The creators of Pixar also knew this: when the animated film Finding Nemo was released in the United States on May 30, 2003, it glorified the anemone inhabitants all over the world in one fell swoop. The hype continues to this day, often with negative consequences for the gentle animals.
“After the movie, people all over the world were dying to keep clown fish in their aquariums, including here in Thailand,” says marine biologist Tati Sutadra, who works on the dream island of Phi Phi Don. “But most of them don’t know how to properly care for them, and that makes them dangerous to animals.” The 26-year-old runs a clownfish breeding project at SAii Phi Phi Island Village’s Marine Discovery Center.
Not all clownfish are orange
Snorkelers can watch the cute mini fish in their natural habitat in the turquoise sea of Lo Ba Gao Bay right in front of the hotel complex. In the marine center there is a breeding station where clown fish (amphiprions, as they are called scientifically) are bred. The goal is to educate holidaymakers, as well as local residents and schoolchildren, about animals and threats. “Children are naturally fascinated by clownfish, but we also want to inspire them to take an interest in their conservation,” says Bart Cullens, Regional Director of SAii Resorts.
Once or twice a year, false clown fry (Amphiprion ocellaris, also called orange-ringed anemones) are released into the wild under the supervision of the Andaman Sea National Park Authority. This is the same species as Nemo and his father Marlin in the cartoon.
In total, there are about 30 different species of clownfish, seven of which live in the sea around Thailand. Animals belong to the girl fish – and not all are orange.
But clownfish are always sensitive, says expert Tati Sutadra. But worst of all, ever since the Finding Nemo hype, clownfish have been hunted to fill aquariums. This increased the cost to an impressive THB 500 (€14) per copy. “Suddenly, clown fish have a price. They didn’t have it before the movie.”
More than a million individuals are caught annually
The Washington Post wrote in 2016 that the success of Finding Nemo was not good news for the clownfish. to the sea where they belong.
More than a million individuals are caught in the oceans every year, according to Saving Nemo, a charity dedicated to protecting the species. This greatly reduced the inventory. “Clownfish are easy to breed in captivity, which is why our solution is to supply farm-raised fish to stores,” the website says.
The animal raid might come as a surprise, as the movie is mostly about trying to free Nemo from captivity. We remind you that the fish was caught by a diver on the first day of school at sea and ended up in the aquarium of the dental office. As he plans his escape with the other residents, Father Marlene and the forgetful Dory set out to find the prodigal son. The panic in Nemo’s eyes when he bites the walls of the aquarium instead of swimming through the expanses of the ocean is one of the key scenes of the blockbuster.
Unique symbiosis with sea anemones
Meeting them at sea is much more pleasant than seeing animals behind glass. While snorkeling off Phi Phi Island, several bright orange specimens peek out from sea anemones. They dare not go far. The danger of being eaten by hungry hunters is too great. They usually swim around the tentacles in safe proximity and then disappear again into the flower animal with which they live in a unique symbiosis.
Anemones have numerous tentacles through which they secrete poisonous substances. They can use it to drive away or even kill fish. Clownfish have a special mucous membrane that makes them immune to toxins. According to research, it gets even thicker over time due to contact with the anemone, so that animals can easily seek protection between the tentacles.
When the Marine Research Center releases farmed clownfish into the Andaman Sea, experts must help them get started: “First, they are netted at sea for a month,” says resort manager Pira Bunsang. “You can’t just release them, most of them won’t survive. First they need to get used to the new environment and the sea anemones.”
However, sea anemones are increasingly threatened by global warming. Like corals, they bleach and die as a result of rising water temperatures. For clownfish, this means that they are finding fewer and fewer hiding places and safe places for their young. “Marine biologists around the world fear we could lose Nemo in the wild,” warns Saving Nemo.
teaser image: © imago stock and people / imago stock and people