Do movies like “Finding Nemo” and “Finding Dory” ultimately help or hurt the marine environment? The answer’s not black and white.

The Finding Nemo and Finding Dory films offered memorable moments, such as the endearing line, “just keep swimming.”

The movies, although animated, also introduced many viewers to a few of the numerous species that inhabit the ocean. The films also included messages about environmental conservation and the importance of healthy reef systems. Unfortunately, it also became fashionable to own a “Nemo” or a “Dory” of your own. The films focus on the tragedy of losing a family member after they are taken from their home. Ironically, however, the demand for clownfish and blue tang grew after the films’ release among both aquariums and home aquarists. Does Hollywood’s fictionalized portrayal of the marine environment ultimately help or hurt the ocean? There are arguments on both sides. 

Hollywood Hurts

A 2016 National Geographic magazine study estimated that since the release of “Finding Nemo” in 2003, demand for clownfish in aquariums has tripled. In places such as Indonesia, home to 17 percent of the world’s coral reefs, clownfish populations have been decimated. Imports to the U.S. alone are responsible for 400,000 of the one million fish that are captured worldwide each year.

While some scientists consider some harvesting techniques sustainable, many companies and individuals capture fish indiscriminately, which results in high mortality rates. Unprofessional and uneducated techniques include cyanide poisoning and quick ascent extraction, which can rupture the fish’s swim bladder. These techniques are often fatal for the fish and also deadly for the entire reefs. Cyanide spreads over large swaths of reef, killing a variety of coral and marine species. Furthermore, with long and often brutal transportation to home aquariums, statistics show a 90 percent mortality rate in some parts of the world before the fish even arrive.

Pets become invasive species

Some home aquarists have released their pet fish into waterways. In Lake Tahoe, for example, recent estimates determine that 50 percent of the fish populations are non-native species, such as giant goldfish. Either the non-native fish will fail to adapt to the new conditions and die or become invasive species, like the goldfish, released from home aquariums.

Effects of Finding Dory

After “Finding Dory” came out, scientists urged the public not to create demand for regal blue tang. Aquarists can breed clownfish in captivity. Although collectors capture one million from the wild each year, captive breeding can keep the species in relative equilibrium. Aquarists cannot, however, breed regal tang in captivity. Therefore, the likelihood of severe species depletion or even extinction in the wild is far more real. 

At a time when there is a lot of media attention on the cruelty of animal trafficking, there seems to be relatively little paid to the trade of ornamental fish. Fortunately, despite a decline in clownfish numbers from reefs worldwide, some positive developments have emerged. Groups of science educators such as the Saving Nemo Conservation Fund are discovering new and sustainable ways to prevent clownfish extinction. Nursery breeding efforts aim to stop the collection of wild fish, and education projects enable people to learn how to protect, breed and care for marine ornamental fish.

Hollywood Helps

Despite the negative films’ negative consequences, there are some positives to Pixar’s masterpieces. Unlike other films, such as “Jaws” and recently “The Shallows,” “Finding Nemo” and “Finding Dory” make people want to go into the water, and portray the marine environment in a largely positive light. These films give the fish emotions that we can relate to. The movies have been especially beneficial for the dive industry. In Queensland, Australia in 2014, 300,000 international visitors participated in scuba diving. This interest in the ocean also creates more awareness of marine-conservation issues.

The “Finding” franchise has charmed both younger and older generations. Pixar personified beloved characters, such as Dory and Nemo, by giving them emotions such as anger, happiness and sadness. Audiences relate to the fish, and pay perhaps see them less as meals or pets, but fellow sentient beings. Hopefully viewers will ultimately take to heart the film’s central message, and leave fish in their own environment.

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