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Finding Nemo . . . In Your Home?

By Kevin Kohen

Clownfish Moments after the credits roll and the house lights come up after seeing Pixar's blockbuster "Finding Nemo," your child tugs on your sleeve and asks "Mom, Dad, can I get a Nemo?"

This is the scenario many in the saltwater aquarium hobby have anticipated, remembering how Disney's 1996 release of "101 Dalmatians" ultimately led to a surge in Dalmatian sales - and sadly, months later, a spike in the Dalmatian population at humane societies nationwide.

Entranced by the animated undersea story and influenced by their child's nagging, many parents will give into emotion, head down to the corner pet shop, and at least look into getting the family a clownfish or two. And sure enough, many retailers are already offering sales to capitalize on the popularity of this cute and adventurous story. Don't be fooled by this enchanting cartoon; the proper care of marine life in the home requires time, effort, and a financial investment . . . but it is not without its rewards.

Hopefully, for many, this new fascination with clownfish will become a rewarding and educational lifelong hobby. But many already established in the hobby anticipate that after no more than a month and a fish funeral later, many of those slightly used aquarium setups will wind up for sale on internet auctions.

Turning a child's impulsive enthusiasm into a lasting hobby requires a realistic understanding of what keeping a clownfish in a marine aquarium setup really involves. Before deciding whether you should find Nemo in your own home, we urge potential new aquarists to understand the requirements of the species as well as the proper care and maintenance of keeping a thriving aquarium.

Responsibility, Cost, & Maintenance
Along with owning an aquarium comes an ethical responsibility to care for a living creature, one that is susceptible to health problems or stress unless you are diligent, attentive and compassionate in the way you treat its environment - just like any other pet. Saltwater aquarium keeping is not a passive hobby between viewer and fish. It is an interaction between caretaker and precious marine life in a carefully established microcosm of an ocean reef.

For first-timers especially, setting up and maintaining a saltwater aquarium with the proper equipment to support clownfish is a relatively demanding task. An Ocellaris Clownfish, which Nemo most closely resembles, requires an aquarium of at least 30 gallons, not to mention adequate filtration, pumps, water supplements, reef structure (live rock and sand), and required diets by species. Initial setup costs may range from $300-$500 or more, depending on the equipment and clownfish species you choose.

It's also important to note that aquarium environments take time to "mature" before you should safely add your first fish. This process takes 4-5 weeks, especially if live rock will become part of the setup. Does your child have the patience to watch a virtually empty aquarium for over a month before his or her first clownfish arrives?

Once established with clownfish, your new aquarium will require regular cleaning and maintenance, including: daily feeding and observation, frequent water changes, filter replacement, trace elements, and upkeep of integrated equipment.

Ease of Care, Fun, & Educational Rewards
On the positive side, Clownfish are ideal beginner fish, since they are easy-to-care-for, hardy, and don't require a huge aquarium to survive happily. Because wild clownfish always stay in or near anemones in a reef environment, they require very little space. They readily eat most fresh, frozen, and dried foods. Plus, provided that there are no predators in their tank, they typically have a reasonably lengthy life span.

Keeping clownfish can also add a new element of fun to your family life. If fed on a consistent schedule, clownfish will quickly learn to anticipate feeding time, swim to the top of the aquarium, and "beg" for food. And since clownfish rarely swim long distances, their wobbly swimming style is rather clumsy and humorous . . . hence their common name.

These intelligent, curious fish offer educational rewards, especially for children who are not familiar with fish or aquariums. Because clownfish in a home aquarium are not under the constant threat of predators, they can roam, feed, and reproduce without worry - providing interesting illustrations of fish behavior. Most importantly, aquarium keeping teaches an appreciation for the delicate balance of reef life and advances the ideals of conservation and environmentalism among hobbyists.

Conserving the World's Oceans
Over ten species of clownfish are now being successfully farm-raised by hatcheries like Oceans, Reefs, & Aquariums™ (ORA™), offering aquarists a conservation-minded alternative to net-collected fish. Aquacultured species are also easier to acclimate, feed, and raise in home aquariums while helping preserve ocean reef populations. We encourage any new hobbyist to ask their retailer for tank-raised species when available.

For more information on the responsibilities of aquarium ownership, please visit our Responsible Aquarium Care Section.

Kevin Kohen, a life-long hobbyist/enthusiast and aquarium research pioneer, is the head of Aquatic Services on the Drs. Foster & Smith Veterinary Services Staff and Director of

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