Leave him in the ocean, not in the lounge room. 

A  booming trade in aquarium fish, sparked by Finding Nemo, the Disney film featuring clownfish, is endangering the wildlife of the Vanuatu archipelago in the South Pacific. 

The Guardian Newspaper, and a recent ABC Foreign Corrspondent report has hghlighted the decimation of some of our Pacific Reefs, specifically in Vanuatu, all for the sake of having your own ‘Nemo' in the living room.

The Guardian Newspper, 20 November 2003  reports:

Over the past yearabout 200,000 fish and other marine creatures have been exported from the country, and local tour firms are warning that the reefs will be at risk if the tropical fish trade is not regulated.

"It's a very popular trade and on the back of Finding Nemo it's boomed," said Heidi Bartram, of Vanuatu's fisheries department. "It's developing faster than anyone can keep up with. There's a lack of understanding of reef systems and how fast they recover. Understanding them is hard enough without having the added pressure of people taking the fish."

Concern about the trade and its sustainability is so great the government has set up a committee to examine the issue. The four species of anenome fish in Vanuatu - which are related to, but do not include, the clownfish - are classified within the  archipelago's top 10 most exported species.

Concern has grown among local dive firms following the arrival, in April, of a US-owned company, Sustainable Reef Supplies, which employs 20 people to fish the waters around Vanuatu's main island, Efate, and which dominates the export market. The firm flies out up to 8,000 wild animals a month from the capital, Port Vila. Rare tropical fish can fetch more than £300 an animal in the US and Australian markets, although clownfish can sell for £10.

Rod Habla, president of the Vanuatu tour operators' association, said aquarium firms had to ensure sites were not overfished. "The problem is managers will tell collectors not to go into restricted areas but at the same time give them a list of the species they want."

Dive operators say that aquarium firms have over-fished several popular scuba sites, including Hat Island where they claim 38,000 fish were taken within one month this year.

Local businesses pay custom fees to traditional, Melanesian landowners for the rights to fish or dive. According to the United Nations, the global aquarium trade deals in eleven million tropical fish a year, with Britain alone importing 110,000 clownfish annually.

The ABC's excellent Foreign Correspondent program, reporter Mark Corcoran, broadcast 9 November 2004, had as its lead story, the devastation of Vanuatu's reefs.  

----  a trade accused of exploitation, overfishing and corruption. The United Nations Environmental Program estimates that globally, 20 million tropical fish worth nearly $500 million are now caught each year.Nearly all Vanuatu's tropical fish are caught by a company called Sustainable Reef Supplies (SRS) – which was established in Vanuatu by American businessmen. Yet in three short years, SRS has managed to alienate tourism operators who depend on tropical fish as an attraction, scientists who fear an ecological disaster in the making – and traditional owners of the reefs where the tropical fish live.

Corcoran meets one custom reef owner Chief Mor Mor, who gets paid just $120 a month by SRS for the right to unlimited  access to his reefs. He figures it's better than nothing. Yet a former SRS manager, James Armitage says that SRS collects $5,000 worth of fish in a single morning on Chief Mor Mor's reef. And he says that last year, SRS decided it wanted an immediate tenfold increase in production, and brought in ten Filipino divers to catch the fish.

"They are like machines" he says "and they just take anything and everything. It's out of control… basically it's a free for all".  Vanuatu's Fisheries Department is supposed to monitor the trade, but accused of corruption and indifference, does virtually  nothing. 

Tropical fish are almost worth their weight in gold – yet Vanuatu's Government officially receives a pittance from SRS. For each exotic flame angel fish that sells for $80 in Australia or the US – Vanuatu will receive just 24 cents.

James Armitage claims thousands of dollars a week in bribes were paid when SRS set up operations – the price he says of doing business in Vanuatu.   "The actual fellow who came to set up SRS was blatant about it – and was willing to offer it – in his words that's how we did it in Fiji, that's how we did it in Indonesia – we'll do it here" says James Armitage.

Take away the tropical fish from this delicate eco system and there are fears the eating fish – on which Pacific Island communities depend for survival – will also disappear. A just completed scientific study by environmental group Reef Check in conjunction with scientists from Townsville's James  Cook University suggests that SRS operations have already had a significant impact on fish numbers, with a 50% reduction in tropical fish numbers on reefs that have been harvested. 

Vanuatu's Fisheries officials deny the corruption allegations and say the industry is under control. But with few resources and even less willpower it's hard to see how they can justify those claims.


A few more thoughts.

It is difficult to find anything on the company Sustainable Reef Supplies. I believe it is a subsidiary of a company based in Miami but that is as far as it gets. Any criticim of SRS must be tempered with condemntion for the authorities in Vanuatu for allowing such a situation to exist. It appars that SRS is "doing nothing illegal", and when so much profit is at stake, moral judgemens go out the window - are they to be blamed for the destruction of the reefs when the goverments allow them to do it. Corcoran in Foreign Correspondent doesn't mind using th "corruption" several times, and anyone having professional dealings in Vanuatu and Idonesia may well know what he is talking about. 

Back in the mid-eighties, I dived in the harbour at Port Vila, on a reef that was popularly known as Anemone City. I have never in thirty years of diving on tropical reefs seen such a reef - covered, every inch of it, in anemone and their resident clownfish. The site no longer exists. I am not suggesting that indiscriminate collection resulted in its destruction as I have no facts to back this up, but it is fair to say that any indiscriminate clearance of all animals such as the sedentary clownfish would have an effect on the reef, and as mentioned, on the sustainability of the tourist industry. Note also that the destruction as reported in the Guardian and on Foreign Correspondent is on reefs close to Port Vila, not on some remote islan hundreds of kilometres from any tourist or indigenous population (and even if it were, this would still not be acceptble). 

So, if you must have Nemo in th lounge room, or indeed any tropical fish that has not been bred in captivity, please think again. 

For further information contact:

Marine Aquarium Council

Reef Check Australia