Seaspiracy, in the eyes of the experts

The call for people to stop eating fish has attracted heavy criticism. Yet the film has raised awareness of the crises in our oceans.

Bycatch in Northern Indian Ocean Fisheries

An endangered devil ray accidentally caught by tuna fishers using illegal gill nets in the Indian Ocean. (Image: © Abbie Trayler-Smith / Greenpeace)

Seaspiracy has caused much debate in the ocean conservation sector and beyond. Its shocking images, including of bloody whale-hunting in the Faroe Islands, attracted a lot of attention. It advised everyone to stop eating fish, and lambasted the efforts of conservation bodies and the fishing industry towards making fishing sustainable.

A week after its release, Seaspiracy was among the 10 most viewed films on streaming platform Netflix. Countless people commented on trailers on various sites, describing their shock at what was shown and making promises to stop eating fish.

The majority of issues documented in the film do exist. These include: the vast island of plastic waste in the Pacific; harm caused to whales and dolphins by fishing gear; damage done by trawling; overfishing fuelled by harmful subsidies; safety risks to fishing observers; slavery on board vessels; and over-extraction of juvenile fish (who cannot then breed) for use as feed for farmed fish. To date, most of these issues have only been of concern to those “in the know”. Seaspiracy has greatly increased awareness of them.

But there are problems with how this awareness has been raised. Audiences have been left with an unbalanced understanding of some issues. Criticism of the documentary has focused on its alleged sensationalism, with worst-case scenarios portrayed as common; “Western elitism”, as its call for an halt to eating fish overlooks the place of fish as a source of protein in developing nations; and misrepresentation of some scientific findings, such as the erroneous claim that “the ocean will be empty by 2048”.

Sustainable Fishing in Prachuap Khiri Khan
Small-scale fishers in Khan Kradai Bay, Thailand (Image: © Chanklang Kanthong / Greenpeace)

The harm to fish populations caused by industrial fishing has long been on the global agenda. Governments, NGOs and businesses are already seeking ways to limit destructive and unsustainable fishing practices. These measures include: regional fishery management organisations; WTO talks on ending harmful fishing subsidies; closed seasons imposed by national governments; and industry-led sustainable fishing certification schemes.

The debate Seaspiracy has caused deserves a response from the researchers, policymakers and activists who work on ocean conservation. Here’s what some of them have to say.

Wang Songlin, secretary-general of the Qingdao Marine Conservation Society

Seaspiracy could be described as a mix of scientific fact and subjective assumptions; inspiration and misdirection; concern and prejudice.

It says fisheries around the world are being severely damaged, and that is entirely true. A UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report shows that two-thirds of fisheries are either over-fished or fished to maximum sustainable levels. And the situation in China is worse than in most other countries.

It also claims that NGOs and businesses, driven by shared interests, are “greenwashing” fishing through sustainability certification. Greenwashing is an issue, but this is not the full story. It is true that some unscrupulous companies in China have obtained sustainable fishing certification. Such greenwashing could ultimately damage the market-based sustainability and ecological certification systems NGOs and the industry have worked hard to create.

Greenwashing is an issue, but this is not the full story

So we, as ocean conservation groups, do need to ask ourselves how we can cooperate more constructively with businesses. How can we prevent local and international certification and rating systems for sustainable seafood being held captive by commercial interests? How can we be the conscience of the industry, rather than its accomplice?

Meanwhile, Seaspiracy’s advocacy of vegetarianism is oversimplified. Will eating less seafood, or even none at all, really save the ocean? Fish, shrimp, crabs and other shellfish provide essential protein and nutrients for hundreds of millions of people. Giving up seafood would require more planting of crops on land, with forests and grasslands turned into farms. It would require the use of more fresh water, of more fertiliser and pesticides, and even more plastics (such as agricultural membranes used for insulation or to retain moisture). Ultimately, those forms of land-source pollution will harm the ocean. And what of those millions of people already struggling with poverty in subsistence fishing communities?

A more realistic and rational approach would be to seek out and tackle the problems in the fishing and aquaculture industries; to establish well-run marine protected areas; and to treat fishing communities fairly, working with them to protect their long-term interests and to promote sustainable development. This will require governments, fishing firms, research bodies, NGOs and consumers to work together.

Zhou Wei, senior oceans campaigner with Greenpeace East Asia

Many of my friends outside the ocean sector watched Seaspiracy, a rare breakthrough, and it led many to think about where the fish they eat come from, and the social and environmental costs that lie behind that process.

Many have already looked at inaccuracies in the claims presented by the documentary. But the destructive fishing practices portrayed, such as bycatch, overfishing and bottom trawling, and the harmful fishing subsidies which encourage overfishing, have existed for many years and are not yet properly resolved.

For many coastal communities and artisanal fishers, fish are a source of food and fishing a source of income

The call to stop eating fish is the most controversial aspect of the film. But “fish” and “fishing” are broad concepts, going beyond the industrialised fishing portrayed in Seaspiracy. For many coastal communities and artisanal fishers, fish are a source of food and fishing a source of income. A call to stop eating fish is not the best solution. What is needed are better policies and implementation. More action is needed to tackle the damage caused to ocean ecosystems by climate change, pollution and development, for example though a global network of marine protected areas.

The content of the film was chilling, but the comment by Dr Sylvia Earle at the end is thought-provoking: “No-one can do everything, but everyone can do something”. I hope that in the future we can re-watch Seaspiracy and know that the problems it portrays have been solved.

Alex Rogers, Science Director, REV Ocean

Some of the statistics presented in the film were shocking, such as 10,000 dolphins a year killed in fisheries off the French coast. The question is, are they true? The scientific literature does seem to back up what Seaspiracy claims in this case. Studies indicate that fisheries may kill over 650,000 sea mammals every single year, including not only whales and dolphins but also seals, manatees and dugongs. Up to 320,000 albatrosses, petrels, shearwaters and other seabirds may also be killed by fisheries even though we know how to prevent such collateral damage by altering the way we fish.

A study published this year in the prestigious journal Nature reports that in the early 2000s between 63 million and 273 million sharks a year were killed in fisheries. Now three quarters of oceanic sharks and rays are threatened with extinction as a result of this rampant overexploitation. In this case, the numbers cited by Seaspiracy seem quite conservative. So, although I do not agree with everything stated in the film and there were errors, the main message, that unsustainable fishing, whether it is poorly managed, unregulated or illegal, is driving many of our most iconic species to extinction, is correct.

Time is running out and such uncontrolled destruction must stop if the ocean is to continue providing humankind with critical ecosystem services such as food, atmospheric regulation, education and inspiration.

Fishing boats in the harbour at Elmina, Gold Coast, Ghana, Africa
Traditional fishers in Elmina harbour, Ghana (Image: Alamy)

Prof Daniel Pauly, Sea Around Us project leader, UBC Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, University of British Columbia

Industrial fisheries are a really big problem because they are out of control, they are subsidised and they lead to all sorts of bad things. That’s true. But the problem is so big that you cannot propose to solve it by not doing something, which is not eating fish. The problem can be solved by doing something – whether that’s NGOs, civil society or individual citizens. And the take of the film is that none of the activities by these groups count, and that all of these things are part of a big conspiracy. The film suffers from the discrepancy between the enormity of the problem and the ridiculousness of the proposed solution.

The attempt to discredit Dolphin Safe and Oceana is typical of the whole operation. In the same context, we see this idea that Asians do bad things. That is a trope that I hate personally and philosophically and this is not the way we should interact nowadays. You can’t present a film in which a group of people, geographically, is blamed for a problem that is universal in its structure. That is the cheapest hole you have to avoid and they fell right into it.

You can’t present a film in which a group of people, geographically, is blamed for a problem that is universal in its structure.

There are actually solutions which exist to the problems [the filmmaker Ali Tabrizi] raises. Subsidies for industrial fishing are a major reason we have overfishing, and ending these are under discussion at the WTO. Another problem with the film is the omission of small-scale, artisanal fisheries. They provide one-third of all the fish we eat. In most countries, they compete with industrial fisheries. They don’t have a discarding problem at all. They don’t use mobile gear that catches big quantities. They provide jobs. They do not have most of the issues of criminality, overfishing or being heavily subsidised as industrial fisheries are.

Small-scale fisheries are actually victims of large-scale fisheries. But the film was so much outside of rational discussion about the topic of fisheries that you don’t even have the beginning of a debate.

Dyhia Belhabib, Principal Investigator, Fisheries, Ecotrust Canada

This documentary is yet another attempt to stereotype and vilify fishermen. It is embedded within white saviourism and colonial advocacy. The science is flawed, the style is condescending. [Ali Tabrizi] did not address appropriately very well-known issues that he pretended to discover. His central message – stop eating seafood – is absolutely not constructive. This very privileged notion that everyone has the choice, or that fish is just food, is engrained in ill-informed minds.

Issues with certification and greenwashing have been documented for over a decade now. This isn’t new. It does not mean that every certification scheme isn’t effective. We need to work more on preventing loopholes, and auditing those that are problematic.

The conservation community has its issues, which everyone works hard at addressing. We learn from experience, engagement and presence in both policy circles and coastal communities. And some, like Oceana and EJF [Environmental Justice Foundation], have learned a big deal and their work is very considerate of the people, their environment and their culture.

Each patch of the ocean and the seas around the planet must have a solution that fits its realities and communities. No one solution fits all.

The solution to the problems we face is not to stop eating fish. Each patch of the ocean and the seas around the planet must have a solution that fits its realities and communities. No one solution fits all. In some instances, we learn from hundreds of years of indigenous management of fisheries. In some others, a marine protected area (designed and implemented through a fair and inclusive process) will help. And other initiatives of gear recovery will have (noting that ghost nets are not the main contributor to plastic pollution). Not all aquaculture is bad aquaculture and not all fishers are bad apples. Most want to keep fishing, and those will want to keep their bank account (the ocean) flowing.

Philip Chou, Oceana Senior Advisor

The good news is that Seaspiracy highlights many serious threats to the oceans – threats Oceana is tackling every day. The bad news is that the movie makes many specious claims and errors. The most important in my view is the idea that sustainable fishing is not possible. This is incorrect and highly problematic. There are examples of well-managed fisheries all over the world including both small-scale and commercial efforts that permit habitats, fish stocks and coastal communities to jointly thrive. The data is clear – if you apply science-based fisheries management, the fish can come back.

The data is clear – if you apply science-based fisheries management, the fish can come back

Dismissing the notion of sustainable fisheries is dismissing the needs of hundreds of millions of people, especially in coastal developing nations, for whom fish is their livelihood and an essential source of protein and micronutrients. Instead of abandoning fisheries, Oceana is actively working to reform policies so that industrial fleets do not inequitably take fish from fish-reliant communities, and do not illegally fish in areas where they’re not supposed to.

Solving most big problems requires political will, sufficient capacity, and some degree of technical know-how. Oceana is here to make that happen. Our campaigns are increasing ocean abundance through policy victories that put in place science-based fisheries management in national waters, where most of the world’s fish are caught. Oceana is working with allies to stop harmful fisheries subsidies, which fund overfishing and inadvertently prop up illegal fishing. Oceana advocates for policies that increase transparency at sea and that hold governments and companies accountable to their green commitments. We can have abundant, healthy and biodiverse oceans, if we manage our fisheries well and take the steps required to protect marine habitats.