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Scientists Find Nemo, and Friends, Are Threatened

The Global Marine Species Assessment (GMSA) project headquartered at Old Dominion University is part of a research consortium that is using the 2003 Disney/Pixar animated movie "Finding Nemo" to publicize the researchers' latest findings about extinction threats for fish, turtles, sharks and other sea creatures.

"If conservation action is not taken, there may come a time when no one will be able to find Nemo," says a media release that was being distributed worldwide on Tuesday, Dec. 13. "One in every six species related to characters in the movie 'Finding Nemo' is threatened by extinction."

The release is based on a new study by IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and Simon Fraser University that is derived in part from GMSA research done over recent years. Kent Carpenter, the ODU professor of biological studies who heads the GMSA, is an author of the study.

Researchers analyzed the extinction risk and reviewed successful conservation programs for Nemo, the charismatic clownfish, as well as more than 1,500 other species related to characters in the movie. The study revealed that widely distributed animals like turtles and sharks are at most risk, and hunting and fishing poses the greatest threat to species' survival.

"Putting Nemo in office aquariums, making soup out of Anchor the shark's fins and selling Sheldon the seahorse as curios has taken a toll," says Loren McClenachan, the study's lead author and a National Science Foundation International Postdoctoral Fellow at Simon Fraser, which is in British Columbia, Canada. "Our research highlights how very little we know about many of these animals. It's unthinkable that the characters in 'Finding Nemo' could become extinct, but this is the reality unless we pay more attention to the diversity of marine life."

All species of marine turtles (such as Squirt and Crush from "Finding Nemo") and more than half of all hammerhead sharks (Anchor), mackerel sharks (Bruce and Chum) and eagle rays (Mr. Ray) are threatened. Seahorses (Sheldon) are the most threatened group of bony fish in "Finding Nemo," with two in five species at risk of extinction. Despite a demonstrated need for conservation action, regulation of trade in endangered marine species is severely deficient for those with high economic value, like sharks, the scientists say.

While the research shows a stark shortfall in ocean management and marine conservation, there is still hope, according to Carpenter, whose GMSA is the marine biodiversity unit for IUCN. For example, protecting turtles against entanglement in commercial fishing gear and from hunting has helped reverse trends in some locations. "We have the tools to save marine species, particularly through international treaties," he says. "Implementation of coordinated international conservation initiatives is necessary as charisma alone is not enough to ensure a species' survival."

An article reporting results of the study was published online Thursday by Conservation Letters (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1111/(ISSN)1755-263X/earlyview).

"This paper is the result of six years of steady work on the IUCN GMSA that I manage here at ODU. We plan to complete Red List Assessments of 20,000 species and at present, we are a little over half way there," Carpenter says. "One of our collaborators on the GMSA, Nick Dulvy at Simon Fraser, recognized that we had covered most of the taxa represented in the film 'Finding Nemo.' He then suggested to his postdoctoral associate, McClenachan, that she extract and analyze all the taxa related to the film from the online Red List of Threatened Species where the GMSA publishes its assessments.

"I was asked to join the authorship because they recognize that much of the data were generated through my lab at ODU. We made the assumption that people cared about these species and that they are now considered charismatic. Our paper draws attention to the conservation status of the iconic species portrayed in 'Finding Nemo' and demonstrates two things: despite their popularity we are overexploiting many of them for food and we lack the will to enact adequate protection even though we know they are threatened."

Adds Dulvy, co-chair of the IUCN Shark Specialist Group and associate professor of biology at Simon Fraser, "Our study found that threatened sharks and rays lacked needed protection against international trade, compared to all other groups. Fewer than one in 10 species of threatened sharks and rays considered in the study were protected by the CITES (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species). For sharks and rays this is particularly concerning, as these species are highly vulnerable to overexploitation."

This article was posted on: January 3, 2012

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