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'Nemo' May Hook Public on Plight of Marine Life

The pet fish trade, already accused of inhumane treatment, fears the movie could worsen its image.

May 25, 2003|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

In "Finding Nemo," a tropical fish named Gil, grizzled and scarred from his many attempts to escape an aquarium in the lobby of a dentist's office, tells a newcomer to the tank: "Fish aren't meant to be in a box, kid. It does things to ya."

The line drew laughs from the audience at an advance screening of the latest computer-animated offering from Walt Disney Co. and Pixar Inc., which opens Friday. But it's eliciting grimaces from people in the international trade of live ocean fish, coral and other marine life, a $200-million industry.

Pet fish importers -- whose international hub is in Southern California -- worry that the story of the plucky orange-and-white-striped clownfish, kidnapped from his home in the Great Barrier Reef, will create a backlash against an industry already laboring under the perception that it damages fish habitats, particularly coral reefs.

"There is a political message," said Burton Patrick, chief operating officer of six Pet Supplies Plus stores in the Pittsburgh area and a former operations manager for the Detroit Zoo. Disney "wants kids to feel sorry for something that might or might not have a concept of mortality."

Eric Cohen, co-owner of Sea Dwelling Creatures Inc., a Los Angeles distributor of wild-caught marine fish and coral, wonders whether moviegoers will "walk out and say that fish should not be separated from their friends in the ocean."

There's no doubt that the creators of "Finding Nemo" want children to become emotionally attached to the quirky fish characters, said Andrew Stanton, a Pixar veteran who wrote and directed the film. That's what moviemaking is about.

And Stanton doesn't mind if viewers leave theaters thinking about the environment as well.

"The random hobbyist doesn't think that taking one fish out of the ocean will matter," said Stanton, who got the idea for the story from the "funky fish tank in my dentist's office when I was a kid."

"I always assumed these animals were caged and wanted to go home," he said.

The perceived mental state of aquarium-bound fish aside, Adam Summers, a UC Irvine marine biologist and a consultant on "Finding Nemo," said catching sea life "for the pet trade really does have an effect on tropical fish stocks.

"There have been terrible problems in the Philippines and other places where there are pretty-colored fish people want for their aquariums," he said.

Like movies, the trade in marine animals is very much a Southern California industry. The business is dependent on the long supply chain that starts in the coral reefs of the Pacific and Indian oceans and leads to 104th Street near Los Angeles International Airport, a stretch known as Fish Street and regarded as the nucleus of the world's aquarium business.

There, about a dozen firms import live fish, coral, shrimp, crabs and other sea creatures, which arrive by air in foam-lined packing boxes from such places as Fiji, the Philippines and Indonesia. The animals then are resold to pet and fish stores across North America and Europe.

This is a sensitive time for the industry. It has fought off proposals for federal legislation to curtail the numbers and types of sea life that could be imported to the United States, in part by promising to develop a policing program.

At least one nonprofit organization is promoting an independent certification process to help ensure that tropical fish caught in the wild are treated humanely, similar to the dolphin-safe campaign that informs buyers of canned tuna that, presumably, no dolphins were netted in the course of catching tuna.

The Honolulu-based Marine Aquarium Council is in the early stages of a program to award its stamp of approval to businesses within the pet fish supply chain -- from reef to retailer -- that meet its standards. Its goal is to eliminate harmful collection methods, such as the use of poisonous sodium cyanide to stun wild fish, and to reduce the mortality rate of aquarium fish during transport and storage.

The group also is endorsing attempts to farm-raise tropical fish as a way to avoid endangering species and their reef habitats and to keep hobbyists' aquariums filled with eye-catching specimens. The best success story to come from the captive breeding of tropical fish involves the clownfish, the same species from which the star of "Finding Nemo" hails.

The council hopes the movie will help spotlight its efforts to clean up the industry and "alert new potential hobbyists about the good and the bad ways that tropical fish are harvested."

The organization already has used the film as a marketing opportunity: With the help of Cohen of Sea Dwelling, one of the largest marine fish distributors, it set up an aquarium of clownfish and other marine animals at the "Finding Nemo" premiere party last Sunday.

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