Is it possible to eat seafood sustainably? This is the question at the heart of Seaspiracy, the new Netflix documentary about commercial fishing that has dominated headlines, sparked debate and stirred up controversy. Directed by newcomer Ali Tabrizi and produced by Kip Anderson, the well-known environmental filmmaker behind Cowspiracy (2014), Seaspiracy reaches the dramatic conclusion that no, it is not possible to eat seafood sustainably. Instead, Seaspiracy asks that we give up fish altogether to save our oceans. But is it as simple as that?
In comparison to the ocean, we humans are puny. In terms of volume, the ocean makes up around 99.5% of planetary habitats, with land accounting for the remaining 0.5%. It has been theorised that we know more about outer space than we do about the depths of the ocean. In other words, we are used to thinking about the ocean as a vast, pristine and abundant place, free from human interference. However, a closer look at the oceans today reveals the horrifying extent to which human beings are damaging marine ecosystems. There have been many theories about what’s going wrong: David Attenborough on Blue Planet II cited global warming and ocean acidification, whilst others have encouraged us to stop using plastic straws and to attend local ‘beach cleans’. Seaspiracy argues that missing from all of this has been a full-throated condemnation of what they say is the biggest threat to our seas: the fishing industry.
The major theme of Seaspiracy is overfishing. The documentary argues that global appetites for seafood, the profit-driven greed of private corporations and increasingly sophisticated fishing technologies have come together in a toxic cocktail, leading to more and more fish being removed from the oceans. Throughout the film, startling figures flash across the screen. Seaspiracy estimates that today nearly 2.7 trillion fish are caught every year. Fish are caught in nets so large that they could hold up to 13 jumbo jets. Alongside the targeted fish, any fish or marine mammal that has the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time is scooped up, with 40% of all marine life that is caught, subsequently thrown back overboard as bycatch.
Fears about overfishing are not new. In fact, this is why consumers have been encouraged to look out for the little Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) ‘blue tick’ logo on seafood products, an indication that they have been sourced in a sustainable and responsible manner. Yet Seaspiracy argues that these corporate sustainability schemes are hard to enforce in reality. The remote nature of high seas fishing means that it is difficult to police commercial fishing practices. The MSC does have watchers that are supposed to go out to sea and monitor what is going on, but Seaspiracy argues that these watchers can either be easily bribed or threatened into silence. With the legitimacy of corporate ideas of ‘sustainability’ seriously undermined, Seaspiracy argues that when we eat a fish, we can never be sure it’s been sourced in a careful and responsible manner.
It is not just that commercial fishing is removing too many fish from the ocean: as Seaspiracy reveals, commercial fishing vessels are responsible for some of the most egregious acts of pollution at sea. The dumping of plastic into the sea has been one of the most well documented elements of ocean pollution. Many of us are familiar with shocking images of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating island of marine debris estimated to be about three times the size of France. Seaspiracy cites research that claims a staggering 46% of the garbage patch is made up of fishing nets, enough line to be wrapped around the planet over 500 times. These nets make the garbage patch even more deadly to fish, mammals and birds, ensnaring any creature that encounters it. As for the plastic straws environmentalists have campaigned so hard to reduce? Seaspiracy estimates that these account for only 0.03% of plastic currently in the ocean.
Questioning whether sustainability is even the right goal when it comes to caring for the ocean, Seaspiracy asks us to ponder if it is morally acceptable to ever eat fish? For a long time, fish have been ranked below mammals when it comes to human assumptions about the sentience and intelligence of other beings. With their cold staring eyes, fish can be harder for us humans to relate to than our fellow warm-blooded mammals. Using beautiful footage of schooling fish and quotes from the legendary marine biologist Sylvia Earle, Seaspiracy asks us to consider the beauty and mystery of fish: their highly sensitive nervous systems that allows a ‘thousand fish to move like one fish’, their extraordinary navigational abilities that allow them to travel thousands of miles across the globe without getting lost, and their sophisticated social lives.
Should we stop eating seafood?
In light of the destruction caused by commercial fishing, Seaspiracy argues that the best thing we can do is to stop eating seafood completely. This dramatic conclusion has been met with a mixed reception. The most hotly debated element of the film has been the accuracy of the science underpinning its argument. Critics have argued that some of the evidence presented is outdated and unreliable, with the claim that the oceans will be ‘empty of fish by 2048’ generating particular controversy. The author of the 2006 study this fact was sourced from has himself argued that it is outdated and incorrect. Adding to the controversy has been contributors to the film protesting that their critiques of the fishing industry were removed from their original context and highly sensationalised. The response of the team behind Seaspiracy to this controversy has been to claim that despite some inaccuracies, the broad picture painted by the film is accurate.
Yet even if we were to put these quarrels about the scientific accuracy of the film to one side, there remains significant worries about the way the film avoids dealing with the complex social politics surrounding commercial fishing. The film’s reduction of diverse commercial fishing practices into a seemingly monolithic ‘fishing industry’ is one example of this. There are many small-scale fisheries, as well as artisanal producers and independent fishmongers, passionate about the well-being of the ocean and who take care to fish sustainably. Even within the world of industrial fishing, there are different ways of doing things: one needs only to look at recent clashes between the UK and the EU in the wake of Brexit to see that industrial fishing is a site of conflict, debate and competing interests. Industrial fishing may have some frightening and harmful consequences, but it is not monolithic.
There is also the inescapable fact that billions of people across the globe from Scotland to Senegal rely upon fish for food and livelihoods. The choice to ‘stop eating fish’ is perhaps simply not an option that they have. As well as being economically and nutritionally dependent upon fish, fish also often hold a very important cultural position in these communities. This makes Seaspiracy’s attempt to form an ethical argument against eating fish complicated. We see this tension in the film most clearly during scenes depicting the annual whale cull that takes place on the Faroe Islands. To some eyes, the cull may be shocking and disturbing, but for the Faroese whaler the film interviews, it will provide him with food that will last for months, as well as an energy source for heating and lighting. It is perhaps unfair for those of us watching from afar to judge unfamiliar practices as cruel or unsustainable.
Seafood politics is as vast and complex as the ocean. As an instrument to make people aware of the damage and destruction happening at sea, Seaspiracy is incredibly successful. Yet there remain unanswered questions about what people who rely upon fish for their protein, their livelihoods and their culture can do. Perhaps one way beyond this impasse is for those of us with the means to commit to sourcing our fish from local fishers and fishmongers, to ensure we know the ‘story’ behind the fish on our plates. Just as many people have become more accustomed when sourcing meat to question its provenance, we need to be scrupulous about questioning where our fish has come from rather than relying on a ‘blue tick’ to do the work for us. We should ask questions about the overall health of that particular fish population, the methods used to catch the fish and the conditions of labour for the fishers who caught it. Asking these sorts of questions would not only allow us to avoid the devastating harm we see captured in Seaspiracy but could also amplify and push further into the mainstream the sorts of alternative fishing practices desperately needed to bring about more just and balanced ecological relationships. What’s certain is that after watching Seaspiracy, we cannot turn away from the destruction wreaked by current modes of commercial fishing – the future of our oceans and our planet, depends on it.
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