When the sequel to the popular “Finding Nemo” movie came out this summer, conservation biologists worried that the same thing that happened to wild fish populations could happen all over again — demand for the clownfish species to adorn fish tanks would go up. That demand for fish from the wild would lead to more pressure on fragile reef ecosystems from where the ornamental fish are taken.

But this time around, the fish had the Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center (AREC) on their side. There, clownfish are being bred in an aquaculture environment that helps keep native fish in their natural habitat while creating an economic boon for the aquaculture industry.

“One of the reasons this project is going so well is that it is good for both the environment and for local seafood producers,” said Mike Schwarz, a Virginia Cooperative Extension aquaculture research specialist. “The demand is rapidly increasing for ornamental fish, but we have to meet this demand in a sustainable way.”

Schwarz and other researchers at the center have been working with aquaculture sector stakeholders from Virginia to California to help them figure out the best ways to raise and breed ornamental fish.

“At the AREC, we are developing a wealth of knowledge that producers can use to capitalize on this trend in ornamental fish,” Schwarz said.

Beyond the cute clownfish, faculty and staff members at the center are trying to predict the next big demand for ornamental fish. Next to the tanks filled with clownfish are tanks filled with other blue, green, and purple fish, as well as seahorses bobbing up and down.

Who knows, maybe the next blockbuster will be "Seabiscuit the Seahorse." If it is, Schwarz will be ready.

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