Finding Nemo? Good luck.

The orange clownfish and seven types of damselfish are headed toward extinction, prompting an environmental group to ask the federal government to protect them.

The 2003 Pixar movie opened Friday with its new 3D version. A day earlier, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition with the National Marine Fisheries Service that demands steps be taken to ensure these species survive.

While Nemo is only found in the Indo-Pacific, two of the species the group wants listed as endangered are found exclusively in Hawaii. They are the Hawaiian dascyllus and blue-eye damselfish, two species that depend on healthy coral.

“The main thing these fish need is for us to stop putting so much carbon pollution into the air,” said Shaye Wolf, the ecologist who wrote the petition. “It’s like the polar bear, it’s another wakeup call. More animals are endangered by our carbon pollution and we can’t keep going down this road if we care about human health, environmental health and the health of plants and animals.”

The 85-page petition cited the Finding Nemo movie for increasing the global demand for the orange clownfish. But the environmental group says factories, automobiles and other greenhouse-gas spewing sources are the primary reasons the eight types of fish need protection.

“The main thing these fish need from us is to confront the climate crisis,” said Wolf, who serves as science director for the center’s climate change program.

Greenhouse gases cause ocean warming and acidification. That in turn hurts the clownfish and damselfish directly and by wrecking their homes, she said.

Acidification happens because the ocean absorbs about one-third of the carbon dioxide people produce, Wolf said, and the more acidic water damages the fishes’ nervous systems.

“These young fish drift in a water column for a few weeks then need to find a home on the reef,” she said. “They can see, hear and smell the reef. But if their senses are damaged, they can’t find home.”

Lab experiments showed the fishes’ senses get so scrambled they become attracted to predators’ odors, Wolf said.

Ocean warming bleaches the coral reef habitat the fish need to survive.

“There’s a whole suite of problems, a suite of really negative things,” Wolf said.

She is banking on the Endangered Species Act, which has been successful at bringing species like the green sea turtle back from the brink of extinction.

“If the fish get listed, we get a whole safety net of protections,” Wolf said. “There’d be increased habitat protection, a recovery plan, an outline of specific conservation measures and tools to reduce other threats to these fish, like pollution, coastal construction and fishing.”

Wolf became interested in protecting the eight species of fish after reading studies in recent years that show how much trouble corals are in these days. She said that got her thinking if the corals are in trouble, the fish that depend on them must be too.

“In Hawaii, coral reefs are amazing places, amazingly beautiful, and endangered because of climate change,” she said. “It’s really important people know what’s at stake because of our unchecked carbon pollution so we can take steps to do something before they’re gone.”

Nemo Needs His Coral Protected, Too

The Center for Biological Diversity is behind a similar petition to have 83 species of coral listed as endangered, including nine species in Hawaii. The feds are in the process of making a determination, which could limit fishing and coastal development.

NMFS determined that 56 of these corals are likely to go extinct by the end of the century, primarily because of ocean warming, ocean acidification and disease, a Center for Biological Diversity release says. The feds are supposed to decide by December whether these corals deserve endangered species status.

An October study found that Americans were willing to pay $33.57 billion to protect Hawaii’s reefs.

Aside from pushing the United States, one of the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, to sign off on pollution-reduction treaties like the Kyoto Protocol, the petition says the fish may find relief by clamping down on the aquarium trade.

The widespread and growing trade in coral reef fish and corals adds to the cumulative stresses that the fish listed in the petition face from ocean warming and ocean acidification.

The global trade in ornamental marine fish is a major industry, valued at $200 million to $330 million annually, the petition says, removing an estimated 30 million marine fish each year. Large quantities of coral reef habitat disappear, too.

Hawaii’s aquarium fishery off the west coast of the Big Island developed rapidly from the 1970s into the state’s most lucrative nearshore fishery by the 2000s, the petition says. But there have recently been efforts around the state to ban people from plucking fish from Hawaiian waters for aquariums.

The Hawaiian damselfish was one of the top three most preferred fish by aquarium fishers, according to a study cited in the petition.

While the state regulates the aquarium trade, a fishery council that manages federal waters three miles offshore could take up the Center for Biological Diversity’s latest petition at its next meeting.

Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council senior scientist Paul Dalzell said the council is already paying close attention to the petition to list the coral species and would likely want to stay on top of this one too.

“I await the outcome of this petition with interest,” he said.

NMFS has 90 days to make a finding on the petition. If the agency decides there’s enough substance to proceed, it will form a biological review team and consider listing the species as endangered or threatened.

Here’s the complete petition:

About the Author