By: Hayley Austin
When Seaspiracy popped up on my recommended list on Netflix this March, I decided to give it a watch. As an environmental activist, documentary enthusiast, and final year Environment, Resources, and Sustainability student, I was like many of the people who had likely been drawn to the allure of ocean panoramas and investigative journalism. I thought I was in for a film which would provide insight to important issues facing our oceans and outline what we can do about them, and it did, to a degree. While the film showcased relevant and legitimate concerns, it also leaned a bit too far into conspiratorial thinking and ended in – well let’s just break down some of the documentary’s claims.
The Truth About Plastic Pollution
The documentary highlights that, contrary to popular belief, most plastic pollution in the oceans consists of fishing nets and gear, rather than single use plastics like plastic straws. In fact, single use plastic straws only make up around 0.03% of the plastic pollution in our oceans, while fishing nets and gear make up more than 50%. Though, most plastic campaigns are noted to not talk about this and focus more on single-use plastic items and microplastics, which are still important to study and act on, but are not considered in the documentary to be as big of a threat to marine wildlife.
The documentary takes a turn for the conspiratorial when lead documentarian Ali ‘uncovers’ that the Plastic Pollution Coalition, a major voice box to the plastic pollution problem, is associated with the Earth Island Institute. The Earth Island Institute is a non-profit environmental organization specializing in the fields of conservation, energy, climate, women’s environmental leadership, sustainability, community resilience, Indigenous leadership and so on. This is the same group which produces Dolphin Safe labels for tuna. Yet, as stated in the film by a representative of Dolphin Safe tuna and the Earth Island Institute, these are ‘sustainable’ labels which do not guarantee that dolphins are not actually being caught in the process of fishing.
The Earth Island Institute responded with this statement:
Both IMMP (International Marine Mammal Project) and PPC (Plastic Pollution Coalition) were maligned and misrepresented by the filmmakers. IMMP has worked successfully for the conservation of marine mammals for more than three decades, including via the Dolphin Safe tuna program. PPC manages a burgeoning global alliance of activists, small businesses, and nonprofits working to end plastic pollution in all its forms. Both these projects are deeply involved in various efforts to protect our oceans and marine life from the scourge of plastic pollution, including from ghost fishing gear.
While the statement mentions some of the concerns the documentary raises, it does not go quite as far to address the claims in offering more information as to what exactly they are doing to ensure dolphins are kept safe and fishing gear is being considered in management efforts.
Give Sharks Some Love
After hearing that Japan is resuming commercial whaling in the Antarctic despite an international whaling ban which has been in place since 1986, Ali and his partner Sarah travel to Taiji, another hotspot for killing dolphins and whales for profit. For every dolphin captured, up to 12 more may be killed. The documentary highlights that this is for more than entertainment reasons, to subject the 1 remaining dolphin to a life performing on the main stage of major theme parks like SeaWorld, but is also for what is dubbed ‘pest control.’ In the eyes of the fishing community, dolphins eat the fish that are available to catch and so by killing off the natural predators, they are effectively compensating for overfishing practices. The same can be said for the shark fin industry. With populations crashing over the past few decades due to delicacies like shark fin soup and bycatch, these apex predators are no longer functioning as they normally would in the food web, and so other species are feeling the burden of their absence.
Catch Me If You Can
Bycatch from commercial fishing nets is another big problem that the documentary touched upon. As fishing becomes more industrialized, the methods of fish removal are even more ecologically devastating, such as the practice of trawling, which destroys whole ecosystems and scars the sea floor. Coral reefs, which are already stressed from the loss of fish from overfishing, may be completely wiped out. Corals and fish are important to oceans’ ability to sequester carbon. As they are overfished and destroyed and as sea temperatures continue to rise due to the climate crisis, the world’s oceans are put under more and more stress.
This industrialization of fishing is not only ecologically harmful but also impacts the livelihoods of coastal communities which depend on seafood as sustenance. As these big commercial fishing ships move closer to shore and impinge upon local fishers’ spots, they take away essential catch.
The documentary does go on to make some claims which are, to be frank, are simply false, starting with the claim that oceans will run out of fish by 2048. This is a myth which comes from a 2006 paper which projected that all fisheries would collapse by 2048. Since then, the projection has been refuted multiple times, yet the claim still manages to persist in mainstream media and found its way into ‘Seaspiracy.’ A paper published by Hilborn et al. (2020) noted that;
Most existing analyses suggest overfishing is increasing, and there is widespread concern that fish stocks are decreasing throughout most of the world. We assembled trends in abundance and harvest rate of stocks that are scientifically assessed, constituting half of the reported global marine fish catch. For these stocks, on average, abundance is increasing and is at proposed target levels.
All this to say that fish populations around the world are not following the downward trend proposed in the 2006 paper that the documentary cited, and the sharing of this statistic has contributed to the spread of misinformation.
Another major claim the documentary makes is that aquaculture is not a sustainable solution to overfishing and global food demands by a growing population. The documentary only spends about five minutes on aquaculture and pretty much just writes it off as an option completely. Aquaculture has the potential to be a sustainable source of protein and leaders are collaborating to ensure its sustainable future through investments, transparency, increasing consumer awareness and supporting a positive social impact by following responsible farming practices. There is also a scientific argument for fish as the least impactful animal protein in terms of associated greenhouse gas emissions, space and water requirements, and resource demands when compared to beef and poultry. Aquaculture is also increasingly becoming more important in tackling global food security and can be practiced sustainably through economic, environmental, and social means.
Sustainable Fishing? No Such Thing.
The next big claim that shocked me was that there is no such thing as sustainable fishing or sustainable seafood. Woah. First, oceans are running out of fish, then aquaculture is written off entirely as a sustainable solution, and now there is no such thing as sustainable fishing at all. Though it is true that there is not one universally accepted definition of sustainability, the general premise is that we want to avoid degrading or depleting a resource, while maintaining its rate or level. This goes for environmental, social, and economic resources. Overfishing depletes the abundance of fish over time and so is not sustainable.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report of the State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2020, 34.2% of fisheries are overfished, which accounts for 22.7% of seafood. This means that the remainder of monitored fisheries are at biologically sustainable levels. While there is room for improvement in sustainable fishing and reporting on fisheries, I think the documentary goes too far to suggest that sustainable fishing is only a “marketing phrase.”
Another massive gap I saw in this documentary was the lack of consideration of Indigenous sustenance fishing. When hunting wild fish, Indigenous practices tend to incorporate elements of selective fishing. They protect fish during important life stages such as spawning, allowing fish stocks to naturally regenerate, and then catch fish when they are most nutritious. This fishing technique has been in practice for generations and collaboration with Indigenous peoples is being considered as a sustainable strategy for fishing going forward in many places, though the documentary makes no note of this.
There It Is…
When it comes down to the last eight minutes of the documentary, the finale that the whole thing has been building up to, the documentary loses steam. Its only answer to what we can do as the public about these issues is to stop eating seafood and animal protein entirely. It recommends that we all switch to a vegan diet. What? That is marketed as the only possible solution to marine plastic pollution, overfishing, bycatch, whaling, and the devastation of ecosystems from industrial fishing practices. The reality is that veganism is not attainable for everyone due to affordability concerns and lack of access. The documentary does not consider that a large majority of the world’s population depends on seafood as their main source of protein, both practically and culturally. This cannot be the only solution.
There is not one simple solution or quick fix. What we really need is more transparency in the fishing industry, to be stricter about bycatch and fishing methods, to pressure and support organizations which work to clean up all marine plastics including fishing gear and nets, continue to spread the scientific word on these issues, and be more conscious about where the seafood we are buying is coming from.
Seaspiracy was shocking to say the least, but mostly because it was dramatized investigative journalism and ended in such an unsatisfying way, working these big issues down to a single solution. I would suggest giving it a watch if you have not already, but take it with a grain of sea salt.