How can a person not smile when in the company of clownfish?
Flying Fish is on the island of Efate in Vanuatu making final preparations for a departure to Australia and points west. I like to make my goodbyes not only to those I have met onshore but also to my friends living underwater.
As I make a final dive on the Pango Point reef, clownfish blossom all around me in their beds of anemone. These clownfish are not here because of baited handouts, as in many tourist-oriented dive sites. They are here because they are survivors having lived through a series of destructive cyclones and the fallout from a Hollywood cartoon character.
All anemone fish, including clownfish, are hermaphrodites. They are born male until the most assertive fish transforms sexually to become female. They make their nests in clusters of anemones existing in a symbiotic relationship that is both practical and sensual. Clownfish acclimate to the venom of anemones after a gentle and prolonged period of touching the sinuous tentacles of the beautiful but predatory anemone. The touch of the anemone generates a protective mucus layer on clownfish that shields them from nematocysts, the harpoon-like stingers on the anemone’s tentacles.
Anemone protect clownfish from all underwater predators, except for those that wear dive gear and net them in the wild for captivity in aquariums.
A surviving population of Vanuatu’s clownfish. All images © Jeffrey Cardenas
After the Academy Award winning blockbuster Finding Nemo was released in 2003 (with, ironically, a pro-conservation message) the worldwide aquarium demand for wild clownfish tripled. Vanuatu was at the epicenter of an out-of-control harvest of clownfish.
By 2006, according to a report by the Vanuatu Department of Fisheries, some 200,000 fish and other marine creatures were being annually exported from the country. The four species of anenome fish in Vanuatu were classified within the archipelago’s top 10 most exported species
At the time, a US-owned company, Sustainable Reef Suppliers Ltd, was fishing the waters around Vanuatu’s main island of Efate for the aquarium market. They were shipping nearly “8,000 wild animals a month from the capital, Port Vila,” according to David Fickling, reporting in the international edition of The Guardian. Clownfish were selling in US and Australian wholesale markets for more than $10 each. According to the report, Vanuatu dive operators said that aquarium firms had over-fished several popular scuba sites, including Eretoka Island where they claim 38,000 fish were taken within one month.
Recognizing that their resource was being ravaged by foreigners, the Vanuatu Department of Fisheries in 2008 set up the Marine Aquarium Trade Management Plan. The Plan limits exporters to only four operators, two of which must be Ni-Vanuatu residents. A total annual catch quota allocation of 12,250 fish was established for Efate. The Plan, however, rewarded Sustainable Reef Suppliers, Ltd with 80% of that allocation.
Not much can be found about the tropical fish exporting company Sustainable Reef Suppliers. There are no business or phone listings for the company in Port Vila directories. Their last Facebook post was two years ago saying, “We suffered through 2 cyclones… This has left us unsettled for potential conditions years forward. We are looking forward to getting caught up and back better than ever.”
According to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), the global value of the marine ornamental trade is $330 million USD a year and it supplies an estimated 2 million people worldwide keeping marine aquaria. Clownfish make up 43% of the global marine ornamental trade. Some 25% of those clownfish are bred in captivity–a positive step–but the majority are still captured from the wild, decreasing clownfish densities in exploited areas like Vanuatu.
Sadly, according to the Aquarium Welfare Association (AWA), many people buy clownfish without knowing how to properly care for them. According to the AWA, hundreds of children, after seeing Finding Nemo and inspired by a line in the movie, flushed their clownfish down the toilet in the hope of setting them free.
Nemo’s cartoon friend Dory, a blue tang, probably said it best: “When life gets you down, do you wanna know what you’ve gotta do? Just keep swimming.”
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Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2019