The documentary Seaspiracy which premieres tonight on Netflix aims to change personal, industrial, and governmental choices, according to co-director Ali Tabrizi. It’s produced by Kip Andersen, who directed the award-winning Cowspiracy.
Directed by Ali and Lucy Tabrizi, the film takes a deep dive into plastic pollution in the ocean, shark finning, industrial fishing and human rights violations at sea.
Ali Tabrizi told Quota, “one of the film’s ultimate goals is to create a global discussion around the topic of food choice and sustainability, that effects change on a personal, industrial, and governmental level.”
Already, the film has sparked controversy. A month before its release, a leaked letter to Netflix described Seaspiracy as a “dishonest attack” that should be labelled “vegan propaganda” for its “exaggeration, fabrications and conspiracy theories.” It was signed by John Connelly, CEO of the National Fisheries Institute (NFI), a US trade association representing 300 members and 75 per cent of the US fishing industry.
Ali Tabrizi told Quota it was unfortunate that the NFI had gone on the record before the documentary premiered, although it was not entirely unexpected.
“When it comes to plastic pollution in our ocean, we can all agree that we need to reduce our consumption of the material and find better alternatives,” he said.
“But as soon as the same observation is made by some of the world’s leading oceanographers and scientists, when it comes to reducing consumption of fish and finding better dietary alternatives, it’s no surprise the seafood industry responds with the terms like this.”
“What surprised me most was how little sustainable fishing or dolphin friendly labels mean”
The documentary discusses blood shrimp, criminal networks and the complicity of environmental groups in the exploitation of the seas.
“The oceans are in the state they are in today because of poor governance, industrial negligence, corruption, and lack of consumer awareness. We are often bombarded with false narratives and blue-washed slogans of sustainability,” he said.
“What surprised me most making the film was learning just how little substance there is to the sustainable fishing or dolphin friendly labels on seafood products.
“The organisation behind Dolphin Safe confessed to not being able to guarantee dolphin safety in the capture of tuna they verify, and not being able to guarantee that cans of tuna with their label are in fact dolphin safe.
“When I spoke to the EU Commissioner for Fisheries and the Environment in Brussels, I was amazed at just how little it took for me to challenge his entire understanding of what sustainable fishing meant.
“Or when speaking to Oceana, the world’s biggest marine conservation group, who I will say are doing good work in many areas, confessed that there is actually no definition for the term sustainable fishing.”
While the NFI is keen to undermine the claims made in Seaspiracy, it is important to recognise that the dual issues of slavery and overfishing are well documented and widely reported. Indeed, they are connected by a vicious cycle.
“Subsidies fuel overexploitation and disproportionately benefit big business”
Since the 1960s, the consumption of fish has grown at a rate of 3.1 per cent year-on-year, which is twice the growth of the world’s population at 1.6 per cent, and higher than the growth of consumption for other animal protein sources, 2.1 per cent, according to the United Nations’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
The World Wildlife Fund’s Living Blue Planet Report says global marine populations halved by nearly 50 per cent between 1970 and 2012.
This has been driven by the industrialisation of fishing and growing consumer demand in developed nations.
As globalisation drives down the market price of fish, fishermen are incentivised to catch more to remain profitable. As overfishing makes this more difficult, governments provide subsidies to fishing firms to stay afloat, thereby supporting economically unsustainable fishing practices.
Mukhisa Kituyi, the Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) co-authored an article for the World Economic Forum in 2018 explicitly drawing the connection between industrialised fishing, and the subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported, and unregulated practices.
He wrote, “Nearly 90 per cent of the world’s marine fish stocks are now fully exploited, overexploited or depleted. There is no doubt that subsidies play a big role. Not only do they fuel overexploitation, they disproportionately benefit big business.
“Nearly 85 per cent of fisheries subsidies benefit large fleets, but small-scale fisheries employ 90 per cent of all fishermen and account for 30 per cent of the catch in marine fisheries.”
“We need governments to stop subsidising the destructive fishing industry by $35 billion per year. We could solve world hunger for only $30 billion”
As profits continue to crumble, fishermen switch to illegal activities to cut costs, ignore environmental regulations, and make a profit. At sea, enforcing the law is nearly impossible.
According to a Greenpeace report, every year 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear is dumped into the ocean – the equivalent of 50,000 double decker buses, making the fishing industry the largest contributor to plastic pollution.
In 2020, a report for the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS) found modern day slavery was rampant in the fishing industry. Many fishermen are conned by recruiting agencies in a handful of countries, primarily the Philippines and Indonesia, and then trapped on fishing vessels for years, facing violence, inhumane conditions and murder at the hands of criminal gangs.
Implicated in this study were 43 countries including the EU, the UK and the United States that provide a consumer market for fish caught by forced labour.
The documentary says, “The same syndicates behind illegal fishing are behind drug trafficking, human trafficking and other crimes.”
From a policy perspective, the global fishing industry is facing the classic “prisoner’s dilemma” described in game theory, where individuals chose non-cooperation with collective rules to maximise their benefit – even if it exhausts a naturally occurring resource, the fish.
In the 2020 report, The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture: sustainability in action, the UN highlights the importance of aquaculture and fishing for food security. It recognised “the capacity for further growth, but also the enormity of the environmental challenges as it intensifies production, [which] demand new sustainable development strategies.”
Seaspiracy challenges whether the further “intensification of production” and sustainability are compatible.
The NFI is correct in describing Seaspiracy as unapologetically vegan. But it is grounded in the desire to create a more responsible, ethical, and efficient food system.
“We want individuals to be inspired to shift towards a plant based diet – without doubt one of the most effective things we can all do to protect the planet and biodiversity,” says Ali Tabrizi.
“We need governments to stop subsidising the destructive and often unprofitable fishing industry to the tune of $35 billion per year. According to the United Nations we could solve world hunger for only $30 billion.”
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