on these reefs are being exploited for the aquarium trade. Fortunately, two landmark laws were passed in Maui County, Hawaii, that collectively regulate the trade in coral reef wildlife. Maui County became the first in the state to impose regulations of this kind.

The laws require more humane treatment of coral reef wildlife and prohibit practices such as piercing the swim bladder and fin trimming that lead to extremely high mortality rates. They also establish a permit system for the County and require collectors to submit bi-annual reports that document their collection, sales totals, mortality rates, and causes of death. Violations result in fines and possible jail time.

The Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society International applaud Maui County for these measures. It is our hope that Maui County can be an inspiration to the rest of Hawaii, the U.S. as a whole, and other source countries around the world. The world’s coral reefs will continue to be depleted if drastic measures are not taken to protect these important ecosystems and their inhabitants.

Read our testimony to the Maui County Council on this issue.

Marcie Berry is Research Assistant, Wildlife for HSI and Inga Gibson is Hawaii State Director for The HSUS.

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