Sixteen percent of the species associated with characters in “Finding Nemo” that have been evaluated face the threat of extinction, according to the study, which was conducted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Canada’s Simon Fraser University. The analysis of 1,568 species is not just a whimsical look at American popular culture and its cartoon characters. It reveals how humans treat some of the ocean’s most charismatic inhabitants.
“These are species that should be doing better because they are the ones we care about,” said Loren McClenachan, a post-doctoral fellow at Simon Fraser University. She said that highly migratory species such as turtles, sharks and rays are particularly vulnerable to fisheries and other human pressures. “They’ve got life histories that cause them to interact with people wherever they go,” McClenachan said.
The Oscar-winning 2003 Disney/Pixar movie, which details how the clownfish Marlin defies all odds to save his son from the aquarium trade, has a conservation message. But the film actually inspired a booming aquarium trade in the bright orange fish with white stripes, significantly reducing native clownfish populations on coral reefs in Australia and elsewhere.
While the IUCN classifies clownfish as a “species of least concern,” meaning it does not face an imminent extinction risk, 18 percent of the evaluated species that are related to Nemo — those of the scientific family Pomacentridae — are at risk of extinction. There have been few formal scientific assessments of coral reef fish populations that are sought by the aquarium trade, McClenachan said, so “it’s very hard to know the true extent of the aquarium, live reef and curio trade.”
Disney officials could not be reached for comment.
Boris Worm, a marine biologist at Canada’s Dalhousie University who has reviewed the study, which is being published Tuesday in the journal Conservation Letters, said the clownfish boomlet underscores the complex relationship humans have with marine species.
“When people see a beautiful film about tigers, they don’t go out and shoot a tiger. They don’t go out and purchase a tiger,” Worm said in an interview. “In the case of things in the ocean, they think, ‘I care about them, so I’d like to have them,’ or, ‘I care about them, that’s why I’d like to fish them.’ ”
Direct exploitation is the key driver of many of the species’ decline. Many sharks are being targeted to make the Asian delicacy shark fin soup; seahorses are coveted as curios. Other species, such as sea turtles, are vulnerable because they can easily get entangled in commercial fishing gear and because their nesting areas have been trampled or hampered by development.