How Polarizing the Clownfish ESA Listing Causes Everyone to Lose

A recent Huffington Post article further polarizes the debate over listing the orange clownfish under the ESA

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) recently announced they listed 20 species of coral as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and are now moving forward with a status review of the orange clownfish (Amphiprion percula). In addition, another one of the most popular aquarium fishes, the Banggai cardinalfish (Pterapogon kauderni), is also being reviewed by NMFS for ESA listing. While this type of news is often well received by the general public, for some the announcement has proven a distractingly polarizing event pitting an increasingly embattled pet industry against the federal government.

Nothing could be further from the truth, of course—this, in and of itself, is no David and Goliath showdown…or at least it wasn’t before the media and the fear-mongers got involved. With oversimplified sound-bytes, attention grabbing headlines and incendiary social media blitzes, what could have been a constructive dialog (even a collaboration) toward conserving embattled coral reefs has become a widening schism that largely ignores the data.

A Good Sound-Byte Unsupported by the Data

Several mainstream media outlets covering the announcement that NMFS is embarking on a status review of A. percula (aka Nemo, for many) took the easy route and published misinformation appealing to pre-conceived notions but unsupported by readily available data. For example, ignoring the subtleties of NMFS’s thoughtful and comprehensive review of the A. percula data contained in the petition to list the species, Nick Visser reports in the Huffington Post that:

“Threats including ocean acidification and warming temperatures, as well as overfishing by the aquarium trade, have ravaged populations of Pixar’s favorite orange fish.”

What NMFS actually said in their 90-day finding was that “A. percula may be warranted for listing due to species specific threats identified under listing Factor A” and identified in the document as “Present or Threatened Destruction, Modification, or Curtailment of Habitat or Range.” In short, NMFS’s primary concern is “bleaching and subsequent loss of anemone habitat resulting from ocean warming.” On the allegation of A. percula being “ravaged” by overfishing from the aquarium trade, NMFS explicitly says they simply don’t have the data to assess that claim. “In the absence of information on abundance,” NMFS says, “we are unable to determine how the harvest of up to 200,000 individuals annually may impact the status of A. percula.”

Visser, completely misreading the data, reports in his piece that the U.S. marine aquarium trade “imported around 200,000” orange clownfish in 2005. While that may make a nice sound-byte, the reality is far different. The 200,000 statistic does appear in the NMFS 90-day finding document, but it’s clearly not intended as the actual imports of the species in question. What NMFS says is that they “can only infer that total A. percula imports to the U.S. were less than 200,000 individuals.”

As NMFS states earlier in the same document, “within the range of A. percula, at least 255 different species of reef fish, totaling just over 200,000 individuals, were exported to the U.S in 2005.” NMFS is, in essence, saying: “We don’t have a lot of data here, but based on the data we do have, there is absolutely no way the marine aquarium trade imported more than 200,000 A. percula in 2005 because that number represents the total number of fishes imported from countries where A. percula exists in the wild.”*

The data cited above are based on a 2012 scientific paper titled “Revealing the Appetite of the Marine Aquarium Fish Trade: The Volume and Biodiversity of Fish Imported into the United States” (Rhyne et al). The freely available data unmistakably reveal to anyone taking a data-centered approach that the number of A. percula harvested in the wild in 2005 was well below 200,000, yet the number stands in the Huffington Post and will now likely become part of the narrative of anti-trade advocates.

Firing Back with Polarizing Rhetoric Instead of Data

Visser isn’t the only one playing loose with the facts and the data. His implication that the aquarium trade is playing a major role in “ravaging” wild populations of A. percula—something NMFS did not itself conclude in its 90-day finding—immediately put aquarists on the defensive. Aquarists, after all, have a lot to lose if A. percula is listed as “Endangered,” and they were already in circle-the-wagons mode after the recent listing of several popular aquarium corals as “Threatened.”**

Visser’s and other mainstream media’s allegations against the trade, like a match to the tinderbox, set off a fusillade from aquarists and pet industry advocates of even more hyperbolic rhetoric largely ignorant of the data. Aquarists knew—just absolutely knew—that there was no way the aquarium trade was having the kind of negative effect Visser and others were alleging. In response to Visser, they said things like:

“To say that the aquarium trade has contributed to the decline in wild clownfish is completely false. All clownfish and many more marine fish such as dotty backs and many Angel fish (and others) are bred in tanks and not taken from the ocean.”

While Visser’s use of the 200,000 statistic at least has part of a foot in the data (even if only a little toe), the claim that the aquarium trade is no longer harvesting any clownfishes from the wild is unsupported by any reading of the data. Unfortunately, it’s a fallacy too often perpetuated by frequent anecdote within hobby circles, as well as dogmatic defensive rhetoric repeated in trade publications and during industry events like last month’s Marine Aquarium Conference of North America (MACNA). Following that event, average aquarists appeared more convinced than ever that the marine aquarium hobby relies primarily on captive bred animals and the trade’s effect on wild reefs is “negligible.”

“Last weekend I saw well over 1000 of these clownfish in captivity from various retailers and not one was wild,” said one conference attendee. An aquarium media outlet states, “If there was any undertone to this year’s MACNA, it would have to be the abundance of captive bred fish in the aquarium hobby.”

The data clearly expose these claims as fallacies. The data show the marine aquarium trade is a trade based almost entirely on fishes harvested from the wild. While many advances have been made in aquaculture over the past several years—and most clownfishes are indeed now captive bred—best estimates suggest that upwards of 90% of the animals found entering the U.S. aquarium trade today originate in the wild. That’s a problem when, as NMFS pointed out in their final rule document for listing the 20 coral species late last month, “the amount of unreported, illegal, and unregulated collection, combined with the large amount of biomass loss along the supply chain, raises serious questions as to the sustainability of the ornamental trade.” Make no doubt, a sustainable aquarium trade, like a sustainable seafood trade, can provide economic incentive to conserve and fish sustainably, but there is far too little transparency and traceability in the marine aquarium trade to prove this is the case for the majority of wild aquarium fisheries.

While clownfishes represent the best example of aquaculture mitigating wild-harvest, it’s as important for aquarists not to resort to hyperbole as it is for Visser, anti-trade activists and media outlets pointing the finger at the aquarium trade. The data show that, in 2005, somewhere around half-a-million clownfishes (all species) were imported to the U.S. Of this 500,000, sources familiar with the data say, somewhere around 10% were A. percula. Preliminary analysis of the more current, unpublished data, suggest the number of clownfishes (all species) imported to the U.S. had dropped to around 300,000 in 2011, with still only about 10% (roughly 30,000) being A. percula—a far cry from the 200,000 number Visser cites, but also significantly higher than the zero that some trade advocates claim.

Toward Measurable Conservation Objectives

Polarizing and oversimplifying conservation issues is the easy way to tell the story, but there is nothing easy about conservation. By taking the easy way, as both Visser and many marine aquarium trade advocates have done, a fight is now shaping up between aquarists represented by the pet trade and NMFS. This seems unfortunate because, in actuality, NMFS has shown a willingness to listen and even work with the trade. It was, after all, in part because of the efforts organized by the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council’s (PIJAC) Marine Ornamental Defense Committee that NMFS, when challenged with additional data, looked at the science and backed off its initial proposal to list 66 species of coral under the ESA. In the end, less than a third of the species were listed, but instead of acknowledging this as a victory and vowing to continue to work together with NMFS to put protections in place that both ensure measurable habitat conservation and continue to allow for a sustainable trade that has been shown capable of major positive conservation outcomes, PIJAC appears to have instead instigated a response replete with exaggerated rhetoric and an all-or-nothing mentality.

Perhaps PIJAC’s response is appropriate given that it is a lobbying organization, and defending trade is their driving mission. In the final equation, however, I can’t help but imagine all this hyperbole makes it easy to miss the central issue. The main attraction here is that global climate change, sea surface temperature rise, ocean acidification, and other anthropogenic stressors like terrestrial runoff, dredging and the like are serious threats to reefs and reef species. This isn’t really about the aquarium trade. Harvesting of A. percula for the aquarium trade was a low threat to the species in 2005, and it is even a lower threat today, but what of the plight of anemones on which clownfishes depend? Just as the polar bear needs its ice, the clownfish needs its anemone, and if both ice and anemones are falling victim to global climate change, than it follows that both the polar bear and the clownfish need assistance if we want to mitigate their risk for extinction? Is the ESA the right way to go about that? For many, the verdict on that question is still out, but rather than polarizing the conservation debate through often politically-motivated arguments rife with misinformation and driven by the general public’s affinity for an animated character, wouldn’t it be better to focus on the actual data and work together towards a solution?


* It’s worth pointing out that NMFS also misread the data by ignoring that some wild harvested A. percula do indeed originate in Indonesia. Nonetheless, the number is relatively small, and the error is nowhere near as significant as Visser’s. NMFS will resolve the issue during the status review with help from scientists who have the data. 

** It should be noted that in their final rule, NMFS found that the risk of extinction to these coral species from the aquarium trade was “low.” NMFS is far more concerned with issues such as global climate change, sea surface temperature rise, ocean acidification, and the like.

*** Several edits were made to this piece to correct typos, but nothing that was edited changed the content either written or implied.

About Ret Talbot

Ret Talbot is a freelance writer who covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. His work has appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Mongabay, Discover Magazine, Ocean Geographic and Coral Magazine. He lives on the coast of Maine with his wife, scientific illustrator Karen Talbot.
This entry was posted in Endangered Species Act (ESA), Indo-Pacific, Ornamental Fisheries and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to How Polarizing the Clownfish ESA Listing Causes Everyone to Lose

  1. Scott says:

    I see one of my comments made it into your article and wanted the chance to respond directly. Sadly I wad unable to edit my original comment in the article response. While I completely agree that the majority of fish for the hobby are imported from the wild I was trying to respond directly to the statements in that article in the language of the intended audience. To ignore blatant falsehoods espoused as truth by the media will do us no favors in the long run and as both a political scientist and a member of this society I realize the intricacies needed for discussion of the topic. First for the general population (critical in forming a larger opinion) in depth studies provide little help. Sadly the culture has come to rely on soundbites for information and most anything longer is ignored by the public ad you also stated. Ideally a prompt response with factual information would be made in an ideal campaign but due to a number of factors I highly doubt this will occur instead as you stated the numbers provided by the article will become “fact” in future discussions. This is primarily why I believe we have failed to not only protect our hobby to this point but also have failed to gain the credit for where successes have been made. As a whole we need to do several things better to ensure the future of our hobby in my opinion, namely trumpet our successes in captive raised livestock, work to eliminate the importation from wild sources of species that can be bred/reproduced in captivity, and rapidly work to develop techniques to rear more species of fish in controlled environments. The actual data needs to be made easily available as well so that questions are asked factual answers can be given. While I acknowledge that in some cases it already exists in peer reviewed literature the majority do not have the time or skills to read this type of material. For myself while I have the skills to search out what I need is time consuming at best and limited to the databases I have access too which the average hobbyist does not.

    For my last point I think as a hobby we have the potential to become reservoirs for many of these species. I realize this idea is contraversial but the idea has already met with some success in other cases from various sources I have studied. While not perfect, its better than extinction.

    • Ret Talbot says:

      Thanks, Scott. I appreciate your comment. I absolutely agree that “To ignore blatant falsehoods espoused as truth by the media will do us no favors in the long run,” but I also believe the converse is true. Aquarists (or fishermen, for that matter) do themselves no favors by responding with their own hyperbolic rhetoric. The discussion of how society consumes media today is an interesting one to me. It is very complex, and doesn’t always fit our pre-conceived notions. Regardless, as a science writer who covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability, my job is to focus on the studies, the papers in journals, the data. My job it to hopefully make some of that material accessible to readers so they can make an informed, critical decision. Whether they choose to do that or not is another discussion altogether. I agree the marine aquarium trade would be well served to invest a whole lot more in aquaculture, but if you’re familiar with my work, you also know I don’t think it should should be done at the expense of sustainable wild fisheries that have the unique ability to create real economic incentive to conserve in places where conservation is hard to accomplish. Rest assured that more data is coming that will allow an even more accurate and comprehensive assessment of the trade, and I’ll be sure to cover it here and elsewhere. Thanks again for your comment, and I look forward to continuing the dialog. Best, Ret

      • Scott Chase says:

        Thank you for the reply and please forgive the lack of basic writing etiquette in my first response. Nothing more fun than typing on a phone.
        In general I agree with the need to create sustainable fisheries for many of the same reasons that you have written about and primarily is that the people most likely to protect an environment are the ones that live and benefit from it (they just need to learn why it benefits them to protect rather than destroy an environment). Hopefully at some point in the future we can also move past the idea that a real economic incentive is needed to conserve but rather conservation in itself is important regardless of economic benefit but right now the creation of economic incentive is perhaps the strongest tool available overall.
        Since I am not a scientist in the traditional sense I tend to come at the problems the industry is facing through my past experience. With an undergrad degree in Political Science and a nearly finished Masters in Organizational Leadership/Business Management my skill set definitely differs from yours in several ways. However I am trying use this training to benefit the overall cause in any way I can right now and though we might disagree in methods at times I respect what you have to say a great deal.
        I look forward to seeing the data as it is generated and hopefully people like us and others that have been participating in these discussions can disseminate the findings to a larger audience than what is currently concerned with these topics. Success in both protecting the reefs and ensuring the future of the marine aquarium hobby will require a radical change from the way that it currently operates on all levels. I see changes that need (not only should) be made in the industry with getting the average hobbyist to take a greater interest in the issues that we are looking at taking a high level of importance.

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