Almost a decade after the Pixar hit "Finding Nemo" made clownfish seem downright warm and fuzzy, environmentalists are now looking for a real-life sequel: Saving Nemo. The Center for Biological Diversity is petitioning the National Marine Fisheries Service to extend the protections of the Endangered Species Act to the clownfish as well as several other coral reef dwellers.
Does this mean that Nemo has disappeared? Not exactly. In fact, there's no documented loss of clownfish population. For that matter, no one has a real grasp of how many of the orange-and-white striped fish there are or what's been happening to their population. The request is based on the declining health of coral reefs from climate change and related ocean acidification.
If the little fish received protection, it would be swimming in the footsteps of the mighty polar bear, which was declared threatened during the George W. Bush administration even though its numbers had recently increased. The melting of ice floes on which the bears spend much of their lives was reasonably considered a serious threat to their future.
In ways it makes more sense to move to protect a species when its habitat declines rather than its actual population. The backbone of the Endangered Species Act is the protection of critical habitat; without that habitat, there's almost no hope of saving an endangered animal, except perhaps in a zoo. But in the case of polar bears, scientists were talking about a population in the tens of thousands. (There has since been controversy about whether the expected decline of polar bears has taken place; some scientists claim they are thriving despite the lack of ice.) In the case of the clownfish, there are no numbers.