Seaspiracy premiered on Netflix less than two weeks ago. Just four days after it was released, it had already made it to the Top 10 lists on Netflix in more than 32 countries, including the U.K. and the U.S. Netflix does not release viewing numbers often (or in most cases, at all) but we can take this as a strong indication that the film is getting a lot of viewing traction. The documentary is also getting its fair share of blowback. A barrage of criticism from NGOs, marine biologists, scientists, fisherpeople, fishing industry heads and social media commentators suggest that the film is too (Redditors are having a field day). Below, we dive into the backlash, starting with the responses from the various organizations depicted in the film.
Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)
Overally, MSC’s statement is rather mild, given how they are portrayed in the film (or not portrayed)- remember that they did not answer calls or requests for interviews and . The gist of their response is that sustainable fishing is very much what they believe the world needs.
“While we disagree with much of what the Seaspiracy documentary-makers say, one thing we do agree with is that there is a crisis of overfishing in our oceans. However, millions around the world rely on seafood for their protein needs. With the global population set to reach 10 billion by 2050, the need to harness our natural resources more responsibly is more urgent than ever. Sustainable fishing has a vital role to play in securing those resources.”
Plastic Pollution Coalition
Their statement is on the shorter end and mostly involves disputing the film’s representation of their funding and highlighting that both Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society are members of their Coalition.
“Plastic Pollution Coalition is not funded by Earth Island Institute or working with other projects of Earth Island Institute to support the commercial fishing industry. Plastic Pollution Coalition has a small but mighty staff supporting a growing global alliance of more than 1,200 organizations, businesses, and thought leaders in 75 countries working toward a world free of plastic pollution and its toxic impacts on humans, animals, waterways, oceans, and the environment.”
April 6 2020 Update: the above statement was taken on March 28th. The response page has since been updated with a more complete list of Q&As about the film above the original response, included one about their relationship to Earth Island Institute:
“We are not funded by Earth Island Institute; rather, we pay Earth Island Institute to run our human resources and payroll for our small and mighty staff of 9 people. Our work is in no way dictated by Earth Island Institute.”
Oceana’s statement, fairly concise as well, mostly focuses on their policy victories and disputes the movie’s conclusion- they believe coastal communities need to consume fish for survival.
“We believe people have the right to choose what they eat, and we applaud those who make personal choices to improve the health of our planet. However, 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. Oceana campaigns to save the oceans for both the people who depend on them and to protect the marine animals (and other forms of life) who live in them.”
Will McCallum of Greenpeace
This article is not presented as a response to Seaspiracy, in fact the movie is not referenced at all. Still, given the arguments presented and the publication date (Mar 23 2021), it’s reasonable to infer that it’s meant to engage with the discussion. McCallum, who is Head of Oceans at Greenpeace, elaborates on the problem of overfishing that he has seen first hand, while underlining that populations in the Global South that rely on fishing for their livelihood must be supported.
“During my time as an oceans campaigner at Greenpeace, I’ve sat in a tiny boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean, watching a fishing boat pull in miles of drift nets. The nets were full of tuna, but there were also dead spinner dolphins, manta rays, thresher sharks and more – a grim demonstration of devastation at sea. I’ve been right up close with some of the biggest fishing vessels in the world, watching as they haul out incomprehensible numbers of fish.”
“For years, Greenpeace has been telling our supporters that eating less fish and eating a more plant-based diet is key for ocean health. But campaigning for a blanket ban on fishing would undermine the rights of people worldwide who depend on the oceans for their food and livelihoods and who are in desperate need of allies prepared to speak up on their behalf.”
Earth Island Institute (Dolphin Safe)
Earth Island Institute, which manages the Dolphin Safe label that was harpooned in the film, issued a statement on behalf of their International Marine Mammal Project, which in their own words “worked assiduously for the protection of marine mammals for more than 40 years” backing their Dolphin work.
“David Phillips, director of the International Marine Mammal Project stated, ‘The dolphin-safe tuna program is responsible for the largest decline in dolphin deaths by tuna fishing vessels in history. Dolphin-kill levels have been reduced by more than 95 percent, preventing the indiscriminate slaughter of more than 100,000 dolphins every year.’
Phillips added, ‘While covering critical topics, Seaspiracy unfortunately does a disservice to a number of organizations that are doing critical work to protect oceans and marine life. It’s no surprise that the New York Times panned the film for entrapping interviewees with leading questions and getting lost in a sea of murky conspiratorial thinking.’ “
Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA)
The Global Aquaculture Alliance, which later this year will become the Global Seafood Alliance given its work around wild fisheries as well as farmed setups, was not directly named in the film, though it has responded to Seaspiracy by inviting Tabrizi and Kip Anderson, the movie’s executive producer to join them in a roundtable debate, a gesture worth applauding.
“In light of the documentary “Seaspiracy,” released on Netflix on March 24, GAA invites director Ali Tabrizi and executive producer Kip Anderson to join the nonprofit organization’s responsible-seafood journey by participating in its upcoming discussion on social accountability as part of its series of GOAL 2021 virtual events.”
GAA says “is committed to continually raising the bar on social accountability through the adoption of standards and certification demonstrating best practices in aquaculture and fisheries as well as through its pre-competitive education and advocacy work.”
What should you believe?
Now you’ve got a handle on the other side of the story. Here’s the gist of most of the arguments and statements: the film raises important issues about illegal overfishing, but it’s wrong to insist that there is no such thing as sustainable fishing and many low income communities rely on fishing for subsistence. Further, the more angry commenters and debaters add that it’s elitist to ask people to convert to veganism, and that the film is one-sided in its arguments.
Our take on the above:
- If you don’t like the film, that’s your right. However, do make sure you have actually watched it before you critique it.
- Do your own homework- you don’t have to believe Tabrizi and the Seaspiracy producers, but don’t blindly believe the NGOs and other interested parties either. Everyone has an agenda (and most of the most ardent critiquers make their money from, your guessed it, fishing). Tabrizi’s agenda may be to promote veganism. He is not hiding this.
- Almost every single headline mentioned in the film has been reported on before. You can check out this Green Queen article from 2019: 10 Reasons Why You Should Reconsider Eating Fish & Seafood– it’s nothing new.
- The film is one-sided, this is a fact. For the better part of the last few decades, we have been fed the other one-sided side, aka the fishing industry’s story.
- Veganism is an all encompassing lifestyle choice based first and foremost on compassion for all beings. This includes fish and marine wildlife. End of story.
- As a consumer, you likely have very little oversight into whether the fish you are eating is 1) mercury & heavy metal free, 2) was fished without marine bycatch, 3) is actually the species you believe it to be, 4) was fished legally and without any slave/indentured labor and 5) was partially responsible for any fishing gear debris left in the ocean. If you feel you can be sure on all these points, then by all means, go ahead and consume fish. If not, reduce as much as you can.
- It’s taken many years and relentless work by experts and activists (including films such as Cowspiracy), but finally people are starting to reduce their meat consumption. The problem? They are turning to fish instead. If this film helps stem this tide, it’s a net positive.
- As for aquaculture, here’s a recent report about salmon farming and the US$47 billion in losses the sector has incurred since 2013– remember, the global fishing industry is subsidized to the the tune of US$38 billion per year.
- The argument that the film is looking to punish low-income coastal fishermen communities is a stretch- quite on the contrary, the Somali pirates segment does the opposite, illustrating how industrial overfishing led poor fishermen to lives of crime. This seems like an easy way for those with industrial fishing agendas to discredit it and on the whole, rings hollow.
Famous last words: Captain Paul Watson
Captain Paul Watson founder of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and a human who has spent 60 years of his life at sea may deserve the last word here:
“Predictably, the successful release of Seaspiracy on Netflix is receiving some criticism from the usual subjects. That was expected, but it really is not all that important. Many documentaries that I have been involved with over the years have been met with similar negativity and vitriol. […] Seaspiracy as a film is what it is, a message transmitted by a medium to provoke discussion and to expose and illustrate a global problem and as such it is both powerful and influential and most importantly thanks to Netflix it is reaching millions and trending phenomenally. […] Filmmaking is storytelling. It’s meant to be emotive. It’s designed to captivate viewers and to entice discussion and controversy. If people are talking about it that means it’s a success. If people are criticizing it, that means it is having an impact. If some people are condemning it, that means that some people are threatened by it. Personally, I don’t care if there are scientists and industry people who dislike the film. I don’t need bio institutes and P.R. firms to lecture me on something I have seen and witnessed with my own eyes over the last 60 years. There is no such thing as a sustainable fishery. That is my considered observation based on 60 years of experience. Phytoplankton populations in the sea have been reduced by 40% since 1950 and that is probably the most important validated scientific fact to be concerned about. (Source: Scientific American). Life in the Ocean is being diminished and that diminishment is escalating. I’m not surprised that there are many who wish to deny this just as there have been many quick to deny climate change. Change comes about through stories and in today’s world, the most powerful communication medium is film. […] If they [the critics] want to make a film with what they consider to be “real” science they should do it. […] This film despite the naysayers and the critics is a critically acclaimed success and that is a fact. It is a weapon of revelation and it is influencing millions and it needs to be built upon and not dismissed or belittled, especially by people who profess to care about marine ecology. The Ocean does not have time for the justifiers, the appeasers and the complainers. Right now, the Ocean needs activists more than scientists.
Read Captain Watson’s full statement on his Facebook page.
Lead image courtesy of Seaspiracy.