Apr 2, 2021 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Jon Lamson | Illustration by Xixi Qin
Chronicling a globetrotting investigation into the commercial fishing industry, “Seaspiracy” dives into the decimation of marine ecosystems across the globe and looks to do away with the idea of “sustainable” large-scale fishing.
Featuring interviews with conservation heavyweights such as Sylvia Earle, Ric O’Barry, and Paul Watson, the film makes a strong case for the protection of large swaths of ocean from commercial fishing, the ending of government subsidies for unsustainable fishing, and, on an individual level, the substitution of seafood with plant-based alternatives.
The documentary was released on March 24 on Netflix and debuted among one of their top-10 movies in the United States. It features filmmaker Ali Tabrizi, and was produced by Kip Anderson, the co-director of similarly-styled documentaries “Cowspiracy” and “What the Health.”
Tabrizi chronicles the massive global decline in fish and whale populations, which he attributes to overfishing more than any other factor, including climate change, water contamination, and single-use plastics.
In one of the film’s most revealing moments, Tabrizi uncovers issues with “dolphin-safe” tuna labels. A representative for the Earth Island Institute, a nonprofit with an internationally recognized “dolphin-safe” label, admits that they cannot guarantee that tuna carrying their label is actually produced without killing dolphins, since their observers (which their representative notes can be bribed) do not regularly accompany ships. At the same time, the organization is well-compensated by the companies it certifies.
The film also highlights the outsized role of fishing equipment in ocean plastic pollution, citing a 2018 report which found fishing nets to make up 46% of the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” This is compared with consumer recommendations of the Plastic Pollution Coalition (run by the Earth Island Institute) that focus on single-use plastics while essentially ignoring the issue of fishing-related plastic waste. An interview with the coalition’s CEO quickly devolves.
The film also broadly attacks “sustainable fishing” labels, which are promoted by conservation nonprofits such as Oceana. “It’s just a marketing phrase, that’s all,” says Watson, the founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (remember “Whale Wars?”). “A lot of these groups aren’t interested in solving the problem, they’re interested in exploiting the problem.”
In response to these allegations, Oceana released a statement on the documentary, stating that their goal is to reduce overfishing through policy, not personal choice. “Choosing to abstain from consuming seafood is not a realistic choice for the hundreds of millions of people around the world who depend on coastal fisheries – many of whom are also facing poverty, hunger, and malnutrition,” they note.
“Seaspiracy” is certainly not without its flaws. It has been publicly criticized for making misleading statements by a number of scientists, including one featured in the documentary. It fails to adequately address the well-established role of climate change in threatening marine ecosystems, only briefly links the issue of overfishing to environmental justice, and does nothing to highlight proven sustainable Indigenous fishing practices.
Furthermore, with only a few non-white interviewees, the film suffers from a lack of diverse perspectives and self-reflection. The role of the U.S. and European commercial fishing is hardly considered, while a hard look is given to practices in Japan, Hong Kong, and Thailand. This seems to deflect responsibility and propagate an anti-Asian trope.
While the central issues raised by the film ought not be diminished, it unfortunately comes off as a scattered affair with a somewhat distorted perspective. The environmental movement has long suffered from a lack of diversity, and ultimately this is what holds “Seaspiracy” back from reaching its full potential as a film.