Seaspiracy: To Fish or Not to Fish?

The impact of fishing in our oceans

It is not a secret that the animal industry is devastating for the environment. Most environmentalists will tell you that going vegan is one of the best individual decisions you can make for the environment, and science seems to back that up.

Among the many food industries, it is specifically the fishing industry that British director, Ali Tabrizi, decided to tackle on his new Netflix documentary Seaspiracy. The hour and a half long film dives into the potential dangers and devastating effects of industrial fishing.

The documentary, while certainly entertaining and appraised by some organizations, has also faced stern criticism. Some experts have accused many of the claims of being misleading, and question the legitimacy of some of the interviews.

So how bad is the fishing industry really? Let’s do some research!

The Author

Ali Tabrizi is 27 years old, from Kent and attended the London College of Communication, but later decided to teach himself filmmaking. Ali and his wife, Lucy Tabrizi, now work together under Disrupt Studios, a company they formed for their documentaries. His other main project, Vegan 2018, exemplifies his ability to cover emerging and important issues. Tabrizi has been working on pitches for Netflix since 2016, and led to his work on Seaspiracy, and its suggestions on the streaming service ever since.The same team credited on creating Seaspiracy also created documentary Cowspiracy, similarly critiques the agricultural industry for unsustainable and harmful processes.

Plastic is bad!

From the beginning, Tabrizi makes it a point to reinstate a commonly known fact: plastic is bad for the ocean. But where is that plastic coming from? The documentary strides to take a different perspective on the plastic pollution taking over the waters.

British writer and environmentalist George Monbiot is interviewed about the origins of this plastic pollution. “Even the groups that are talking about marine plastic are highly reluctant to talk about what a lot of that plastic is, which is fishing nets and fishing gears.”

The film goes on to reference a 2018 study stating that 46% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is composed of fishing nets. Tabrizi calls this the “whale in the room”, and contrasts the attention put on the pollution of plastic straws, which only account to 0.03% of ocean plastic.

Is this true? Yes… and no. The study referenced has been questioned, and more recent studies dispute this estimate, mostly due to the lack of consideration of microplastics.

It also doesn’t seem like fishing gear takes up as much of ocean pollution as the film would lead you to believe. A 2019 Greenpeace study claims that the number is much lower, at 10%.

Instead, most of the ocean pollution (80% to be exact) seems to come from ‘land trash’ such as soda bottles, food packaging, etc. The documentary could be doing more harm than good, when somewhat dismissing the extent as to what getting rid of land pollution can do for the environment.

Are fishing nets and fishing gear still a big problem? Absolutely! “Ghost nets,” which are abandoned fishing nets, are a real problem to wildlife. An NRDC report claims that more than 650,000 animals in the ocean die a year due to floating gear in the water.

So, if this is such a big issue… why is it not often talked about?

The label

Tabrizi spends a large chunk of the documentary criticizing various environmental organizations, and their true motives.

He starts by questioning the legitimacy of Dolphin Safe and Marine Stewardship Council labels.

An interview with Mark Palmer, an executive of the Dolphin Safe tuna label, is featured. Palmer is filmed admitting that the observers meant to guarantee that the fishing is dolphin safe can be “bribed” and that “nothing can guarantee that it is dolphin safe.”

Shortly after the documentary came out, Palmer complained that his words had been getting out of context. “”The film took my statement out of context to suggest that there is no oversight and we don’t know whether dolphins are being killed. This is simply not true,” he said.

David Phillips, the director of the International Marine Mammal Project of the Earth Island Institute, came out with a statement saying that the dolphin-safe tuna program “is responsible for the largest decline in dolphin deaths by tuna fishing vessels in history. Dolphin-kill levels have been reduced by more than 95 percent, preventing the indiscriminate slaughter of more than 100,000 dolphins every year.”

And as for why many big organizations are reluctant to the fact that fishing gear is very polluting to the environment? Tabrizi makes some wild theories.

At some point, he begins to investigate the Plastic Pollution Coalition, and goes as far as implying that they are deliberately trying to hide the amount of fishing gear in the ocean.

“When I went on the websites of leading marine organizations who tackle plastic pollution, I found pages and pages encouraging people to stop using everything from tea bags to chewing gum. But no mention whatsoever of what to do about fishing gear,” narrates Tabrizi.

He goes to talk directly with Dianna Cohen, the CEO of the Plastic Pollution Coalition about why this message had not been added to the website. Cohen is shown to get agitated, and after hastily repeating “It’s not my area” she asks for the cameras to be turned off.

Tabrizi then goes to the organization’s website, and makes the connection that the Plastic Pollution Coalition is associated with the Earth Island Institute, which is the same organization behind the safe-dolphin tuna label. “No wonder why they don’t want to talk about the leading cause of plastic pollution,” he says.

We can’t know for certain if this is true, especially since the majority of the people interviewed in this documentary claim that their words were manipulated and taken out of context. And many of these claims resemble the train-of-thought logic of conspiracy theories rather than that of investigative journalism, but it does raise some questions.

If there is one thing you can get from these accusations, it is enough of a sense of intrigue to start doing your own research on the topic.

Are the oceans going to be emptied out by 2048?

Probably not.

Tabrizi claims at some point in the film that the oceans are in danger of being emptied out by the year 2048. This was by far one of the leading controversies of the documentary, especially since the sources referenced are a bit confusing.

The 2006 study this statement is based on has been contradicted by the author, marine ecologist Boris Worm. Three years after the release of this statistic he joked that by 2048 he would be hosting a seafood party, not mourning the death of the ocean.

“In this effort Worm and researchers like Ray Hilborn, from the University of Washington, shed important light on some areas where better management and conservation of stocks is needed but also acknowledge the robust sustainability efforts that are working and have proven that old 2048 statistic to be fiction,” said John Connelly, the President of the National Fisheries Institute (NFI.)

This may serve as a reminder that documentaries do not always mean to rely only on accurate scientific information, but also seek to use sensational data that “proves” the narrative they are trying to portray.

Sustainable fishing and other misleading claims

The documentary goes on to make other claims, many of which have also been disputed.

Another big one is the reinforced message that sustainable fishing is unachievable, and that the best option is to cut seafood from your diet as a whole.

It is true that many of the “sustainable” foods in the market are not exactly what they seem to be. And this is clearly portrayed as Tabrizi shows us that even the meaning of the word “sustainable” varies among the industry itself. So is sustainable fishing even a possibility?

While Tabrizi seems to knock out every sustainable option and prove that it is not that sustainable after all, there is evidence that with the right management and following scientific data fisheries are capable of reaching sustainability.

The documentary does bring up extremely important issues about “sustainable farming;” but marine ecologist and fisheries biologist Bryce D. Stewart said that many of the statements made were “based on outdated studies, while other issues were grossly exaggerated and links were often made where they don’t exist.”

It would be hard to go through every statement in the movie and fact-check it, but Inverse, Forbes, and Vox have published in-depth articles about some of the issues raised.

Wait so, should I cut seafood from my diet? Is that the only way of saving the ocean?

It certainly is one way of individually decreasing your carbon footprint, but it is not the only one!

In one way or another, the documentary tried to guilt-trip the viewer into choosing to completely cut seafood from their diet, but that is just not a possibility for the majority of people in the world.

In their response to Seaspiracy, Oceana stated that, “choosing to abstain from consuming seafood is not a realistic choice for the hundreds of millions of people around the world who depend on coastal fisheries – many of whom are also facing poverty, hunger and malnutrition.”

Communities all over the world rely on seafood for their diet nutrition, and for many indigenous communities fishing is much more than just food.

In conclusion, if you have the option to and decide that you want to cut seafood from your diet that is great! But it is extremely unrealistic to ask that of everyone, and the complete eradication of the commercial fishing market is not the grand solution that will save the planet, at least not any time soon.

While the narrative of Seaspiracy can be wildly misleading, that is not to say that the film is 100% lies. It is an interesting watch, and I would certainly recommend it, I just advise to watch it skeptically and with a phone nearby to fact-check once in a while.

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