Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

074: Poor Nemo

I find the human species a very difficult one to comprehend, despite the fact that most biologists and humans at large still assign me to that species (the rest call me a lower primate... or worse). I have lived among and interacted with them for my entire life and still they often make little sense to me. I guess it has something to do with their rather complex minds which are too often ruled by emotion (unlike the cold objectivity with which we scientists view the world... right?).

When I'm underwater, I understand most of the other species fairly well. Humans in the form of SCUBA divers and snorkelers remain the exception, but the waters are less crowded with them now that summer is "over." For example, a great white shark might attack me because I'm diving in murky water and look like a clumsy (read: injured) sea lion in my wetsuit. Even I don't have enough fat to make a bite worthwhile, but if it does chomp down on me, it undoubtedly thought I was an easy meal. Makes sense. If a moray eel bites me on my finger when I'm holding squid in front of it, I understand because their eyesight is even worse than my own.

This summer many of us sat in the Casino's Avalon Theatre and saw an entertaining movie called "Finding Nemo." Although it did not depict divers in a positive light and displayed some poor technical diving "skills," I thought it had a good message for "our" species. The collection of fish and other species from marine habitats to place in personal aquaria is not a good way to preserve "family values" in these marine critters. I certainly hope none of us humans end up in a personal terrarium maintained by visitors from the planet Xanadu. Neither example of alien abduction seems desirable from my perspective, and I thought the message about Nemo and his finny friends came through loud and clear.

Now applying the logic typical of a scientist, I assumed that sales of salt water aquarium fish like the clownfish (Nemo's family group) would decline as the film's message infiltrated our thick human skulls. Imagine my surprise when I read early reports that clownfish sales had increased after the release of the movie. In fact sales went up 400% as the movie's gross receipts rose to record levels for an animated feature film. Excuse me... was anyone paying attention? I was astounded at this reaction in contradiction to the message.

Now clownfish sold in pet stores are almost always bred in captivity so the initial impact on those living naturally on the coral reefs was minimal. However, as I suggested to those who cited this, increased demand for clownfish would probably require additional collection of breeding stock from the reef to meet the demand. Most families I know are barely able to keep the goldfish alive that they win at their hometown's annual carnival. My experience is they receive a respectable funeral as they are flushed down the toilet. How many humans are truly equipped to keep a tropical salt water fish properly. I know I'm not.

Of course clownfish are not found in our cool temperate kelp forests. But we have had similar situations in our island waters. In the early 1990's the blue-banded goby, sometimes referred to as the Catalina goby, was being collected off Catalina to meet demand for salt water aquariums. These small fish were literally being vacuumed from the rocky reefs (along with many other species... a form of "bycatch") by aquarium trade collectors. Fortunately the Catalina Conservancy Divers got legislation passed that put a moratorium on such collection until scientific studies could be conducted to determine the impacts.

Several years ago I was asked to review the collecting permit submitted by a major new public aquarium. My report stated my opinion that the numbers to be taken were far too few to sustain the aquarium's exhibits during its three year collecting timeframe. Many more fish would be required to allow for mortality that occurs naturally and in artificial systems like aquaria. Fortunately that same aquarium is now administered by a scientist instead of a marketing type, and the marketing folks are doing what they should be doing... selling the aquarium to the public.

Again the human mind remains a mystery to me. How people could watch "Nemo" and go out and buy clownfish to bring home made absolutely no sense. Yet, they did. I learned while a young teacher on the island that students will try to do what is forbidden... a trend set by Adam and Eve themselves. I still don't understand "our" species like I do those underwater. Even the Xanadusians only keep humans in terrariums so they can fatten us up and eat us. I can understand that, too. After all, food and sex (er, reproduction) are the two primary motivators in all species, even those with twelve legs, one eye and two mouths each with billions of teeth.

© 2003 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays.

Catalina's own "Nemo," the tiny blue-banded or Catalina goby; last image
shows one hiding under the sharp spines of a Coronado sea urchin

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material © 2003 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia