Clownfish Calamity: Murky Water on the Showbiz Reef

By Robert Wintner, Member of Sea Shepherd Board of Advisors

Finding Nemo is Disney's latest bid for another billion bucks, and the Devil gets his due for some solid social messages on a most impressionable audience. Too bad the debilitating burden falls yet again on species of a lesser greed.

That is, Disney learned the hard way with 101 Dalmatians that a multi-million dollar cartoon will result in a huge demand for the cartoon characters. 101 stimulated dog breeders and puppy mills to pump thousands of Dalmatian pups in time for Xmas (the season of giving, don't you know). By May, animal shelters across the country were swamped with gangly, high-energy Dalmatian turn-ins that just weren't working out. Many were in estrus. Many were put down.

Of course Disney could not have predicted this dire consequence of a lovable cartoon the first time around. Given the experience of 101, however, Disney did know, yet maintained a stonewall oblivion on the reef carnage potential of Nemo. If Disney did not foresee the carnage, then Disney could have stepped up and spoken on behalf of reef fish around the world. Yet not one talk bubble has yet broken the surface from the Corporate Megalith now shaping the mindset and behavior of young America. As my longtime friend and snorkel buddy Matt Roving put it, "Forty million on promotion and not one dime in tribute." Disney culpability is palpable and exasperating.

Summer of '03 sees reefs worldwide, especially in the Philippines, Indonesia and Hawaii, swept clean of clownfish so little tykes can feel again the lovable, cuddly wonder right in their own living rooms. The kids are flooding the pet shops in a tsunami demand for clownfish. "I've got to have a Nemo," is the recurrent parental imperative. Another Nemo ravage is the intuitive rush by other children across the land and around the world to "liberate" their fish, flushing them down the toilet. "All drains lead to the sea," is the lesson repeated in the movie.

I saw the movie after Captain Watson asked me for a commentary, with the understanding that he'd owe me. Nemo is troublesome in parts, yet quite good in other parts. The preview profiled sharks as sinister and evil, but the movie itself fleshed out the shark characters as self-conscious carnivores eager to change their image through an AA type meeting format, with a slogan that: "Fish are friends, not food." Kudos for that one, in its refreshing departure from the Red Lobster gourmandize: Come on down for all you can eat.

Disney's unbearable lightness of being flip-flopped throughout, however, like when the lobsters showed up and the little fish asked, "Where's the butter?" This might seem picky, but Red Lobster devastation is hardly a ripple; Red Lobster is major cause of strip mining our remaining ocean resources and a chief suspect in a Murder One case on the entire species of Pacific Leatherback turtles. These exquisite giants can grow to 9' across, unless they die first in nets trolled for the Red Lobster trough. And dying they are, en masse.

Back to Nemo and farther along in the story, Disney scores well again, introducing the denizens of a reef tank as slightly whacked, like the prisoners on Devil's Island in Papillion. A Yellow Tang hovers over the little plastic treasure chest, muttering, "Bubbles. My bubbles. These bubbles are mine!" The Tang talks nonsense, obviously crazed by confinement.

The wizened, street-smart Moorish Idol supports this contention in the movie's finest moment: "Fish aren't meant to be in a box, Kid. It does things to you."

And that mostly summarizes Nemo, short of the anthropomorphic mind-set of the reef fish families, with Moms, Dads, concerns for child safety, the terrific view from the home anemone and transportation to "school" (get it?). That's okay; it's Disney after all, and even a mindless scene of turtles on a roller coaster current talking like half-wit surfers goes along with the cartoon mentality, with no tangible damage.

But fallout has indeed materialized, however, as a simple result of millions upon millions of children doing what children do, seeing and wanting, without reason. Disney's overwhelming premise going in was that a big enough production followed by exponentially bigger promotion would yield astronomical returns. And so it came to pass. Disney knew as well the negative potential going in. The credits at the end of this epic cartoon are vast. Could Disney engage so many skilled people and fail to challenge each phase of this story for harmful potential? Not likely, but megabucks are not to be fumbled. Disney's profit motive transcended moral conscience. Even if the damage was unintended, Disney's silence is damnable.

Moreover, we have Sylvia Spalding, Communications Coordinator for the Marine Aquarium Council, conceding: "We anticipated what is happening with the clownfish in the pet shops. We tried to contact Disney, so maybe they could put a message at the beginning of the movie, like they're going to do with 102 Dalmatians (Oy.), but we couldn't get through."

"You mean Disney is an impervious echo chamber of recorded messages on machines that talk to each other but never lead you to a human, till the line goes dead?" I asked.

"Yes. It was like that. We tried and tried."

So ends Phase I of the Clownfish Calamity with nothing for anyone to do, except to contact Disney with your concerns, except that Disney cannot be contacted. Here is evidence of a more frightening development, the uninterruptible voice of Big Brother in our lifetime, bellowing warm and fuzzy messages that yield pain and suffering to animals. Nobody said these were great times, except of course for MCI. Does Disney own MCI?

Back with Sylvia Spalding at the Marine Aquarium Council, we move to Phase II of the Clownfish Calamity. The Marine Aquarium Council is headquartered, by the way, in Honolulu. Nemo effectively portrayed reef fish collection as nasty, perhaps evil. Naturally, the MAC wanted to dilute that message, because it largely exists to protect what is known as the "Marine ornamental industry." Its boldest voice takes strident issue with reef fish harvesting by cyanide or blasting caps, both of which destroy the reef. The MAC supports, endorses and encourages "proper" collecting techniques for (oh, brother; not again) sustainable harvests of the reefs.

I presented Sylvia Spalding with a more sustainable point of view, that reef fish are individuals residing in communities with social order and susceptibility to terrorist attack. She said, "You're obviously set in your ideas, and there's nothing I can say to change them."

Bad-behavior apologists often resort to cliché. I informed Ms. Sylvia, though I suspect she knew, that our (the Snorkel Bob Foundation's) recent inquiries into formation of turtle preserves at Kiholo Bay on the Big Island as well as other places, met with initial waves of resistance from the tropical-fish-collection lobby. These slurpgunners have attired themselves as politically correct, so they can clear the reefs in sustainable waves with minimal kill. I asked Sylvia Spalding what she would think of a sustainable harvest of commuters in LA or on the H1 Freeway; we have such an abundance, you know. They could be shipped off to be in amusing displays in Uganda or Belarus-or wait! In Tokyo! They love amusing displays there.

But nobody likes a smartass, and you can't go harvesting commuters. They're human, for Christ's sake! Sheesh. Don't you know anything?

Sylvia Spalding said that 98% of all marine fish sold in pet stores are caught wild on reefs, leaving 2% coming from breeders. I assured her that her efforts against cyanide and dynamite were a good thing, kind of like carpool lanes at rush hour. Do they make life nice? Well, no, but a tad more tolerable. I didn't tell Sylvia that the Marine Aquarium Council's evolution into a front group for the slurpgun collectors was a bad thing, but she sensed my dark thoughts on that subject. I asked for the names of some marine breeders, to find out why they can't provide more than 2% of pet shop reef fish. She hesitated here, but promised to get back to me, which she did in an e-mail, apologizing yet again for not being allowed to divulge the names of the few breeders on her list, because, after all, I'm not certified.

Certified? Maybe not, but I'm surely certifiable.

At this juncture, with reef defense still formative, you should contact the Marine Aquarium Council: and voice your displeasure with collecting wild animals no matter how minimal the kill. No wild species should be gathered for human amusement. The end.

The question persists: What voice could be raised in defense of the clownfish. For starters, how about the Son of Jacques (Cousteau). Jean Michel Cousteau is a common link between Disney and the Marine Aquarium Council, his niche as face-man for the seas adroitly secured by a paid staff promoting Himself as the "Cousteau" legacy. Jean Michel will speak to your group, if you pay him, but you're best advised to write the speech yourself.

Who is Jean Michel (W?) Cousteau. I contacted the remaining Cousteau's "society" after seeing the surviving son on TV, in a Disney promo of Nemo. He looked uncomfortable in diving gear, through no fault of his own; he's a formally educated architect, but that didn't pencil out. He explained that we must care about our reefs, because...well, because they are important in everything that we do, in life, every day, because...of everything. In an e-mail I asked why Jean Michel was promoting Nemo for Disney, when Father Jacques' life work sent a different message altogether. I.e., what is the intent here, and what are Jean Michel Cousteau's credentials?

Of course credentials are moot in these days of hereditary ascendancy. George Bush II is noted by his biographers as having no original thoughts in his years at Yale and then Harvard. Then he was an alcoholic, and now he's President of the United States.

I got a response from a JMW Cousteau administrator on "the tradition established by the Cousteau Society and related organizations." Get it? Jacques had the Cousteau Society. Jean Michel has Jean Michel Cousteau's Ocean Futures Society, which is the related organization, though Jacques was opposed to aquaria, and JM is linked with the Marine Aquarium Council to ensure "proper collection" of reef fish.

Jacques Cousteau was affiliated with the Aquarium in Monaco, the first to experiment with coral polyp reproduction in controlled habitat, which is a good thing and not to be confused with fish in confinement in dentist offices. JMW's Vice President for Troublesome Inquiries referred me to six or eight websites, where I could learn more about reefs, and possibly gather more details on Jean Michel W. Cousteau's formal education. (I shitchu not; he's an architect.)

I responded to Richard Murphy, Ph.D., spokesperson for Jean Michel W. Cousteau:

Dear Richard,

Thank you for your exhaustive response. You apparently want to convey parallel values between Jacques and Jean Michel, but the 2 paths still look skewed from here. As far as I know, Jacques discouraged aquaria. The aquarium at Monaco is probably the most progressive in its efforts to breed healthy coral. Moreover, its marine species displays are the most balanced and offer the denizens the most realistic habitat.

My challenge to Jean Michel's credentials does not go to tradition. Tradition, as it is used here, is the wantonly promotional use of a family name. In that "tradition," Jean Michel has spent decades promoting himself as the heir apparent, when Jacques' intent was apparently less certain. Jean Michel remains outside the fold of commitment, dedication, fortitude, water time and toeing the line on reef defense. Rather he has self promoted wherever and whenever possible for personal aggrandizement and gain. I don't begrudge a man making a living, but if it's a hustle in the name of conservation, then the grudge endures.

I met Jean Michel briefly around 1973 or '74, when he was hanging out at Sea Pines Plantation on Hilton Head Island with his head buried in whatever fantasy project the resort developer Charles Fraser could come up with. At the time, a huge waterslide was on the drawing boards. This was likely a most difficult time for the egregiously black sheep of the Cousteau family, what with Jacques and Philippe shooting spectacular specials around the world. I was an avid aquarist at the time, also in need of gainful employment, and presented a project to Charles Fraser, for a small display of marine tanks that would allow people to glimpse the myriad pelagic, benthic, invertebrate and coral species of the Lowcountry estuary for the first time, with emphasis on tank habitat and balance. The South Carolina coast is naturally turbid, so people were hugely unaware of what coastal development ruined. Charles liked the idea but then saw fit to run it past his resident "Son of Cousteau."

When I was introduced to young Jean Michel, he was curt, diffident, brief and dismissive, instantly discounting the project with, "No, no, no. He (me) has no credentials! What are his credentials? None! He has none!"

We're thirty years older and marginally wiser now. I was disappointed then, though now I'm happy I didn't pursue an aquarium project. That one had merit, given the value of human awareness in defense of nature, but it still confined fish, and the fates delivered me instead to another role. The critical point here is a young man's realization of failure in life as a function of no credentials, and that man wasn't me.

I bear no grudge to Jean Michel for his youthful indiscretion, though I hoped that he too would develop some "credentials" in his growing media exposure over the years. He has failed on many levels, for lack of fortitude, vision and depth. He is the last Cousteau and applies the name only for personal gain.

We now have a run on clownfish. Fish collectors are sweeping the reefs for more clownfish. Children across the country and around the world are flushing their fish down the toilets to FREE them. JMW Cousteau is still on TV promoting Nemo. So what gives?

Rather than sending press releases on proper collection etiquette, or recommending other websites, or harking back to family history, or having an employee do so, a real man of the reef would stand up, step forward and apply that which an accident of birth has given him, which is an effective last name. He would speak up, alerting the parents and the children that we have a bad situation here that warrants attention.

But we won't see that, because Jean Michel Cousteau has no credentials.


Okay, I confess, I do bear a grudge. But I am indeed happier to be Snorkel Bob, at work and at play all at once with my close, personal friends, the gill breathers, rather than a tank curator.

Hail Atlantis!

What is the point here? That all who speak for conservation do not necessarily speak from the heart. Like charitable and evangelical voices through history, many are called by money. With no apparent access to the airwaves, and no spokesperson to tell the parents and the children to change their ways on reef fish purchases and flushes, clownfish and all denizens of the reef will continue to face a grim situation. There is no sustainable harvest of any kind on any reef. Keeping this in mind is the first step toward solving the problem.

Which brings us to Phase, III: pet shops. They run the gamut from evil to reasonably conscientious. Evil is obvious; it's the shit-for-brains hostess on the Today Show effusing shrill happiness over how EEZY it is to torture a handful of reef fish in a 10-gallon tank. They'll soon go belly up, but by then you hit a commercial break, and on to the next fabulous segment, on how EEZY it is to match your carpet with your drapes. Taking the talking head at face value, an evil pet shop will sell those reef fish and the 10-gallon tank and welcome you back anytime. Ch ching.

A reasonably conscientious pet shop, on the other hand, is Trop-Aquarium in Watsonville, CA. Posing as a potential clownfish buyer, I by chance met owner Ann Sommer. Yes, she has clownfish for sale, and yes she could tell me where each fish came from and how it was collected, and yes, as far as she knows, they all were wild, taken with slurpguns. She too caught my drift, and said she has people coming in with kids every day now urgently wanting a clownfish and 10-gallon tank, claiming, "I have to have a Nemo!" But she won't sell that set up. She has people coming in with a new product they bought elsewhere, a 2 gallon plastic quickie set with an anemone and a clownfish, both of which appear to be...well...dying. She tells these people that these animals cannot survive in 2 gallons or 10 gallons any better than a human can live in a drawer, that survival will require this, that and the other, including 30 gallons minimum, for about $200 (Gasp!).

What's the pet-shop point? If you must patronize a pet shop, get a feel for the place. Ann Sommer breeds painted turtles and African Spurred Tortoises (Sulcatta). You can't breed exotic species without a sensitivity to life and the comfort required for its propagation (except of course with rats, roaches and humans; they'll multiply under any conditions). Ten minutes in any pet shop is hardly different than snorkel meditation, where you read the reef for surge, cross current, break and undertow before jumping in. If you can't get a reading, ask for a clownfish with a 10-gallon tank. Or just chat for awhile. Ann Sommer has a few other amusing anecdotes, including the one about the prehensile tail skink that gained such popularity in pet shops that it too was swept clean from its native forests till it earned endangered-species status. This skink not only had a prehensile tail but was easy to handle as well, making it sure prey for humanity. Unfortunately the prehensile-tail skink could not keep pace, bearing one live offspring every two years. Sale of this species is still legal in the U.S., but don't worry; nobody has them anymore. Ann Sommer had one when they became endangered. She heard of dealers jacking the price to $500 each at that time, as if chump change could keep you from burning in hell. She declined many offers from those with no lizard experience. Talk about credentials. She finally found a woman who had raised several lizard species and placed the rare skink in its best spot for survival for under a sawbuck.

Ann Sommer also reported on the new status of "live rock." That is, porous rock taken from the sea floor that is full of living organisms. Hawaii was the primary source, in spite of Pele's curse on anyone taking mineral material from Hawaii. The State Government, of all unlikely outfits, finally outlawed this underwater strip-mining. The same rock is available on dry land; it's still subject to the curse, but we have cash customers waiting, so what is a free-enterprise world supposed to do?

Well, jam its head so far up its ass it needs a glass navel to see the future is what it's doing so far. I count six roadside stands on any given day in South Maui that still sell sea shells taken live and killed to ornament human habitat. Or you can buy bleached coral, chipped live from what little reef remains. I pressed one vendor on his morality, and he assured me (in a Russian accent) that it wasn't him, oh, no, never, not him, but his employer, a huge corporation, don't you know. I assured him the curse doesn't know corporate, only point of sale.

But we shouldn't end on a dark note with talk of curses and corporate pederasts plying the reef. Rather we want to cohere the bits and pieces now rising to the surface so we have something to grasp with hope, and here it is:

Ann Sommer has bred marine tropical fish-for fun. She feels clownfish are among the easiest to breed, because they're hermaphroditic, changing gender as necessary, thereby eliminating the tedious process of finding a matched pair. This physiological trick of nature is surely beyond the drop off for Disney, but it plays well here. Ann has not considered commercial breeding, even though captive-bred clowns now apprise only 2% of the market.

Why shouldn't they be bred, since the slurpgunners will soon slurp themselves into sustainable extinction? We're pondering prospects. Ann knows clownfish and will soon compose a pro-forma, factoring the market, wholesale and retail prices, and the yield on a specific effort. These calamitous situations always seem dire and hopeless, yet we press on, step by step. Just as captive-bred macaws and other colorful birds have curbed the collectors, so too might captive-bred clownfish put the slurpgunners out of "business." So, we proceed, the Snorkel Bob Foundation in Hawaii and Ann Sommer of Trop-Aquarium in Watsonville, California. You just never know where a little light might shine.

Robert Wintner is a member of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society Advisory Board. His company, Snorkel Bob, is the largest supplier of rental snorkel gear in Hawaii. When not manufacturing flippers, masks and snorkels, or writing novels, Robert is an active defender of ocean life. Snorkel Bob provides all the snorkeling gear for Sea Shepherd campaigns.