How’s this for hard breaking news: Nemo’s friends are in trouble. Today, Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post reported on a new study by scientists at Simon Fraser University and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature on the status of creatures featured in the 2003 animated Disney film Finding Nemo. Nemo of course is the young clownfish snatched from his coral reef home and forced to live in a dentist’s office aquarium. The movie follows his father’s desperate efforts to find him and the sea creatures he meets along the way. No, the scientists at Simon Fraser didn’t find any talking sharks, sea turtles or blue tangs (that would be breaking news indeed.) But they did examine the conservation status of each of those species, and others that had a talking role in the film.
The study found that 16 percent of those species associated with characters in the movie are facing the threat of extinction, including sharks, sea turtles and coral reef fishes. The reasons are varied and depend on the species at risk, but all of this, including the paradoxical public response to the film, exudes a sort of environmental irrational exuberance. That is, a sense that the resource bubble will never end and everyone should get theirs now; the long-term costs be damned. There is a whiff of this with all environmental issues, but it seems particularly intense when it comes to the ocean. The fantasy of an endless sea seems ingrained in us. After all, Finding Nemo was a wet, cartoon version of Born Free, pitting good (living free) against evil (living in captivity). Yet after seeing the film, kids and parents trucked out to the mall in record numbers to create their own hapless protagonist at home. Nemo the clownfish is not at risk of extinction, but 18 percent of his extended scientific family – Pomancentridae – is. The aquarium trade is just one of many reasons why coral reef wildlife is declining. But it’s one with particularly profligate practices. On the long journey from Indo-Pacific reef to plastic baggy on a boat, to holding tank on the shore, to box on an airplane, to window in an American pet store, large numbers of fish die. Hence, divers go out and take more to make up for those who succumb to their packaged prisons. Inevitably, the more favored species in the more accessible locations dwindle. My video below, building on my Blue Ridge Press piece, tells a bit more of the story.
Disney publicity notwithstanding, the poster child for ocean outrage in recent years has been shark finning. Driven by rising incomes in China and accompanying demand for shark fin soup, fishermen cut the fins off of live sharks and throw the rest of the animal, dying, back into the water. Shark finning is a major threat to shark species worldwide.
In both of these cases – pretty fish dying in boxes for no good reason and charismatic megafauna mutilated for fairly small scraps of (apparently tasteless) flesh – those of us who don’t partake feel the wasteful injustice intuitively. But it’s a little harder to discern when it’s hidden within the complicated matrix of global commerce. Sea turtles, for example, continue to be threatened because they get caught in fishing nets and drown. Shrimp trawls in particular can be deadly for turtles, more so if they don’t use turtle excluder devices. Yet shrimp is the most popular seafood in the United States. If you don’t believe me, just count how many times you see shrimp on the buffet table this holiday season. More generally, one of the biggest threats to coral reefs is climate change – probably the most complicated environmental issue of all. Corals are notoriously sensitive to small increases in temperature, and bleach when exposed to them for too long. Their calcium carbonate exoskeletons erode easily when carbon dioxide levels rise, undermining the very foundation of coral reef ecosystems.
Economists would argue that, despite the waste, each of us as individuals is acting rationally, seeking to maximize his or her own gain. Biologists would say the end result is irrational; namely, the degradation of some of the most productive and diverse ecosystems on Earth. Both are right. Complicated and irrational aren’t mutually exclusive, but their coexistence is no comfort to Nemo’s friends.