A Chat with Pixar’s Fish Expert

TFK talks to Adam Summers, the scientific advisor on the film Finding Nemo

Apr 20, 2012 | By Kelli Plasket
PIXAR ANIMATION STUDIOS/AP

The April 20, 2012, Earth Day issue of TIME FOR KIDS, takes a look at a new report from the science journal Conservation Letters. Researchers identified several main characters from Pixar’s 2004 animated film Finding Nemo and looked at how their real-life counterparts are doing. They found that some species related to those in the film—especially sea turtle and shark species—are at risk, and few have conservation protection from overfishing.

The report’s authors—a team of researchers from Simon Fraser University, Canada, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature—chose to use Finding Nemo because the movie packs in biodiversity, science and a strong conservation message. TFK talked to the man behind the movie’s marine science, biologist Adam Summers. Credited by Pixar as the “Fabulous Fish Guy,” Summers was the sea-life expert for the film. Now, he’s an associate director at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratories. Here’s what Summers had to say about his contributions to the movie, and what he thinks about the impact of the hit film.

TFK:

What role did you play behind-the-scenes on Finding Nemo?

SUMMERS:

I was the scientific advisor on the movie. I gave [Pixar filmmakers] basically a graduate-level course in ichthyology [the study of fish]. I took them on a bunch of field trips, and I also arranged for guest lecturers. We had members of National Academy coming in and talking about how seaweeds move. It was an exercise in trying to find the best people to get information to this incredibly information-hungry crowd of filmmakers. It was just an enthusiastic group. It was great fun.

TFK:

Of course, we know fish don’t talk like they do in Finding Nemo. How much of the biology in the movie is true to life?

SUMMERS:

Right after the movie came out, I went to Brazil for a meeting of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists—about a thousand fish geeks were there. All they do is study fish, and every one I talked to was overjoyed by the science in the movie. And all of them at one time or another said, “But you made one mistake.” And every one of them had a different mistake. So far, no one has come up with a mistake that wasn’t intentional [from the filmmakers]. So there are some lies that you have to tell, and that’s where the whole “fish don’t talk” thing comes from. This movie tied into every tiny bit of knowledge that every kid has and also completely satisfied adults with whatever knowledge they had picked up about fish in their lives.

TFK:

A lot of the challenges the fish face in the movie—being chased by predators, scooped up by fishermen—are they real-life challenges?

SUMMERS:

Those are absolutely real-life challenges. But there are times when the exact nature of the challenge is a lie, [for example, the design of the movie’s] fishing nets. The Pixar folks were very happy to let biological fact inform the story and push it in a particular direction, which I thought was fabulous.

TFK:

While you were working on it, did you ever imagine the movie would become this huge?

SUMMERS:

I have to admit that when I started on the project, I had never seen an animated movie. I didn’t have a TV as a kid. So when I saw the first little animated reels [from Finding Nemo], I was blown away. I thought it was going to be the biggest movie of all time. It’s really neat how much great story they fit in and how much it managed to still be incredibly biologically relevant. There wasn’t a bit of preachiness, and yet they still managed to make people want to preserve the environment.

TFK:

You read the report from Conservation Letters about Finding Nemo. Have you observed any effects on marine life in the science community or the public since Finding Nemo was released?

SUMMERS:

The clearest thing I’ve noticed is that virtually every aquarium has a Nemo and Dory exhibit. I think that’s in part because both are now bred in captivity. So because of the movie and the increased interest in the fish, the captive-breeding interest for those particular fish took off. They are visually arresting fish and now people have an environmentally sound way of having them in their home [or local] aquarium.

TFK:

One of the few unintended effects of the movie was that sales of clown fish did increase. Does captive breeding take the pressure off the fish living in the ocean?

SUMMERS:

I don’t know this, but I would be shocked if there were still Nemo-type clown fish being caught in the wild because it’s cheaper to breed them in captivity and it’s totally possible, so why would they be worth bringing ashore? The truth is that the method used to fish for tropical reef fish is absolutely horrible. I don’t know the exact number, but there are many dead fish for every fish [caught alive in the wild]. The business of taking tropical fish from the wild and putting them in people’s fish tanks in their houses—when it’s not captive-bred—is horrible for the environment.

TFK:

The report also mentions how showing predators like sharks in a more positive light in popular culture, like Bruce and Anchor are in Finding Nemo, can help. As someone who works a lot with sharks, do you think that has helped change public perception?

SUMMERS:

That’s an interesting point. It seems to me that [kids now] are far more interested in sharks than they are scared of sharks, and I wonder if that doesn’t reflect a beginning of change in how kids are seeing sharks. Someone like me can dive with somewhere around 10,000 sharks and never have a hostile encounter with them. They are not the beasts that are portrayed, but they are not vegetarians either. It’s really neat that a movie can start to shift society’s perceptions of an animal. I think the paper called it the “rebranding of sharks.”

TFK:

You study the biomechanics of sharks. How much have you seen overfishing affect their extinction risk?

SUMMERS:

Well, my study animals just disappeared. I worked on grey reef sharks at Johnston Atoll [in the Pacific Ocean], and a Taiwanese fishing boat just came by and caught them all. In my professional career, shark-fishing camps have disappeared. I can’t get specimen of most of the species I wrote most of my early papers on because those camps in Mexico are gone, because there are no more sharks to catch. There are sustainable fisheries now for very few apex predators. [Apex predators are animals that as adults have no natural predators.]