Learning from the clownfish and the sea anemone

I still remember seeing ‘kumanomi’ for the first time on a dive in Japan. It was so beautiful. Kumanomi in my language, or clownfish in English, usually live in warmer waters than the ocean around Tokyo, so I was lucky to spot one that day.

When I started to dive in the Maldives, I was thrilled to see clownfish everywhere, swaying within the sea anemones, with which they have a symbiotic relationship. The clownfish in the Maldives is bright orange with a white stripe behind its eyes and black fins around its belly. I always look for this photogenic fish on my dives, though they love to play hide-and-seek in their sea anemone homes.

The attractive and charming clownfish are a popular pet, kept in aquariums across the world. I noticed them in many fish tanks in the Maldives too, and also being exported. Sadly, the clownfish, like other ornamental fish, are not caught in an environmentally-friendly manner. Extraction techniques of these fish from their underwater coral homes are harming the fish and their natural habitats.

A healthy marine ecosystem is critical to everyday life for these idyllic communities, and the major industries dependent on it: tourism and fisheries. The recent decline in fish catch shows how it can have lasting consequences for these small islands where everything is connected to the sea.

The Maldives is a delicate beauty. When I first came here, the fragility of the country was an abstract concept to me; it must be for many foreigners. Having been based here for the past four years, I have come to realize how easily the Maldives can become like a fish out of water, gasping without its source of life.

I have seen with my own eyes the consequences of environmentally-unfriendly human actions, as well as the grave threat that climate change is having on Maldives’ reefs. From the visibly declining fish populations, coral bleaching on some of my favourite reef spots, and plastic caught on brittle corals — these world-famous turquoise waters may soon no longer be a sight to behold and an experience to relish. These events also affect food supply and income. Damaged reefs can lead to losing the tourism value. Fewer tourists can threaten livelihoods and the economy of the country.

The burden of responsibility does not lie with Maldivians alone. From afar, and even as visitors what we all do may have direct or remote consequences on this tiny island nation. But I have hope.

In my travels around the Maldives, I have met many passionate individuals and groups, who are committed to making a difference. In Naifaru Island in the north of the country, there is an NGO working on many conservation initiatives, including protecting clownfish and their natural homes. It was while chatting with them that I found out about the symbiotic relationships that clownfish have with the ‘flower of the sea’ — the sea anemone inside which they live. The sea anemone gets food and maintenance from the clownfish. The clownfish in return benefits from the sea anemone, whose venomous tentacles protect the clownfish from attacks by other fish. This way, the clownfish and the sea anemone help each other survive in the ocean. I found this relationship of long-term mutual benefit fascinating. It is a relationship that allows the other to not only co-exist, but flourish.

In the same way, the Maldives needs such relationships. While we can make a big impact through our individual actions, stronger partnerships can better protect the country’s reefs and seas, its islands, its biodiversity and its peoples. So that the Maldives’ beauty and abundance survive for generations to enjoy; both locally, and for its many appreciative visitors.

Shoko Noda, is UNDP Resident Representative in the Maldives



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