A Fish Lovers Plea: Love Nemo and Dory From Afar

“Oh, I can assure you that stupid clownfish will be able to live in this container just fine with our good water, it’s a FISH after all!” My customer was getting angrier with me, holding a one-liter plastic transport terrarium in front of my face and shaking it vigorously while pointing at a Percula Clownfish.

  Happy clownfish at the Vancouver Aquarium.

Happy clownfish at the Vancouver Aquarium.

She could not have been any more backward in her reasoning. It was certain death for the fish, and she had no clue.  Even worse, she didn’t even seem to care.

Her young son was agitating the situation, making her more insistent that “they leave with Nemo today” as he tugged at her shirt begging and crying for the clownfish she had apparently promised him after watching Finding Nemo.

I learned to put my foot down in these situations, although they were rarely easy or quick to resolve. If I danced around the issue, the conversation would go on forever, and it doesn’t take long to know if someone is prepared to take home an animal or not. “Ma’am, I am sorry, but I cannot sell you this fish unless you are going to care for it properly. Its natural environment must be mimicked for it to survive. You cannot keep saltwater fish in freshwater, they need significantly more space, an advanced filtration unit, specific lighting and heating fixtures, a well-designed aquarium, and a vital ecosystem that often takes up to a month to establish in a new tank.”

I looked at the kid, “We would hate for Nemo to get sick, right?”
I looked back at his mom, “I cannot send him home to die.”

The North Sea as viewed from the pier in Os, Norway.
My fascination with fish started when I was young. I always enjoyed having sea life in my house. I had tanks with goldfish, betas, snails, shrimp, community fish, and schooling groups for as far back as I can remember. I enjoyed watching them swim and grow. As I got older, the complexity of my aquariums expanded. I graduated from plastic containers with “sea monkeys” to betas in bowls and eventually to fully filtered and heated tanks with complex ecosystems in them. I was successfully maintaining micro reefs and elaborate freshwater tanks when I realized that my early aqua-scaping days were fairly disappointing; my fish always died from some avoidable cause. 

There were times I forgot to add water conditioner when cleaning tanks (oops), there was the time my cat, Sammy, literally hunted a beta and ate it under the bed, and there were multiple times that my darling older sister dropped my sea monkey container in the hallway while transporting it back to my room. It happened twice, possibly three, and to this day, I am sure that she will still claim it was accidental. Since the disasters always resulted in tears of frustration from me- her annoying and gullible little sister- I eventually learned that it was not simply her lack of grace and her clumsiness at fault. Side note: I am happy to report that she eventually grew out of her fish tank dropping stage and resorted to other ways of teasing me, as required by her job title of “older sister.” It came as no surprise to anyone that my love of aquatics and animals eventually lead me to a career in animal focused retail.

It was eight years after Finding Nemo came out when I was caring for and selling saltwater fish, constantly educating people on: how to start their tanks, how to rid their fish of fungi or illness, compatibility of species, proper care and maintenance, dietary needs, space requirements, chemical composition of healthy aquarium water, and so much more. Unfortunately, it was all too often that I was refusing sales to uneducated, first-time fish owners who just wanted “Nemo fish.” They all wanted any subspecies of clownfish for their kid or their home. Unfortunately, educating the adults- the official decision makers- was always significantly more challenging than talking the kids out of wanting Nemo. 

It was simple for a kid to understand that Nemo required a lot of care and is not a good beginner fish unless they, and their parents, were wholly committed to Nemo’s health and educated on his care. The kids wanted Nemo to live. Parents, on the other hand, always felt they knew more about the care requirements for the $50 fish they were “prepared” to buy, acting as if all fish are invincible and can live in a bowl. It was those times that I was more than thankful for my right to deny animal sales if the proper care would not be provided. 
Without experience, it is difficult to see the complexity and amount of work it takes to maintain a salt tank, for reefs or fish. Establishing a new tank to be healthy enough for even a hardy tropical fish takes weeks of daily maintenance and hundreds of dollars worth of supplies; it only gets harder as the fish get more sensitive and exotic. To appropriately and successfully keep a more complicated fish like Nemo takes nearly a month with cycles of water changes, additives, starter fish, ecosystem builder aids (such as live rock, sand, and plants), and a thriving carpet anemone. Now think about all that regarding clownfish being one of the easier, hardier species of saltwater fish to keep; it only gets harder from there. 

  The North Sea as viewed from the pier in Os, Norway.

The North Sea as viewed from the pier in Os, Norway.

Finding Nemo brought more popularity to the already common clownfish. They were the most popular saltwater fish in my store, even with options for less expensive and more colorful and unique fish. The clownfish was the celebrity people knew of them from the movie; they were also a trend that people had to have. Even to this day, I cannot help but wonder what percent of clownfish whose purchase was inspired solely by the movie actually thrived in their new home. I know that not every aquatic store ensured the fish would unquestionably survive after it was bagged up. Fortunately for dedicated and responsible Nemo lovers, it was (and still is) a shared and successful practice to breed clownfish in captivity. For those who wanted to do it right and have a flourishing clownfish tank, there are always places to buy them.  

Marlin and Nemo’s silly and forgetful partner in crime, Dory, is a powder blue tang. The release of Finding Dory is soon going to bring unwanted attention to the extremely fragile tang that is limited in population size. The powder blue tangs you find in stores have all been caught in the ocean, taken away from coral reefs and wild populations. They cannot be successfully bred in captivity so they all must be wild caught. Removing these fish from the oceans in significant numbers has detrimental effects on their population status and the health of the coral reef ecosystem they lived in. It is a viable concern that the powder blue tang population will suffer significantly as people watch the movie and feel inspired to own a Dory. As excited as I am to see the film, the aquatic lover in me is terrified to see how the film will damage the world’s population of the beautiful tang. There are only so many fish in the sea, and it would be a shame for the powder blue tangs to become threatened or endangered after removing excessive numbers from the wild directly to meet the demands of eager Dory fans who cannot provide a healthy environment. 

If you love Nemo, Dory, or any of the other creatures in the movie, please love them from afar unless you are fully committed to their care. Watch the film, buy the DVD, purchase stuffed animals, look at the live fish swim around tanks in your local pet store, ask questions, become educated, do some research; just please do not go out and buy them unless you can responsibly provide a healthy, proper home.  Finding Nemo was dedicated to a message of leaving the fish in the sea, where they belong and Finding Dory the sequel, has reiterated the same message people failed to listen the first time.  Pixar warned us, let’s try to do it right this time, guys. For the sake of the lovely fish and the reefs.