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LatestPhoto
The Blackfoot Anemone fish (Amphiprion nigripes) with its host, the Magnificent Sea Anemone (Heteractis magnifica) on a coral reef in the Maldives.
Photo : Genevieve Johnson

April 21, 2004
Raising Nemo
Real Audio
  28k


Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey in the Indian Ocean.

We are all familiar with the blockbuster feature film, ,Finding Nemo - a brilliantly animated and beautifully told story of an anemone fish named Nemo, who is taken from the Great Barrier Reef, before ending up in a tank in a dentist's office in Sydney Australia. Nemo eventually finds freedom when flushed down a drain.

The film sparked an unparalleled epidemic of children around the globe wanting a pet Nemo of their own. As a result, demand for this delicate tropical reef fish skyrocketed.

To supply the aquarium trade, fish are often taken directly from coral reefs using destructive methods such as cyanide fishing. This chemical kills coral, any non-target fish in the immediate area and the majority of captured fish. There are also problems when the surviving fish reach the retail market. Customers buying reef fish, including anemone fish from pet shops, are often unfamiliar with the requirements and complexities involved in keeping marine (salt water) species in tanks as opposed to freshwater species. Meanwhile, pet Nemos are being flushed down the toilet, supposedly liberated by well-intentioned children who believe (as the movie stresses) all pipes lead to the ocean and freedom. News headlines and conservation groups around the world are screaming “Don't flush the fish”.

The excessive demand and consequent removal of unprecedented numbers of anemone fish from the wild led environmental groups to call out to 'save Nemo', as it seems the world is loving these fish to death.

LatestPhoto
Anemone fish have no need for a protective anemone host in captivity and instead school together in large numbers. Anemones are slow growing, comparatively rare in the wild and difficult to maintain. Collection from the wild should not be encouraged.
Photo : Chris Johnson

Worldwide, there are twenty-seven species of anemone fish, also known as clown fish. All anemone fish have adapted to living in a symbiotic relationship with anemones (like corals and jellyfish, anemones are invertebrates) - to such an extent that they are rarely seen away from their host. Each species of anemone fish has a preference for a particular anemone. Anemones have tentacles covered with harpoon-like stinging capsules called nematocysts. The anemone fish is immune to the sting of its home anemone, which it defends from predators. In return, the anemone provides shelter for the anemone fish.

According to a report launched in 2003 by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) - From Ocean to Aquarium, there was a 20 per cent increase in consumer demand for anemone fish after the film, Finding Nemo, opened in the United States. Meanwhile, it is the most sought after aquarium fish in the United Kingdom with more than 110,000 sold last year.

According to the report, 24 million ornamental tropical reef fish, comprising 1471 species, 12 million pieces of coral and 10 million ornamental invertebrates are collected from coral reefs and sold every year - many more die in the process.

In the Maldives, staff at the Marine Research Center in Male, have developed a breeding program for anemone fish, which is funded by the Maldivian government. The overall purpose of the research-based, conservation effort, is to reduce the take of these fish from the wild, while perfecting breeding techniques for the aquarium market in Europe and Australia.

The anemone fish selected for the program is the Maldives clown fish also known as the Blackfoot Anemonefish (Amphiprion nigripes). This species is easily recognized by its pale orange body, a single white bar over the head and black lower fins. This anemone fish is mostly found in the Maldives although it is also known to occur in nearby Sri Lanka. It took the Marine Research Center over a year to perfect their techniques in breeding. There is no record of this species being bred in captivity anywhere else in the world.

To begin their research, breeding pairs were collected from the wild. When acclimatized to their tanks, researchers found that pairs spawned three times per month. There is no need to collect the anemones themselves from the wild - they are difficult to maintain and are comparatively rare. However, the fish are quite adaptive to using artificial shelters - in this case the staff find PVC piping works best.

On average, a single egg clutch hatches into 1200 larvae. Unlike in the wild where the survival rate is perhaps 1 in 1,000, captive bred fish have a survival rate of 60 - 70%.

LatestPhoto
Aquarium cultured anemone fish are bred in far greater numbers, are easier to feed and are far more hardy than wild caught specimens. Therefore, the technique of 'Raising Nemo' in captivity can be used to supply demand with no detrimental effects for coral reefs, anemones or anemone fish.
Photo : Chris Johnson

After touring the facility, we realized it is a far more complicated procedure than it first sounds. The basis of the entire process is the mass controlled culture of four species of algae, which are grown using hydroponic fertilizer. The algae are cultured to feed soft-bodied zooplankton, which is the primary food source of the anemone fish while in their vulnerable larval stage. The larvae are fed zooplankton for the first seven days of life. At seven to fourteen days, they are fed a mixture of zooplankton and brine shrimp. However, the staff must ensure the fish are only fed newly hatched shrimp in their larval form, which only lasts for the first twelve hours of life. The shrimp are most nutritious at this stage, harboring a healthy supply of fat. After twelve hours, the shrimp reach their second stage of life, developing a spiny exoskeleton. If the anemone fish eat the shrimp at this stage, they will die.

After fourteen days, the anemone fish larvae begin to develop fins and a white band. Each fish is fed twenty-five shrimp per day. If this is not controlled, the fish will eat until they bloat and die. After twenty-one days, the larvae develop into an anemone fish and are fed regular artificial fish flakes three times a day. Finally, at six months of age and four centimeters in length, the anemone fish are ready for the market.

It is remarkable to see this process in action. The staff has several tanks, each housing fish and larvae at varying stages of development. An 8 by 4 foot tank can stock up to 2,000 fish. In the wild, anemone fish are solitary, or may share an anemone with one to four other fish. The largest and dominant fish is always female and she will chase away any intruders, while the male takes care of the eggs. In captivity, anemone fish have no need for a protective anemone and instead school together in large numbers.

Aquarium cultured anemone fish can be bred in far greater numbers, are easier to feed, are far more hardy than wild-caught specimens which don't acclimate well to tanks. Also, there are no opportunities for captive bred fish to escape and contaminate wild populations, as the animals are cultured in indoor tanks. Therefore, this technique can be used to supply the increasing demand with no detrimental effects for coral reefs, anemones or anemone fish.

At the conclusion of the experiment, Fisheries Research Officers at the Marine Research Center aim to disseminate information by developing a booklet on what they have learned about densities, feed types and growth rates for market assessment. If their work can be of value to breeders elsewhere, then the number of anemone fish taken from the wild can be drastically reduced. Therefore, the Maldives are not only conserving their own wild populations, but also promoting conservation of anemone fish on other reefs around the world. In the future, Fisheries Officers intend to capitalize on what they have learned from the anemone fish program, and concentrate on other species of reef fish where pressure on wild stock is also very high.

LatestPhoto
Ismail Abid, a Fisheries Research Officer at the Marine Research Center in Male explains the breeding program to the Genevieve. The basis of the entire process is the mass controlled culture of algae. The algae are grown to feed zooplankton, which is grown to feed the anemone fish larvae.
Photo : Chris Johnson

There is no disputing the serenity and beauty that aquariums provide. They offer the opportunity to observe the aquatic realm, a world we rarely glimpse. If you are determined to keep a tropical aquarium at home, educate yourself about the ecology of a healthy marine community and select retailers who sell organisms that comply with internationally approved environmental and quality standards. An educated and concerned body of consumers can have a major impact on how the industry supplies pets the public demands.

Perhaps the best approach to 'Saving Nemo' is 'Raising Nemo' as researchers in the Maldives are demonstrating.

Links:

  • Copies of the UNEP report - From Ocean to Aquarium - are available on the UNEP website at www.unep.org
    From Ocean to Aquarium is based on the Global Marine Aquarium Database (GMAD), developed in partnership with the Marine Aquarium Council (MAC) to promote sustainable trade and includes records from over 100,000 aquarium import and export companies. A complete and updated list of certified companies - including Europe, the United States, Canada and the Philippines is posted at www.aquariumcouncil.org
  • Read more about an encounter with an anemone fish in Papua New Guinea.
  • Roger Payne discusses the aquarium reef fish trade - part 1 & part 2.
  • What did the crew report on one year ago in Sri Lanka?
    Two years ago in Australia?
    Three years ago in Papua New Guinea?
    Four years ago in the Galapagos Islands-
    Real Audio Report   >28k

Log written by Genevieve Johnson.

 
 
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