The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Finding Nemo’ wasn’t so entertaining for real clownfish. Now conservationists worry about ‘Finding Dory’.

Finding the message of many films can be challenging, but the moral of “Finding Nemo” seems pretty straightforward: Leave fish in the ocean, where they belong. In the children’s movie, the father of a young clownfish treks across the Pacific looking for his son, who has been fished out of the deep blue and dumped into an aquarium in a dentist’s office. The movie ends — spoiler alert — with young Nemo finding his way out of the glass prison and back to his home.

Pretty simple, right? The movie did well, too, making $936.7 million worldwide at the box office, according to IMBb. And with the success, sales of clownfish, which are often taken from the ocean, rose by as much as 40 percent, according to Hakai magazine.

That’s right. Fans were so taken with the film’s titular character, they decided to find their own Nemo(s).

“I think it was a big surprise, because the message from the film was a very good one about conservation,” Karen Burke da Silva, associate professor in biodiversity and conservation at Flinders University in South Australia, told The Washington Post in a phone interview early Wednesday morning. “It was about not taking Nemo out of the sea, but the opposite happened.”

According to the Saving Nemo Conservation Fund, which da Silva helped found, more than 1 million clownfish are taken from reefs for home aquariums each year. Da Silva told The Post that more than 400,000 are shipped into the United States.

“America is the biggest country in the world that purchases these tropical fish,” da Silva said, and it’s an increasing problem. “Clownfish have gone locally extinct … in the Philippines, parts of Thailand, parts of Sri Lanka.”

The fund helps breed the species in captivity, but trying to introduce new clownfish into the wild isn’t easy. As anyone familiar with “Finding Nemo” might already know, they rely on a symbiotic relationship with stinging sea anemone. The fish live in their toxic tendrils, which keeps predators away. But clownfish who are bred in captivity haven’t acclimated to those toxins, and they tend to avoid sea anemone when released back into the oceans. Again, as anyone who has seen the movie might remember, when the fish leave those anemone, they’re at a much greater risk.

Overfishing due to pet demand, along with rising ocean temperatures and ocean acidification, has all led to the Center for Biological Diversity to petition the National Marine Fisheries Service to put clownfish on the Endangered Species List, the Los Angeles Times reported in 2012.

Of course, most folks purchasing the striped fish aren’t doing it to wipe out their oceanic population. They just don’t know to inquire about the fish’s origins.

“It’s OK to have a clownfish. They make really lovely pets, but most people we surveyed have no idea that most of the fish they’re getting are marine caught,” da Silva said — which likely means they also don’t know about royal blue tang, which is Saving Nemo’s new cause.

On June 17, “Finding Dory,” the anticipated sequel to the aforementioned movie, is set to hit theaters. This go-round, the story centers around a blue tang named Dory. Scientists are worried that the “Finding Nemo” effect will recur, this time with blue tang (and maybe even still clownfish, as the little guy from the first film will still play a major role in the movie).

Unlike clownfish, da Silva said there aren’t any blue tang bred in captivity. They’re much more difficult to breed, as replicating their reproductive method is difficult. They release sperm and eggs into a water column, where it floats around, eventually connecting to form more blue tang. Clownfish, on the other hand, attach their eggs to something, be it a coral reef or a rock.

“The bigger concern is now with the royal blue tang, which is the species that Dory is, because 100 percent of the fish are being taken from the wild,” da Silva told The Post.

At the moment, she said there are about 300,000 blue tang imported into the United States each year, and she wouldn’t be surprised if that number has risen simply based off the new movie’s ubiquitous promotion.

That’s where Saving Nemo and its Million Kisses campaign comes in. As its name suggests, the non-profit organization founded in part by da Silva is aimed at protecting clownfish and blue tang. One of its current missions? Catch the eye of Ellen DeGeneres, who voices Dory in the new film, and hopefully convince her to spread the message: Purchasing blue tang (and wild-caught clownfish) could be hazardous to the environment.

Unlike clownfish, blue tang are not close to endangered. But da Silva worries that a steep rise in their popularity could be a first step down that path.

“My personal opinion is I wouldn’t want to take a wild-caught fish and stick it in an aquarium,” she said. Aside from the simple fact that the fish are happier in their natural habitat, da Silva said they have a high mortality rate when being transported from the ocean wild to a home aquarium.

The goal of the A Million Kisses for Nemo campaign is have one million users submit photographs of themselves making a fish kissing face — just check its hashtag #fishkiss4nemo for examples — in hopes that DeGeneres will get involved with the project and help raise awareness. The fund has also applied for a Disney conservation grant.

Da Silva did note that the first film had some positive effects too: “After the release of the first film, there was quite a high demand for clownfish for people’s home aquariums, and that demand led to more captive breeding, which was good.”

It’s not usual for a film starring an animal to spark an interest in that animal. A year after the 1996 release of “101 Dalmatians,” shelters nationwide saw a 300 percent increase there dalmatian populations, CNN reported, which was apparently attributable to impulse purchases of the breed after the movie’s release followed by buyers’ remorse which led the breed being left at shelters. And there were reports of a surge in owl sales — yes, owl sales — following the Harry Potter films (the birds deliver mail in the Potter world). Finally, even in teenage, mutant, ninja form, the protagonists in the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie helped spike turtle sales, according to the Hollywood Reporter.