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Stardom has been a mixed blessing for clownfish themselves. For years it has cost much less to catch and ship wild-caught clownfish than to raise the fish in captivity. Breeding them in tanks presents certain challenges—getting the larvae to feed, for one—and it takes at least eight months to grow them to marketable size.

But the economics of wild clownfish have been changing: Rising fuel costs have made shipping them more expensive, and populations have been declining. Overharvesting and invasive collection methods, such as the use of cyanide to stun and capture fish, are destroying reefs and their inhabitants. In the Philippines and Indonesia, for instance, clownfish have been severely depleted. Loss of clownfish leaves anemones exposed and vulnerable to predation. When reefs go bad, one of the first things to disappear is anemones—and their clownfish. "They're a really good indicator group," Allen says.

Besides spurring demand for clownfish, Finding Nemo helped fuel the explosion of websites and chat rooms devoted to raising reef fish in captivity. ORA breeds 13 clownfish species, as well as designer exotics such as the Picasso clown. Rado says he sells some 300,000 clownfish a year—"that's several hundred thousand that won't be taken from the wild."

Despite the reef degradation Allen has witnessed during his 40-year career, he says that in some areas "there's incredible hope. Many reefs are almost pristine and very healthy." His focus now, as a consultant for Conservation International, is "to identify these areas and help with their preservation before it's too late."

Although the movie may have harmed native populations, Stanton's colorful little character also created a new group of nature lovers, eager to preserve clownfish and their reef homes. "I hope it increased awareness," Stanton says. "I know it's precarious out there." 

James Prosek’s book about eels will be published in September by HarperCollins. David Doubilet has photographed sea life in 55 Geographic articles.
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