Seaspiracy – fact or fantasy?

Raising awareness is important but this documentary failed to get the narrative and facts right

I don’t think I’ve ever been asked so much what I thought about a documentary than I have with Seaspiracy. It’s fair to say that this type of film, including all the gory archive footage, makes for gripping viewing. Although the subject matter is hard to watch, it’s eye opening to those who haven’t spent time working on ocean issues. But that’s exactly why it needed to get the narrative and facts right.

Instead, the filmmaker puts forward simplistic and sensationalist claims from start to finish. Seaspiracy ignores the real complexity of almost every issue presented, draws spurious links between things and has questionable research and research ethics. At times, it presents a picture of a heroic white saviour’ in a cast of ruthless, murderous fishers, corrupt governments and NGOs, and evil Chinese vessels with enslaved crew working hard to deplete the oceans as rapidly as possible, taking food out of the mouths of poor Africans.

It covers a lots of issues that really warrant a 90-minute film each but are instead blurred together at 100 miles an hour in an incoherent way. It includes dolphin killing in Tiaji, Japan; dolphin bycatching in Europe; the impacts of plastic pollution on our ocean; the finning of 100 million sharks a year; labour abuses from Ghana to Liberia, Thailand and the UK. The hard reality is all the things covered are happening.

I wasn’t surprised it would highlight the worst cases, the most shocking footage and worst practises going on. After all, it is a film that wants to highlight problems. That being said, it is riddled with inaccuracies with just nuggets of truth. Understandably, fishers, industry bodies and experts in the field feel misrepresented, attacked and portrayed as an evil industry.

The first and most important fallacy the film propagates is that there is no such thing as a sustainable fishery. This is wrong, sustainable fisheries are common. Well-managed fisheries can be sustainable economically, environmentally and socially and there are hundreds of sustainably managed fisheries around the world. From small-scale fisheries in Madagascar, to sustainable shellfish fisheries in the UK, to India, Australia, Senegal and the USA. Fish are a renewable resource, and the claims made in the film that we will run out’ of fish by 2048 have been firmly rejected.

A key point raised by an interviewee in the film is about the industrialisation of fisheries and the impact this has had on fish stocks and the marine ecosystem. This I agree with, but the film fails to talk about scale and why it matters for the fishing capacity and effort, because all fishing is not the same. It ranges from super high-tech £10 million factory freezer trawlers over 300 feet long fishing the mid-Atlantic, to tiny dugout canoes a few feet from shore feeding coastal people who rely on fish to survive. In terms of the impact on stocks and marine habitats, jobs and supply chain jobs dependent on the fishery and the sustainable livelihoods it can generate – scale matters a great deal. The issues are hugely diverse in terms of vessel sizes, fishing capacity, the gears and species involved as well as the social, environmental, and economic drivers.

For me, these are the biggest weaknesses in the film – it doesn’t talk about scale, about why fish can be part of a healthy diet and how heavily dependent coastal people around the world are on seafood. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), an estimated 59.5 million people were engaged in fisheries on a full-time, part-time or occasional basis in 2018, while 800 million people’s livelihoods were dependent on fisheries and aquaculture. The International Labour Organisation estimates that 15 million people work full-time on fishing vessels.

We are certainly having a major impact on the oceans through our consumption, global fish production reached 179 million tonnes in 2018 according to the FAO, with a first sale of US$401 billion. But the solution is not to stop eating fish and sustainable fishing is indeed possible.

As the UK charts a new course as an independent coastal state, we can take back control’ of fishing to ensure it is done sustainably and fairly, setting a gold standard for labour in fishing. We can reduce the impact of fishing on the marine environment by defining, rewarding and incentivising low impact fishing, while respecting the rights of fishers and fishing communities.

The UK fishing industry was severely let down by the government, and needs support. We can move away from the industrial paradigm and fishing for commodity markets that keeps prices low through exploitation of people and planet, and instead try to create good jobs for the future of the industry. Management and enforcement of the law, making fishing safer, investing in the industry so that it can move away from a race to the bottom is the solution.

You could make this film about industrial farminglogging, energy, or a myriad of other things. Our industrial food system, rampant inequality and biodiversity loss are all massive, interlinked crises resulting from a broken economic system. The documentary assumes consumers choices are leading to unsustainable use of resource, when in fact the biggest driver is greed, profit and competition. Raising awareness for people who don’t know anything about the impacts of their own consumption is a good thing. But this needs to be done with accurate evidence, gathered ethically, and presented as much as possible from the points of view of those affected by the issues.

Image: iStock

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