How Seaspiracy shocked the world and why the critique confirms its need

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.

Estimated annual cetacean by-catch in tuna fishery in the Indian Ocean. Source: Anderson et al. (2020).

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.

World aquaculture and capture fisheries. Source: OECD/FAO (2020)

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.

6 thoughts on “How Seaspiracy shocked the world and why the critique confirms its need

  1. Wow Noor, I really enjoyed your piece! Was very nicely written and provided some nuance to the documentary but still didn’t take away from its distressing images and urgent message.
    In my job we have been talking about the Science and facts of Seaspiracy a lot in the last few days. The release date of the documentary pretty much coincided with our fisheries week on Instagram, so we got a lot of questions and accusations of ‘Greenwashing’ simply because of interviewing an aquaculture ecologist that claimed that certain fishing practices can be sustainable and that certifications are certainly tools that can help us ensure responsible aquaculture.

    While, like you, I agree that this documentary sent out a very important message and started an urgent and extremely necessary conversation, I also think that, just like Cowspiracy, it enforces a sort of ‘binary thinking’ that can end up being harmful. Like the Auclimate article “Reforestation is not the solution to climate change: when good intentions go wrong” shows, most environmental issues require complex, nuanced and radical (yes, I think nuanced and radical can go together!) solutions that go beyond reforesting trees or completely stopping the consumption of seafood. Of course, many of the viewers live in Global North countries where seafood is often unnecessary , but plenty of countries and communities don’t have the choice. An Iñupiaq TikToker called the documentary out for its devilization of the seal hunt, as for her indigenous community and many others the source of sustenance that seals provide is absolutely necessary and its hunt is sustainable. (1)
    Additionally, I had the feeling that certain parts of the documentary enforced Asian racism, as the fishermen of East and Southeast Asia were often painted as the “bad guys”, and the white vegans (like the documentary maker himself) as the heroes.

    So, like you, I think the specificity of the message definitely brought it to viewers the viewers home but, similarly I think that specificity failed to address and distinguish all the different historic ways of fishing that exist aside from commercial high-volume aquaculture.

    1. https://www.vice.com/en/article/akgw84/seaspiracy-criticized-for-anti-inuit-racism-after-targeting-seal-hunt

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  2. Thank you Ines, for taking the time to read and comment! I think you make a very valuable contribution about the binary viewpoint. The way the documentary is set-up, namely following Tabrizi on his ‘shocking trip full of revelations’, does create quite a narrow (western) view (that of him). As a result, little attention is paid to less common, but very valuable knowledge of different (indigenous) communities around the world. And certainly, as you point out, more attention should have been devoted to the needs of people who are not so privileged that they can easily give up fish because then an important part of their nutrition is lost. So thank you for emphasizing that and I’m glad you enjoyed reading it!

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  3. I haven’t watched the documentary yet, so I can’t judge your view on it completely, but I can already say that I highly agree with your overall argument. I feel like with so many documentaries, they are attacked so quickly for the smallest mistakes and called biased/unscientific for it, while the same actually happens for scientific papers. There is lots of debate in the scientific community itself around a lot of data, especially in environmental topics which are simply difficult to measure, so to me it just seems impossible for a documentary, or whatever form of media, to only use undisputed data. In short, there’s always something to complain about for people who just want to undermine a documentary’s message, but this does not take away from its importance. Glad that you point that out!

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  4. Very interesting blog! I appreciate you pointing out the criticism surrounding the documentary because I had missed some of the points when watching the documentary. It seems that there is somewhat of a consensus amongst the scientific community that the 2048 prediction was exaggerated. I wonder to what extent this was for ‘shock’ value to emphasize the urgency of marine biodiversity loss.

    I still think that despite the criticism surrounding the documentary, which is inevitable, the documentary is a success because of its impact. It has managed to reach a broader audience, raise awareness about the damaging practices of the commercial fishing industry, and maybe even, changing consumer behavior.

    I also very much agree that the documentary portrayed the killing of whales in the Faroe Islands in a negative light, presenting it as cruel, instead of emphasizing that it is nonetheless sustainable. However, as a viewer, the main takeaway of the documentary was that commercial fishing is unsustainable, not local fishing. For me, the aim was to expose the crimes of the fishing industry and the importance of preserving marine biodiversity, not to attack local fishing practices. However, this is just my interpretation of the documentary, and I do not want by any means wish to disregard the criticism of indigenous communities.

    However, I was disappointed that the final message of the documentary was simply to stop eating fish. Not everyone can afford to change his diet, and becoming vegan is only part of the solution, and may even hurt economies that depend on fishing exports. I wish more emphasis was made on the active role we can do as individuals to support organizations that seek to protect marine biodiversity life and regulate the fishing industry.

    Overall, I still think that the documentary does more ‘good’ than ‘bad’.

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  5. I am a bit late in the discussion! But I only recently had the chance to watch the documentary 🙂

    I just wanted to share a general thought of mine that emerged after watching Seasipracy (but that I think can be applied to many other “shocking” documentaries, that shed light on atrocities like this).

    Although I think it’s important for individuals to be aware of where the food on their table comes from, and the extent to which their consumption patterns are (un)ethical/non-environmentally friendly, I am left wondering how effective, in the long run, such “shocking” documentaries are. I am assuming that after watching such a documentary, a number of (privileged) individuals may stop eating fish. This strong reaction, however, will only be linked to one specific aspect of life, and, based on my personal experience, is likely to not be a long-lasting one. Also, we should consider that many people prefer an “ignorance is bliss” approach (e.g., if they know that fish is an essential part of their diet, they purposefully will not watch the documentary, as they wish to continue eating fish and do not want to be emotionally affected by it). Therefore a large audience rejects this type of media message altogether. An additional note is that even if we do watch these documentaries, I believe many people have become de-sensitized to them and the shock they provoke…

    On the other hand, I wonder whether it would be more impactful, in the long run, for the media (tv shows, documentaries, movies, etc) to gradually but consistently promote sustainable and non-consumerists ways of living. Normalizing, e.g., seasonal food consumption, purchasing goods from local farmers/fishermen, and, in general, a more “down to earth” way of living, would perhaps be more beneficial, rather than “shaming” the consumption of specific foods althogether. This would perhaps be accepted by a larger pool of individuals; it would empower local communities that indeed live like this (instead of almost “shaming” them), and could make us reflect on our unhealthy habits of consumerism (and always wanting what we don’t have) beyond fish consumption.

    I realize that I may be speaking from a point of bias. My family is originally from a small island in Croatia. The islanders’ diets are predominantly based on local fish, and the same goes for the tourists that visit over the summer (the island is poorly connected to the mainland, so we really don’t have access to a great variety of non-local goods!) We don’t have a Vegan Junk Food Bar, but I would still repute the Island as one of the most environmentally-friendly (in terms of ethical food consumption) places I know. But is this way of living so unrealistic for other places as well? Why is “local/rural” so often portrayed by the media as “medieval”, “outdated”, “remote”…? Something to think about perhaps:)

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  6. Thanks, Noor for your nuanced review of this ground-shaking documentary. Because that is what it was, I think that this is also its most important contribution. It stirred up and gave momentum to the whole conversation around fisheries. On how this developed over the last decennia into what now looks like a spilt into two major groups. On the one side local, relatively small scale fisheries and on the other side large international, yes even worldwide operating industries. The local fisheries focussed on the local need for food and the industrial fisheries focussed on maximizing profit for the financers of this industry. The documentary at least gives a voice to the first group of non-organized stakeholders and offers them, without thinking of whether or not it is all true, this a way of voicing their concerns and an opportunity to participate in the discussion. And we all know that this discussion is highly needed, as shown images of the industrial fishery as shown in the documentary. We will have to determine, with regard to how and to what extent fish ends up on our menu, what is necessary to feed people and what is excessive. And what is detrimental to the ecosystem. Because anything that harms the ecosystem is also harming us, as we are an integral part of the ecosystem. Let us hope that the discussion on the organisation of fisheries is not clouded by factual inaccuracies in the documentary, but focuses on the core of the issue, namely, how can we fish in such a way that this part of our ecosystem is also preserved.

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