After seeing an immense amount of buzz and recommendations online, I watched this Netflix documentary about the commercial fishing industry
To put it lightly, I am shook.
Seaspiracy presented some shocking revelations that I personally haven’t considered before, and I know I will be thinking twice about my consumption choices from here on out. From the conversations I’ve read and had, many viewers have had the same reaction. But the film has also received a great deal of backlash.
The topics explored in the documentary are complex, but we have a responsibility to be conscious consumers and do our best to protect our planet, starting with awareness and education, so let’s work through this together.
Seaspiracy: A summary
Created by British filmmaker Ali Tabrizi, Seaspiracy takes us to destinations from Japan to Scotland to West Africa to the Faroe Islands as it examines the commercial fishing industry.
Along with uncovering problems such as the horrifically dangerous and unethical working conditions in the fishing industry, the documentary reveals that the most problematic challenge facing our oceans and in turn, our planet, is something that most sustainability movements fail to acknowledge: commercial fishing.
There are a number of issues that result from fishing; the documentary highlights those such as plastic pollution, bycatch and misleading sustainability labels.
Plastic straws are a threat to marine life, and as conscious consumers we are very familiar with this message. Many sustainably minded organizations have made efforts to remove plastic straws, bags and other single-use plastics from their operations.
That being said, Seaspiracy reveals that plastic straws make up 0.03 percent of ocean plastic pollution.
Compare this to fishing nets, which the documentary shares make up 46% of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (a collection of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean), with the majority of the other garbage being other types of fishing gear. Fishing nets are far more dangerous for marine life than plastic straws, environmental activist George Monbiot reveals in the documentary, because they are designed to kill.
In other words, while we have a responsibility to cut out single-use plastics, clean up beaches and minimize plastic waste, Seaspiracy states that fishing is actually the main plastic killer of marine life. And this is something that no major sustainability groups are addressing.
Overfishing and bycatch
We are depleting our oceans of fish, and this has severe implications for our oceans and entire planet.
Seaspiracy explains that commercial fishing is wildlife poaching on a mass scale. 2.7 trillion fish are killed every year, and 5 million are killed every single minute. No other industry on Earth has killed as many animals as this trade, leading global fish populations to plummet to near extinction. If current fishing trends continue, the documentary states that we will see nearly empty oceans by 2048.
Seaspiracy also exposes the massive problem of bycatch—animals that are accidentally killed in fishing, such as unintentionally trapping dolphins while tuna fishing. Over 300,000 whales and dolphins are killed every single year as bycatch of industrial fishing.
Not only is this horrifically unjust for our beautiful marine life, its implications affect our entire planet. Each species is interconnected and plays a role in maintaining our ecosystems and atmosphere—whales and dolphins fertilize photoplankton, which absorb carbon dioxide (four times as much as the Amazon Rainforest, according to Seaspiracy) and they also regulate the physics, chemistry and biology of the sea. Removing these key members of our oceans has a crucial impact on every single part of our planet.
Seaspiracy calls out on some sustainable fishing labels, such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and Dolphin-Safe Tuna, indicating that there actually is no way to guarantee truly sustainable fishing.
Now, I tried to watch this film—and am trying to write this article—with as unbiased a perspective as possible. A lot of these revelations seem so shocking I’m questioning how they could be true, or if they are true, how they aren’t being talked about.
But one of the most alarming parts to me was the reactions from the environmentalists who were being interviewed—and their inability to answer questions. Surely these experts should be transparent, able and willing to speak about any topic related to sustainability? This was not the case.
In the next section of this article, I’ll share some of the responses to the documentary, but as a viewer, I felt the tension in these interviews was palpable. The interview subjects seemed unable or unwilling to answer the questions about topics such as the role of fishing gear in the plastic pollution crisis, or guaranteeing dolphins' safety.
Transparency is critical to being able to trust a brand, and the discomfort by these sustainability authorities made me very uncomfortable as a consumer.
For example, when questioned about the label Dolphin-Safe Tuna, Mark J. Palmer from the Earth Institute was asked if they can actually guarantee that the tuna is dolphin-safe. His reply was, “Nope. Nobody can. Once you’re out there in the ocean, how do you know what they’re doing? We have observers on board—observers can be bribed.”
The documentary’s message is that there is no way to guarantee the fishing was done sustainably, so sustainable fishing does not exist, and we cannot trust these labels.
Watching this documentary made it seem so glaringly obvious to me that commercial fishing is the biggest part of the problem, and I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t considered the plastic crisis this way before. I have even participated in beach clean-ups and clean-up dives where the discarded fishing gear was staring me right in the face. So why had I never given this a second thought until now, and instead been focussing all my sustainability attention towards single-use plastics and micro plastics—which are also major problems, but only part of the problem.
I knew there had to be other sides to the story, so I did some digging to see what the critics were saying.
Many of the rebuttals speak of the filmmakers not telling the whole story of the fishing industry, sharing only parts that fit their narrative.
Seaspitacy's interviewees have shared that their words were taken out of context, with the Plastic Pollution Coalition releasing a statement saying the filmmakers “bullied” their staff and “misrepresented the ocean plastic pollution crisis to suit [their] agenda.”
The Coalition also calls out Seaspiracy for focusing on the Great Pacific Ocean Patch, saying that the statistic that this one ocean gyre is 46 percent fishing nets, was misleading and not representative of the entire ocean. It points to a Greenpeace study, which informs that “an FAO report estimated that 640,000 tonnes of gear is lost or abandoned in the oceans every year, and makes up around 10 percent of the plastic in the oceans.”
The Marine Stewardship Council has released a statement refuting Seaspiracy’s claim that sustainable fishing does not exist.
“One of the amazing things about our oceans is that fish stocks can recover and replenish if they are managed carefully for the long-term. Examples of where this has happened and stocks have come back from the brink include the Patagonian toothfish in the Southern Oceans or the recovery of Namibian hake, after years of overfishing by foreign fleets, or the increase in some of our major tuna stocks globally. And what is even more amazing, is that if we take care of our fish stocks—they take care of us. Research shows that fish stocks that are well-managed and sustainable, are also more productive in the long-term, meaning there is more seafood for our growing global population, which is set to reach 10 billion by 2050."
In regards to the film’s claims that the Dolphin-Safe Tuna program is a conspiracy to benefit the global fisheries industries, Earth Island has responded: “Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the dolphin-safe tuna program has provided and continues to provide massive benefits to dolphin populations around the world. Despite our efforts to provide documentation of this to the filmmakers, they chose instead to grossly distort and mischaracterize the program.”
Dolphin Safe Tuna echos this sentiment, stating, “The recent film Seaspiracy falsely claims that the dolphin-safe tuna program is a conspiracy to benefit the global fisheries industries. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the dolphin-safe tuna program has provided and continues to provide massive benefits to dolphin populations around the world. Despite our efforts to provide documentation of this to the filmmakers, they chose instead to grossly distort and mischaracterize the program.”
Further critique comes from Oceana, an ocean protection organization which was pinpointed in the film, which points out that not everyone has the privilege to cut out fish from their diet or has access to the gourmet plant-based alternatives that the documentary showcases.
Instead of calling for the abolishment of all seafood, conversations are pushing for constructive conversations within the fishing industry.
So what do we do?
Seaspiracy ends with the message that the “only ethical thing to do” in saving the oceans is to stop eating fish. The film also advocates for establishing and enforcing “no-take” zones, and for governments to stop harmful subsidies.
Every consumer must do what’s best for themselves and the environment, to the best of their ability. We must do our best to educate ourselves by exploring each perspective on the plastic pollution crisis to make the decision that suits us best. Ultimately, we must be conscious of the situation and make choices that are as informed and sustainable as possible.
We must demand transparency and diligence from these large corporations that are guiding our sustainability choices, just as we must demand accountability from large corporations like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo to end production of single-use plastics.
I’m so glad that I watched Seaspiracy so I can do my best to make more informed choices moving forward, and am grateful for the opportunity to write about it here on Environment 911. I encourage everyone to watch, read, and research this topic and make the best decision for yourself and our planet.