Should Nemo Be Found?

And live in an aquarium in my living room?

A fish tank calms my nerves. A fish tank connects me to the sea. A fish tank brings peacefulness into my hectic world. These are the words of marine aquarium owners. The lure of a tropical fish tank is clear: they are mesmerizing and colorful, they are relaxing to gaze at and they bring real sea creatures right into one's home. In fact, between 1.5 and 2 million people worldwide feel this way, and keep marine aquariums, including 800,000 households in the United States alone.1,471 species of fish are traded worldwide, with global trade ranging between 20 and 24 million individual fish annually.

Unfortunately, not enough aficionados of tropical fish know how these beautiful beings got to their local tropical fish store. Fewer than 10% of the fish are captive-bred, meaning most are collected from their coral reef habitats off of places such as Indonesia.

Most collectors are men from small villages, who make mere pennies on their catches. Though they sometimes use nets and their own hands, often they employ squirt bottles full of cyanide. As a result of cyanide use, mortality rates of captured fish are between 5% and 75% within hours of collection, with 20% to 50% of survivors dying soon thereafter. Of those that survive the collection process, another 30% on average die prior to export. Collection using cyanide results in an overall survival rate of less than 1 in 10 fish, at best, and often produces 100% mortality.

For those that make it out of their country of origin and onto a plane, eight out of ten will die en route from lack of oxygen, stale water and trauma. For U.S. export, most of these bagged fish are sent to "fish row" in Los Angeles where they are distributed to fish supply stores all over the country.


The good news is that once tropical fish collectors know more, they tend to act. More and more collectors are asking suppliers about their collection techniques and making informed decisions. Reef Project International is a project of Earth Island Institute (and the supplier of most of this information). They have created a Reef Fish Guide for the aquamarine hobbyist that lets them know if a particular fish falls under "Take it Home" or "Keep it Wild". The guide is available at ( The hope is that when consumers demand sustainable and humane tropical fish, suppliers will respond, and fish and their habitats will benefit.

By the way, Clownfish, like Nemo, are one of the few species that can be captive-bred.

Amy Gotliffe is Conservation Manager at The Oakland Zoo.

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