Finding Dory, By Using Data

Tracking the millions of tropical fish caught and sold in the global aquarium trade is our best chance for understanding the impact of Disney’s new movie on the world’s oceans

Jun 17, 2016
Outside Magazine

Demand for clownfish spiked in the wake of Finding Nemo. Will the same happen to the dory?    Photo: Ben Schonewille/iStock

If Finding Nemo is any indicator, we can surmise that the sequence of events surrounding the sequel, Finding Dory, which hits movie theaters today to rave reviews, will go something like this: hundreds of thousands of people will pack into cinemas around the country this weekend, then an inspired portion of them will promptly click around the web to see how they can get their hands on a blue tang, the popular tropical fish portrayed by the film’s title character.

The U.S. imports roughly 7-million-to-10-million ornamental fish each year, accounting for about half of the roughly 18-million-to-25-million annually traded worldwide. These aren’t fish we eat; they’re the bright beauties we plop in tanks as decorations. But our understanding of where they’re coming from, how many of them are being harvested, and where they’re going, is murky at best.

We’ve all read about how demand for clownfish spiked in the wake of Finding Nemo—who wouldn’t want to bring home a live Disney character as a pet?—and about the ensuing global pillaging of coral reefs that ensued. But that’s not quite accurate. The thing about clownfish is that, unlike most other pretty fish that adorn our home aquariums, many of them sold to consumers aren’t pulled from their native tropical habitats. The fish, one of the top six or seven ornamental imports, come from commercial aquaculture facilities that have been around for more than 40 years.

“There was a lot of speculation after Finding Nemo, but no one can say what exactly is happening, because nobody’s looking at this trade,” says Andrew Rhyne, an associate professor of marine biology at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.

Rhyne would know. He and Michael Tlusty, director of ocean sustainability science at the New England Aquarium in Boston, launched last June. The goal is a lofty one: catalog and track every ornamental fish imported to the U.S. and, perhaps eventually, the whole trade worldwide. 

“There have been some efforts to ask and answer these questions, but not at a level where you would be confident in the data,” Rhyne says. In the early 2000s, for example, the United National Environment Programme asked commercial fish-capture outfits for voluntary submissions on their catches, and got about what you’d expect: a smattering of responses, from only willing participants.* There was no way to check the data.

Right now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service only regulates imports of certain species of interest—ones that are endangered or threatened, for example. Declaration records for the rest of the ornamentals are simply stamped “MATF,” a blanket term for the vast majority of tank fish that stands for Marine Aquarium Fish Trade. Exporters are required to send along paperwork for each fish they're shipping, but the records are literally written out on paper and handed to shipping agents at the ports of entry, sometimes in reams of dozens of pages. There's no searchable database of the information. Within that system, a certain amount of fraud persists. Importers will often under-declare their shipments to avoid brokerage fees or taxes, for example.

Today, public appeals to not look for Dory are being broadcast far and wide. That’s because blue tangs (also called pallete surgeonfish), which are in the top 20 most popular aquarium fish in the world, can only breed in the wild, mainly in areas of the South Pacific behind the curve on wildlife controls. (Although breeders are pushing to find ways to raise them in captivity.)

“There is concern that there will be an impact to those populations in certain countries,” Rhyne says. “Especially since we don’t know much about their fishery—it’s very opaque.” In fact, the vast majority of the roughly 2,300 ornamental fish we import can’t be bred and raised successfully in captivity. (Clownfish are an exception.)

The concern for blue tangs is twofold: first, they are found mainly in the Coral Triangle, an area in the South Pacific encompassing Indonesia and the Philippines that accounts for 84 percent of U.S. aquarium fish imports, where regulations and export tracking are lax. Second, fishermen often capture them by spraying a cyanide solution into reefs, an illegal technique that eats away at coral, or by simply snapping the coral branches outright. More than half of tropical fish that come to the U.S. are caught this way.

But there is good news for blue tangs: they’re much more expensive and require more maintenance than clownfish. An individual blue tang fetches between $80 and $150, compared to clownfish, which typically range from $15 to $50. Plus, blue tangs need bigger tanks to survive. Tlusty and Rhyne think the higher investment will scare off the same demographic of impulsive buyers who picked up a Nemo at the pet shop 13 years ago.

To more accurately quantify the aquarium fish trade, the two researchers are working to free up certain chokepoints of data. The site right now is loaded with snapshots of trade data provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which tapped Rhyne to tackle the issue in 2008, and the latest year for which there is any information is 2011.

Rhine and Tlusty are currently forging a partnership with fisheries officials in the Philippines, the largest trade partner to the countries with the greatest demand for ornamentals. The Filipino government provides shipment data in exchange for management tips that only a comprehensive overview of the trade could deliver. It’s a step in the right direction, the researchers say, but only a first step.

“We need to understand what the entire trade looks like,” Tlusty says. “It’s a question of finding data.”

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that NOAA had asked for voluntary submissions for capture information.

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