The new Netflix documentary Seaspiracy is causing waves (had to) in the entertainment and environmental industry for revealing to the world just how shocking the global fishing industry is.
If you haven’t yet seen the film, it follows documentary filmmaker Ali Tabrizi as he pulls at the threads of the whaling industry, dolphin-safe seafood, fish farming, and a whole host of other underwater activities. It systematically dismantles any argument you might hold about the ethics of seafood, leaving you with little conclusion that leaving it in the ocean might be the best option.
The film features The Guardian journalist George Monbiot and legendary underwater filmmaker Sylvia Earle. It was produced by Kip Anderson, the same producer who worked on Cowspiracy (also executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio) and What The Health?
While it’s earned praise from charities, celebrities, and the general public, it’s also faced harsh backlash for what has been described as “vegan propaganda”. Professor Ray Hilborn of the School of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences at the University of Washington said the film is “so full of misinformation, it’s astounding.”
So, what’s the deal with Seaspiracy? Is it all just founded on a pre-determined conclusion designed to put you off seafood forever? Or does the film have merit and should we all be ditching the fish? Let’s find out.
What Seaspiracy Gets Right
The film covers a lot of important topics that we don’t often hear about – and some we do. We know for instance that keeping whales and dolphins in captivity and making them perform tricks for us is bad.
Into this basket, we can also add the mass slaughter of dolphins in Japan as a means of deterring them from eating the prized bluefin tuna used in sushi. That’s pretty much a given.
Here we can also add the use of slavery on Thai fishing vessels where people are kidnapped, tortured, and held prisoner for years at a time while being killed for trying to escape. That, you know, is obviously bad.
We can probably also add shark fin soup to this list. While there are cultural elements at play here, it also doesn’t mean we shouldn’t criticise the methods and impact this practice has. Cutting the fins off of live sharks and throwing them back into the ocean is needlessly cruel.
The film moves through environmental arguments to the health reasons against eating fish and these are mostly accurate too. Fish have been shown time and time again to contain a lot of microplastics that are the result of plastic waste in the sea which they eat and then we eat, putting plastic into our bodies.
They also make the argument that a lot of the pollutants from the industry that wash into the sea are absorbed lower down the food chain and end up in our dinner. That’s not great either.
The big “conspiracy” at the heart of the documentary is the fact that virtually no NGOs focused on the ocean comment on the fact that ocean plastic is largely comprised of fishing nets. The claims made here are that a lot of NGOs receive funding from fishing organisations to certify and justify their claims of sustainability. Criticising the fishing industry for its massive disposal of nets, ropes, and other plastic items into the sea is valid and ought to be taken seriously. Whether or not this is a mass conspiracy or just a few (but significant) bad actors is up for debate.
What Seaspiracy Gets Kind of Right but Also Kind of Wrong
Dolphins killed as by-catch is a big part of the documentary as the focus is turned on the labelling practices of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and the Earth Island Institute. These two license their labels for private companies to use on their packaging to give consumers confidence that their seafood is ethically caught.
In one shocking scene, it is revealed that a French fishing vessel caught and killed 48 dolphins to catch just 8 tuna while licensed by Earth Island. In the documentary, the associate director of Earth Island states that the company cannot guarantee dolphins are not caught by fishing vessels using their label and that their observers are not regularly onboard these ships.
This is a huge problem and relates to the regulation of seafood by private companies and not by state governments. It’s pretty much impossible to guarantee that no dolphins were caught or harmed in the taking of other fish as regulators simply can’t be everywhere at once.
However, the MSC, which Tabrizi concludes are in cahoots with their founder, Unilever, is an independent organisation that works to try and ensure sustainability in the fishing industry. Their work has been recognised by the United Nations as vital in trying to make fishing a sustainable practice and without their efforts, the industry would be a far murkier place. It’s not perfect, but lambasting organisations that are working to protect the oceans is not helpful.
Whales are a big feature of the film. While whale hunting is practised in Japan, as the film makes clear, it’s not the only country that allows whaling. Canada catches more whales than any other nation and whaling is conducted by the US, Norway, Greenland, Russia, South Korea, and Indonesia amongst others. Focusing on Japan gives the film a somewhat Orientalist lens that risks leaning into discrimination.
On the subject of whales, there is a lot of footage of whale strandings which the film implies are the result of plastic consumption by whales. Charles Clover, author of The End of the Line, criticises this framing by saying that disorientation and noise pollution also play a big part in whale strandings.
What Seaspiracy Gets Wrong
A major premise of the film is that if we continue on our current trajectory, the oceans will be entirely empty of fish by the year 2048. This statement is taken from a 2006 study which has been criticised and even revised by its original author to state that sustainable fishing practices that have been put in place should shore up the supplies of fish in the ocean. It doesn’t mean we don’t have to worry about it, only that this isn’t totally correct.
The film also states that “in the United States alone, 250,000 sea turtles are captured, injured, or killed every year by fishing vessels”. This number comes from a 2004 study using data up to the year 2000. A follow-up study using data until 2007 found that marine turtle bycatch had declined by 60% and mortality by 94% after the implementation of mitigation strategies.
The film suggests that 46% of plastic in the ocean is from fishing nets which is true if you take that figure by weight of the total plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. There’s a bit more to this, however, as plastic floats and sinks differently in the ocean depending on how it’s made. Most ocean plastic sinks whereas fishing nets do not. Therefore, fishing nets are the most visible forms of plastic in the ocean, while a lot more of it goes to the bottom. That’s not to say it’s not a massive problem, only that fishing nets are not almost half the plastic in the sea.
Finally, there’s a point about pollutants in fish. While it’s true that fish contain a lot of the chemical pollutants that get washed into the oceans, the big one they conflate with this is mercury. Mercury occurs naturally in sea life and accumulates in the bodies of fish higher up the food chain, meaning that the top predators like marlin, tuna, and sharks, have very high quantities of mercury in them. Mercury is a highly toxic chemical that affects the brain, liver, and kidney, and can lead to death in high enough doses.
That’s not to say that mercury in fish is toxic, or that humans don’t add mercury to the oceans (coal mining is a big factor in this), only that mercury in fish is not solely the responsibility of humans.
This summary is by no means comprehensive. There are marine scientists and NGOs out there who have real problems with the documentary, as well as those who support it. Before making any decisions over whether or not to cut fish out of your diet, you should do your own research and form a critical opinion.
Overall, Seapiracy is a film using a dramatic technique to captivate its audience. It does this very well, but it shouldn’t just be taken at face value.
If the documentary stops some people from eating fish, this is probably a good thing. The better outcome would be to have a real conversation about how our fishing practices can be made better and more sustainable.