The new documentary Seaspiracy – a witty contraction of sea and conspiracy – was released March 24 on Netflix and tells the story of the destructive impact of commercial fishing on the oceans. It is the successor of Cowspiracy, that brought to light the destructive impact of livestock farming on the environment and how environmental organizations deal with that information. Seaspiracy has been a major success already, even though its makers shared on Instragram that they had expected that it “would just live somewhere in the dark corners of the Netflix universe only to be found by the most passionate ocean warriors and environmentalists!” Nothing could be further from the truth: Seaspiracy reached Netflix’ Top Ten in over 30 countries. But there is also a lot of criticism from for example scientists and NGOs. To what extent is Seaspiracy truthful and what is the meaning of this fierce criticism?
In the documentary we follow Filmmaker Ali Tabrizi, whose romantic childhood image of the oceans gets completely destroyed as he discovers the impact of massive commercialized fishing on marine ecosystems and biodiversity. The film centres around a few major topics, which are plastic debris (mostly fisher nets), overfishing, dolphin and whale hunting and the disbelief of accredited institutions and agencies such as the Marine Stewardship Council and the Earth Island Institute. Its main message? Sustainable fishing is impossible.
It is thus no wonder that Seaspiracy provided some food for thought. Many on Twitter promised to change their lifestyle and eating habits after seeing it, including famous cyclist Chris Froom and reality star Kourtney Kardashian who shared an Instagram story with millions of followers. However, there was also a different voice quickly: Isn’t Seaspiracy too eager to convey an activist message at the expense of statistics and rebuttal? Or is this critique just a frenetic attempt by the fishing industry to save its image? Let’s dive deeper into the criticism received.
Christina Hicks, an environmental social scientist at Lancaster University, was not exactly pleased when she saw herself again in the much-discussed film. She wrote on Twitter:
“Unnerving to discover your cameo in a film slamming an industry you love & have committed your career to. (…) Yes there are issues but also progress & fish remain critical to food & nutrition security in many vulnerable geographies.”
She didn’t wish to further elaborate, but she does make a valid point: research has shown that in order to combat malnutrition and hunger around the world, the consumption of nutrient dense foods needs to increase in low- and middle-income countries. Animal-based food is known to contain many micronutrients, such as vitamin B-12, proteins, calcium, iron and zinc and fish is the dominant animal source food in these vulnerable countries. A ban on fishing would pose a great risk to their food security and increase global inequalities as richer countries have the means to afford the production and consumption of substitutes.
Another disappointed party is the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP), part of the Earth Island Institute, which is responsible for adhering to the Dolphin Safe Label. The label should guarantee dolphin-free tuna fishing but was labelled false by the creators of the documentary. Mark Palmer, executive at the IMMP, accuses Seaspiracy of taking his comments out of context: because he could not promise that no dolphin was ever killed in any tuna fishery, the label was dismissed by them as meaningless, even though, according to David Phillips, director of the IMMP, the label has reduced Dolphin-kill levels by more than 95%. So, how do they prevent dolphins getting killed in tuna hunting? According to their website, it means that during the entire fishing trip, there is no deliberate encircling of dolphin pods and the chances of dolphins getting killed accidentally are very small. They also guarantee government observers on all tuna vessels to monitor fishing behaviour. Regardless, there are still 80,000 cetaceans that get killed as by-catch in the Indian Ocean only, every year. And then we haven’t discussed the sharp decline in tuna species yet. It is thus fair to say that the creators of Seaspiracy have hastily drawn conclusions about the Dolphin safe label, which does not appear to be useless, but it remains a fact that tuna fishery still causes (severe) damage to both the tuna and the cetacean population.
Lets’ talk some numbers now. A third point of criticism raised is that Seaspiracy uses incorrect data and is interpreting statistics in a wrongful way. For example, a shocking claim that is brought forward is that our oceans will be empty by the year 2048. However, this was an outdated estimation from 2006 by ecologist Boris Worm who later withdrew his claim and instead worked together with several scientists on a paper analyzing how to rebuild fisheries. You may wonder if there are more accurate numbers available about the depletion of our oceans. Our global fish production is estimated to surpass 200 Mt by the year of 2029, which would be a 14% increase relative to base years 2017-2019. Furthermore, according to UNESCO, if nothing changes, over 50% of all marine species will have gone nearly extinct by the year 2100. A study from 2019 estimated that 37% of our oceans need strong protection in order to preserve biodiversity, ensure connectivity and avoid ecosystem collapse. However, only 2% is currently under this type of high protection. All of this indicates a major gap between what is being done and what is deemed necessary.
Recently, however, a study found that we should actually be able to completely revitalize our oceans by 2050. This is hopeful, but it will for sure require a major effort and that brings us to the main question raised: is sustainable fishing really impossible or could there be a balance between flourishing marine life and commercial fishery?
This is an intricate question and the answer will depend on who you ask, but it would be only fair to conclude that in its current form whereby exotic species are available in enormous numbers worldwide will never be or become sustainable. Sustainable fishing will mean a return to old-fashioned local fishing, catching only what is immediately consumed, not using gigantic and destructive fishing nets, and leaving large mammals and deep-water ecosystems alone. In that sense, we can learn a lot from indigenous communities who have developed sophisticated fishing practices while respecting nature and its ecological boundaries. For many, this will be experienced as a step back: de-globalization, degrowth and fewer choices. That is exactly one of the pain points of the documentary and also partly explains why many organizations immediately stand up to undermine it. Let’s make a little comparison to climate change.
People are becoming more aware of the threat of climate change and its impact on our oceans. News articles with depressing headers such as Marine species increasingly can’t live at equator due to global heating or Humpback whales may be struggling to breed as climate crisis depletes food slowly become a habit rather than an exception. However, the tricky thing about climate change is that not everyone feels individually responsible. It is very quickly pointed to the other: there is always another country that emits more or invests less in sustainable energy. In addition, the direct effect of, for example, your one flight on the warming of the oceans may be small so that many people do not experience individual guilt, even though the carbon footprint of all flight hours is over a billion tonnes of CO2.
Why then is Seaspiracy so uncomfortable? Perhaps because it was relatively unknown to some people, so the scale at which destruction takes place may come as a surprise. More importantly however, is the direct link between your individual fish consumption and ocean destruction. The terrifying images in the documentary immediately evoke a feeling of guilt, because you know: every fish you consume is caught in this way and is therefore part of the problem. This documentary is very concrete, and the solution they provide is simple: no longer eat fish as long as current fishery practices are not sustainable.
A few months earlier, the new documentary by David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet had also been released on Netflix. It also clearly shows the destructive effect of the human consumer society on the earth’s ecosystems. Still, I doubt that the film had the same guilt effect on people like Seaspiracy, precisely because of what I wrote above: climate change sometimes feels like a ‘bigger than me’ problem, but your fish consumption is not.
It is therefore unfortunate that the creators have occasionally been in a hurry and omitted certain critical details, but that does not detract from the general message: our current commercial fishery is unsustainable and if we are to continue like this, we will do irreversible damage to our oceans. This message is not new. We have been closing our eyes for it, but it’s time to act on it.