SYDNEY - Clownfish made famous by the Disney film Finding Nemo are to be left alone by fishermen after their Great Barrier Reef habitat was devastated by coral bleaching, a phenomenon associated with global warming.
The fish, which are found in numerous colours but most often are orange with white stripes, depend on anemones - fish-eating animals with poisonous tentacles.
They eat morsels of fish left by the anemones, and are protected by them.
In return, clownfish protect anemones and clean them by eating dead tentacles.
The clownfish are popular with aquariums, particularly since the film.
But in one area of the reef, near Keppel Island in north Queensland, commercial operators have voluntarily agreed not to catch the fish or their host anemones.
Several episodes of coral bleaching have reduced the number of anemones and the fish that depend on them.
That is bad news for the tourism industry, as snorkellers and divers at the Great Barrier Reef hope to see the clownfish underwater.
The agreement was reached between operators and the Barrier Reef authority, as a step towards allowing the reef to regenerate.
Lyle Squire, a commercial fisherman and industry representative, told The Australian newspaper: "We recognise the importance of these fish to the tourism industry.
"People come from all over the world to snorkel the Keppels, so we are happy to exercise our stewardship and stop taking clownfish from those reefs."
Mr Squire, whose family has run aquariums in Cairns for many years, said the voluntary moratorium was a precautionary measure to allow the clownfish's habitat to recover from bleaching.
Coral bleaching is associated with climate change and warmer sea temperatures.
"There is a real worry that they [clownfish] will become less common on the reef, and that will be a tragedy not just for us, but for all users of the reef," he said.
The agreement was welcomed by the Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries.
A spokeswoman described it as "an important step towards effective co-management of this small but economically viable fishery".
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority said the moratorium would help to protect the reef, which is considered to be under serious threat from global warming and coral bleaching.
"Such an initiative is probably a world first in addressing this growing problem," it said.