A National Geographic Explorer Seeks Blue Tang

Photo by Shannon Switzer Swanson

When popular movies come out, especially those made by Disney, most people extol the brilliant animation, the clever storylines, the box office blowouts. However, conservationists sometimes ask another question: How will this film affect the environment?

When Finding Nemo and Finding Dory emerged as instant Pixar classics, Shannon Switzer Swanson and her team — recipients of a National Geographic Young Explorer collaboration grant — wondered how the movies would ultimately affect the aquarium fish trade. Was everyone going to want a little Dory in his or her tank? Exactly where did these little Dory fish come from? To find out, Swanson and her colleagues flew to the other side of the world.

To understand the magnitude of how a movie can affect reality, one must consider how big a hit Finding Dory truly was. The fourth-largest animated success in history, Finding Dory made over one billion dollars. Given how many people watched the film, just a small fraction of those who might want a Dory fish of their own could spike demand and put added pressure on this fish in the wild.

Dory is a blue tang, a gorgeously bright fish found in tropical waters. As Swanson explains, 86 percent of saltwater aquarium fish are harvested in Southeast Asia, and blue tang were already so overfished it was difficult to find them. “Our work proved to be quite challenging,” Swanson writes, “We spent two fruitless weeks searching for the blue tang in Bali, the main export hub in Indonesia, but did not witness a single blue tang being harvested. Their population was more depleted than we anticipated.”

In hopes of seeing a blue tang, Swanson had to journey to Central Sulawesi, where she went on a fish harvesting expedition off Toropot Island. Divers will go to depths of over 100 feet in search of aquarium fish — the price of which will eventually feed their families. Equipment malfunctions make such trips dangerous, and Swanson adds that “several harvesters said they did not want their sons entering the trade because of how risky it can be.”

Finally, Swanson and the divers found what they were looking for: blue tang. Swanson writes, “I watched as he surrounded the coral bommie that contained the fish, but this little one had wedged itself into a tight crevice. After several minutes prodding with a coral fragment, Rasdin [a diver] grabbed a metal poker from the boat and shoved it into the bommie. The little blue tang shot out of its hiding place and launched itself into the barrier net. Rasdin gently grabbed the small fish, earning another dollar for the day.”

The journey to pet stores will be long, and this one fish could eventually be sold for $60. When purchasing fish – and pets in general – consumers should be mindful of where they came from to make sure that their purchases aren’t negatively impacting the species in the wild.

Thinking about buying your own Dory? You may want to reconsider. Only recently have researchers been able to breed them in captivity, and most are still harvested. If you really want a Finding Dory species, try a clownfish, as they can reproduce in captivity and thus do not need to be taken from the wild.

Read Swanson’s full article here on VoicesforBiodiversity.org, including a video of her diving expedition.

Changing Planet

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An online magazine connecting humans with the natural world to help all species survive and thrive together. Voices for Biodiversity shares the stories of eco-reporters from around the world, using the ancient human art of storytelling to connect people with each other, other species, and the natural world. Our goal is to connect the human animal with the global ecosystem.