Proposed listing of the Percula clownfish (Amphiprion percula) under the U.S. Endangered Species Act: What it means, and what aquarists need to know (Part 1)

by | Sep 24, 2014 | 0 comments


Right now the marine aquarium hobby in the U.S. is in a state of deep concern, if not outright panic. Recently, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced that it would list 20 species of coral as Threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA). These 20 new species join two others which were listed as Threatened in 2006 (Caribbean Elkhorn and Staghorn corals, Acropora palmata and A. cervicornis). This coral listing was in response to a petition by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) to list 83 coral species under the ESA. Of the 22 coral species listed (the two Caribbean Acropora, and the 20 recently listed species) seven occur in the Caribbean and were generally unavailable to marine aquarists prior to the petition. The remaining 15 species are found in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and several of them are common aquarium corals. Listing of these species has caused concern among many aquarists about the future of the hobby, but has also spawned a great deal of misinformation regarding the implications of ESA listing. For clarity, nothing has yet changed regarding the legality of importing, buying, selling, trading, or possessing any of the 15 Pacific and Indian Ocean species. Your Branching Frogspawn (Euphyllia paradivisa) is still perfectly legal in your tank. Likewise, it is still perfectly legal to import and purchase that Acropora lokani you’ve had your heart set on. While these species are now listed as Threatened under the ESA, NMFS has not extended prohibitions on “take” for these species under a “4-d rule”. It is possible that protections could be given to these species in the future, which might make it difficult or impossible to keep them in aquariums, though this has not yet occurred.

Last year NMFS requested testimony from scientists and citizens alike about the proposed listing of the petitioned coral species. In particular, NMFS sought scientific information (both published and unpublished) which would help them to better assess the vulnerability of the petitioned species. Other information, such as impacts to stakeholders (fisherman, boaters, divers, aquarists, farmers, construction workers, etc.) and implementation of protections were also considered, but the primary question NMFS was tasked with answering was: based on the best available science, what is the risk that the petitioned species will become Endangered or go extinct in the foreseeable future? A reasonably high risk of extinction in the foreseeable future warrants an Endangered listing under the ESA, whereas a reasonably high risk of becoming Endangered warrants a Threatened listing. I was one of thousands of individuals who submitted testimony regarding the proposed coral listing. While I do not fully agree with NMFS’s ultimate decisions regarding the listing of each of the coral species, it is clear to me that NMFS was extremely responsive to the information they received as testimony. Instead of their original proposal to list 66 coral species under the ESA (only a subset of the 83 species petitioned by the CBD), with several of them proposed to receive an Endangered listing, after review of the submitted testimony they ultimately listed only 22 species, and none of them as Endangered. The response from the marine aquarium hobby to the proposed coral listing was, overall, relatively tepid. Some aquarists or those involved in the marine ornamental trade did submit testimony regarding the coral listing, but the overall response from the marine aquarist community was small. My impression is that the proposed listing simply was not taken very seriously by many aquarists. Now that these species have been listed, however, many aquarists are deeply concerned about the listing of marine ornamental organisms under the ESA, and the potentially serious consequences such listing could have for the marine aquarium trade.

Photo courtesy ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Creative Commons)

This brings us to the proposed listing of the Percula clownfish (Amphiprion percula) under the ESA. Percula clownfish are one of the most popular, most commonly bred fish species in the marine aquarium hobby today. NMFS is currently seeking testimony to determine whether the species should be listed under the ESA. At this stage the possible outcomes of this proposed listing range from rejecting the proposal, which would result in no change whatsoever in the trade of this species, to listing it as Endangered, which would end all trade of this species in the U.S. The ESA only applies in U.S. jurisdiction, however, other governing bodies around the world take note of ESA protections and listing this species as Endangered under the ESA would likely give way to similar protections in many other parts of the world, potentially eliminating this species from the marine aquarium hobby worldwide. Such a possibility has many aquarists understandably concerned. In Part I of this series I will discuss what has already happened regarding the proposed listing of the Percula clownfish under the ESA, what is happening now, and what it means for aquarists. In Part II I will discuss the scientific basis NMFS used to arrive at this proposed listing, as well as the scientific data which I believe show that listing the Percula clownfish under the ESA is not warranted. My hope with this pair of articles is that aquarists better understand what is happening, why it is happening, and what they should consider if they choose to submit testimony to NMFS regarding the proposed listing of A. percula under the ESA.

What happened

Among the benefits from listing a species under the ESA is that Recovery Plan is generated for the listed species. The recovery plan details and weighs the relative threats facing a species and serves as a management roadmap needed to achieve recovery. In addition, the ESA can provide a species and/or its critical habitat with certain legal protections, which are needed for recovery. Many species have been brought back from the brink of extinction due to the recovery plans and protections they were afforded under the ESA. In contrast, ESA protection has failed to promote recovery for some species, but in most of these cases a lack of recovery has likely been the result of enacting protections too late, when the species or its habitat were already so decimated that recovery was extremely unlikely. Regardless, the ESA has been an effective conservation tool for many species, and is one of the U.S. conservation laws with real teeth and legal ramifications.

On September 14, 2012 the CBD submitted a petition to NMFS to list eight species of coral reef-associated fish under the ESA. These eight species were the: Yellowtail damselfish (Microspathadon chrysurus), Hawaiian dascyllus (Dascyllus albisella), Blue-eyed damselsfish (Plectroglyphidon johnstonianus), Black-axil chromis (Chromis atripectoralis), Blue-green chromis (Chromis viridis), Reticulated damselfish (Dascyllus reticulatus), Blackbar Devil damselfish (Plectroglyphidon dickii), and the Percula clownfish (Amphiprion percula). These species occur in the Indo-Pacific region, with the exception of the Yellowtail damselfish, which occurs in the Caribbean. After receiving a petition to list species under the ESA, NMFS must complete an internal scientific review of the petition and all pertinent scientific data available to NMFS to determine if listing any of the petitioned species might be warranted. The seven Pacific species were reviewed by the Pacific Islands Regional Office of NMFS, whereas the Caribbean species will be reviewed in a separate finding by the Southeast Regional Office. After review of the seven Pacific species, NMFS concluded that the original petition and their internal review failed to provide “substantial information” indicating that the six Pacific damselfish warrant listing under the ESA. Among the most important criteria which contributed to NMFS’s finding was that these species largely occur over broad geographic areas and across natural climatic gradients, lessening the risk of extinction for these species. A great number of other factors also contributed to this finding. For these six species, the process stops here and results in no change to their legal status. In contrast, for the Percula clownfish NMFS issued a “positive 90-day finding” on August 28, 2014 (and printed in the Federal Register on September 3, 2014), which indicates that that the petition and internal review generated substantial information that listing A. percula under the ESA could be warranted. It is important to understand that this 90-day finding is a very low bar and essentially shows that, based on the information available to NMFS, a reasonable person would conclude that this case needs to be examined more carefully and it is possible (but not certain) that A. percula should be listed under the ESA. See the detailed 90-day finding issued by NMFS here.


What is happening now


NMFS is requesting additional information in the form of written testimony regarding the proposed listing of A. percula under the ESA from all interested parties. They will consider the information they receive in their decision making process and ultimately use it alongside their internal review to determine whether or not A. percula warrants listing under the ESA, based on the best available science. Specifically, NMFS describes the information they are seeking as follows:

Information Solicited

To ensure that the status review is comprehensive, we are soliciting scientific and commercial information pertaining to A. percula from any interested party. Specifically, we are soliciting information, including unpublished information, in the following areas: (1) Historical and current distribution and abundance of A. percula throughout its range; (2) historical and current population trends for A. percula; (3) life history and habitat requirements of A. percula; (4) genetics and population structure information (including morphology, ecology, behavior, etc) for populations of A. percula; (5) past, current, and future threats to A. percula, including any current or planned activities that may adversely impact the species; (6) ongoing or planned efforts to protect and restore A. percula and its habitat; and (7) management, regulatory, and enforcement information pertaining to A. percula. We request that all information be accompanied by: (1) Supporting documentation such as maps, bibliographic references, or reprints of pertinent publications; and (2) the submitter’s name, address, and any association, institution, or business that the person represents.

Aquarists may feel inclined to submit testimony regarding the proposal to list A. percula under the ESA. All testimony regarding the proposed listing must be received by November 3, 2014 to be considered by NMFS. Testimony submitted to NMFS is part of the public record and will be posted for public viewing on, including all personal information (name, address, business, etc.) submitted to NMFS. Testimony can be submitted anonymously, but this will prevent NMFS from contacting you if they encounter difficulty in retrieving your testimony. Testimony can be submitted electronically or through the mail as follows:

ADDRESSES: You may submit comments, information, or data on this document, identified by the code NOAA–NMFS– 2014–0072, by any of the following methods:

• Electronic Submissions: Submit all electronic comments via the Federal eRulemaking Portal. Go to!docketDetail;D=NOAA-NMFS-2014-0072, click the ‘‘Comment Now!’’ icon, complete the required fields, and enter or attach your comments.

• Mail: Submit written comments to Regulatory Branch Chief, Protected Resources Division, Pacific Islands Regional Office, NMFS Protected Resources Division, 1845 Wasp Blvd., Building 176, Honolulu, HI 96818.

What happens next

Following the public comment period, NMFS will review the submitted testimony and other data to ultimately determine if A. percula warrants listing under the ESA. Following review there are four possible outcomes:

(1) NMFS determines that listing A. percula under the ESA is not warranted and rejects the petition. The process stops here for the species and would result in no change to the current trade in the species. This outcome is possible, but not certain.

(2) NMFS determines that listing is warranted and lists A. percula as Threatened, but does not enact a 4-d rule banning take for the species. This is what has happened with the 15 Pacific coral species which were recently listed under the ESA. This outcome would have no immediate effect on the trade in this species, but would involve the development of a recovery plan for the species. This outcome is also possible, but not certain.

(3) NMFS determines that listing is warranted, lists A. percula as Threatened, and enacts a 4-d rule. This outcome would immediately end all commercial trade in the species. Technically it would remain legal to possess A. percula in a home aquarium, but it would become illegal to import, export, buy, sell, or trade in the species. This outcome is possible, but probably less likely than the two above.

(4) NMFS determines that listing is warranted and lists A. percula as Endangered. This outcome would immediately end all trade in the species (commercial and otherwise) and the only A. percula which could legally be kept by marine aquarists would be fish they already own, which would be grandfathered in at the time of the new policy. Actually implementing the step of grandfathering in fish in home aquariums would be challenging, however, and would likely require some form of permitting. This outcome is possible, but I believe it is very unlikely.


Why this is happening

In their petition to NMFS, the CBD argued that four of the five causal threat factors listed in the ESA are endangering the continued existence of the petitioned species. These four threat factors are:

(A) The present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range.

(B) Overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes.

(D) Inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms.

(E) Other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence.

Of these four cited threat factors, (B) most directly applies to the marine aquarium trade. Data from Rhyne et al. (2012) indicates that more than 400,000 individuals of the A. percula/ocellaris species complex were imported into the U.S. in 2005 (making it the fifth most commonly imported type of marine ornamental fish). Based largely on these data, the CBD argued that the potential for overharvest of A. percula exists. The CBD also argued that the harvest of live corals for the marine aquarium trade could potentially reduce critical habitat for the other damselfish species, which rely on live coral for refuge in nature. I have no doubt that these claims upset many aquarists who would emphatically argue that the impact of the marine aquarium trade on either fish or coral populations is utterly trivial. I will consider the data regarding these claims more carefully in the next article, but suffice to say, we need monitoring data to understand what is actually going on with species which are subject to harvest. In almost all cases, yes, the marine aquarium trade likely has a trivial impact on fish or coral populations. However, the potential for overharvest absolutely does exist, as can be observed in so many fisheries around the world. We need data to assess whether a particular level of harvest is sustainable or not. In fact, the CBD argued in their petition that the existing regulatory mechanisms needed to ensure sustainable harvest of these species are inadequate (threat factor D) precisely because little or no monitoring data exist for many species, including A. percula. On the need for better monitoring data, I could not agree more. Whether this lack of data implies the inadequacy of the current regulatory systems for fishing, or a significant potential for overharvest is another question. I will address this question more directly in the next article.

The primary threat factors to the petitioned species are all related to the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification on their critical habitat (live corals or host anemones)(threat factor A), the direct, negative effects of climate change and ocean acidification on the fish themselves (threat factor E), and the inadequacy of current regulatory system to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases which are causing climate change (carbon dioxide plus other greenhouse gases) and ocean acidification (carbon dioxide)(threat factor D). I will discuss the science related to these questions in the next article, but I fully agree with the CBD’s basic premise here: the primary risk factors facing these species as well as countless other marine species are climate change, ocean acidification, and the relatively slow progress society has made over the last few decades to solve these problems. Having said this, in my professional opinion neither A. percula nor the other petitioned species warrant listing under the ESA for reasons I will discuss next time. Nonetheless, climate change and ocean acidification are very real threats to these species and many others.


Know your enemy

I feel it is important to be very clear: NMFS is not your enemy. They have no interest in taking away your ability to keep Percula clownfish or any other species in aquariums.

On this point I feel it is important to be very clear: NMFS is not your enemy. They have no interest in taking away your ability to keep Percula clownfish or any other species in aquariums. Rather, they are charged with the task of determining whether or not the risks this species faces in nature are sufficient to afford it protection under the ESA. If indeed Percula clownfish (or any other aquarium species, for that matter) is truly at risk of becoming endangered, or of going extinct in the wild, then it should be listed under the ESA. Losing this species from the marine aquarium hobby would be extremely regrettable, but that possibility is of trivial importance when compared to the idea of the species being driven to extinction in the wild. Marine aquarists, if they are both honest and ethical, should support good conservation policy, even where it conflicts with their own interests. Having said this, I do not feel that listing A. percula under the ESA is warranted based on the best available science, as I will discuss next time. If you choose to submit testimony regarding this proposed listing, I strongly encourage you to be well informed and respectful. Combative, uniformed, or overly emotional testimony will undermine your argument. It would be an overstatement to suggest that NMFS doesn’t care how marine aquarists and other stakeholders feel about the proposed listing, but a well-reasoned, scientifically valid argument will carry more weight than an emotionally charged, ill-informed one. NMFS wants to get this listing right, and they are requesting testimony from the public to help ensure that they do get it right.

Likewise, the CBD is not your enemy either. From my interactions with employees of the CBD, though limited in scope, I can confidently say that they are acting in good faith. Many coral reefs have been severely degraded around the world over the last few decades, and if declines continue at current rates or if they accelerate (as many scientific projections suggest they will if human stressors are not reduced), then in a few decades there won’t be much left to protect. I disagree with the CBD here on the science, but I strongly agree with their sentiments that effective action is needed to prevent the global collapse of coral reefs—a sentiment I’m sure almost all aquarists also share.

So, if neither of these organizations qualify as enemies of the marine aquarium hobby, who does? As mentioned above, and as I will detail more explicitly next time, climate change, ocean acidification, and our inability thus far to effectively limit these two global stressors are the major threats to coral reef organisms. The real enemies of the marine aquarium hobby are those special interest groups and politicians who argue that these threats don’t exist, or aren’t caused by humans, or we shouldn’t do anything about them anyway. The enemies of the marine aquarium hobby are those folks who are working to prevent effective policy to limit climate change and ocean acidification. Let me be very clear: if we continue with business-as-usual emissions of greenhouse gases (especially carbon dioxide), then within the next few decades almost all coral reefs will be severely damaged, and most will utterly collapse by the end of the century. If we experience the devastating declines which are likely under business-as-usual, then listing the Percula clownfish and a handful of coral species under the ESA is the least of our worries. Under severe reef declines, I would fully expect that many if not most of our favorite aquarium species would be listed as Endangered. This would be effectively the end of the marine aquarium hobby, and could occur within the lifetimes of many readers here. In order to preserve our hobby and the reefs we love, we must take significant and effective action to reduce climate change, ocean acidification, and a variety of local human impacts on coral reefs. A small contingent of very vocal people in the U.S. and other countries are working hard to roadblock and delay the required climate policy solutions. Know your enemy.



With this article I hope that I was able to help you to understand how the Percula clownfish and seven other reef fish species came to be petitioned for listing under the ESA, the process involved in listing a species, and the implications of listing of listing A. percula for the marine aquarium hobby. Next time I will discuss the scientific data relevant to the proposed listing. In particular, I will discuss the science NMFS considered in making their 90-day finding regarding A. percula and the scientific data which I believe suggest that listing of this species is not warranted. It is my hope, particularly if you choose to submit testimony regarding the proposed listing of A. percula under the ESA, that you will come away from these articles with a better informed position and understanding of the factors surrounding this complex issue.

  • Chris Jury

    I grew up in Michigan, hunting turtles, frogs, and other wonderful, creepy things. In high school I became particularly interested in coral reefs and set up my first reef tank in 2001--a modest 10 gal tank. I soon upgraded that tank and, as they say, the rest is history. I'm currently a Ph.D. candidate in biological oceanography at the University of Hawaii at Manoa where I investigate coral calcification and coral responses to global change.


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