Environment / Lifestyle /
Leonardio DiCaprio-backed documentary Seaspiracy was released on Netflix this month, to a wave of commentary from viewers and industry experts alike. Directed by Ali Tabrizi, the film documents the issues facing our oceans, diving deep into topics such as plastic pollution, commercial whaling and the human rights issues of the fishing industry.
The documentary raises some very real and important points about the perils of over fishing, combined with a somewhat sensationalist narrative. So what are the facts, and what can we learn from the film itself?
The documentary points out that while governments are working hard to be seen banning single use plastics such as straws and cotton buds, the largest single contributor to ocean plastics (and thus microplastics) is from commercial fishing. Across the whole ocean fishing gear contributes to around 10% of ocean plastics, but in concentrated areas such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (700,000km squared of plastic sitting in the Pacific Ocean), this figure rises to an astounding 46%.
Plastic in the oceans is an issue for many reasons. For sea animals, consumed plastic can lead to starvation, due to the stomach filling up with plastic, rather than the necessary food. This can be through plastic being mistaken for other food, such as jellyfish, or consumed via bioaccumulation, where microplastics plastics become more and more concentrated in larger animals due to the number of smaller animals they have to consume to survive. Over time, the food is digested but the plastic remains, building up until it kills the animal. Ghost fishing is another issue, whereby discarded fishing nets and lines continue to kill wildlife long after being discarded. Between 500,000 to 1 million tons of fishing gear is discarded or lost in the ocean every year, and without any incentives to stop this, it’ll continue to be easier and cheaper to dump broken fishing gear in the sea than take it back to land for recycling.
If we want to actively tackle the amount of plastic and microplastics in the ocean, we need stricter regulations on the types of fishing gear allowed, and enforcement of how it can be safely disposed of, without doing any more harm than that intended.
Over the last decade or so, there have been increasing numbers of reports of deaths and disappearances of those working to enforce rules designed to protect fisheries. Due to scarce resources and ever tightening regulations, ocean watchdogs are under increasing pressure to accept bribes or look the other way when it comes to enforcing legislations. Those that don’t have increasingly met grim fates.
On top of this, Seaspiracy shone a spotlight on the world’s complicity with modern day slavery used in commercial fishing. Details are understandably murky, but the Global Slavery Index has stated that modern slavery exists in fishing in most parts of the world, thanks in part to the desire to reduce costs in this low-tech, highly labour-intensive, low-profit industry.
The nature of the industry – offshore, often under cover of night, hidden from sight – means that escape or relief is impossible for most. The issue is not unique to Thailand – there have been media reports of modern slavery and labour abuses aboard American, British, Chinese, and Taiwanese vessels in recent years too. The ever-growing demand for fish and over exploitation of fish stocks has lead, and will lead, to greater pressures on fishing, directly increasing the amount of slavery used, and greater competition with small-scale fishing villages who rely on fish for food and income. With this competition for an increasingly scarce food source, there can only be one winner, and it’s unlikely to be the Indigenous populations who have been fishing sustainably for millennia.
Farmed fish are marketed as a more environmentally friendly way to eat fish, because they do not plunder wild stocks – the fish are bred specifically for eating, in a similar way to farm animals. However, due to the high density of fish (leading to disease and thus open water antibiotic use), high levels of waste escaping into the surrounding water and lack of regulation, fish farming using our current methods has a high number of issues too.
Atlantic, sockeye and pink wild salmon populations crashed in the late 2000s (and for multiple subsequent years), thanks primarily to local fish f arms. These farms had over 80% prevalence of parasitic sea-lice, a common infection in farmed fish, which infect local wild populations, leading to a 99% reduction in susceptible fish. In addition, due to the release, or escape, of some farmed fish, native populations are interbreeding or being outcompeted, reducing genetic diversity (and thus resilience to threats such as climate change and disease) of native wild salmon populations. The exact same things has happened this year on our own coastline, in Scotland, in part due to sea lice from fish farms. Seaspiracy also pointed out the number of wild-caught fish that go into feeding farmed fish – it is not an efficient way of feeding a population.
Despite a recent press release by the Marine Stewardship Council stating otherwise, it is evident that there is not currently enough enforcement of rules and regulations to ensure the sustainability of wild-caught seafood. With much of the fishing industry working far out at sea, Seapiracy made claims suggesting that it is impossible to guarantee that no bycatch was killed, or animals such as dolphins caught up in nets during the fishing process.
By choosing Dolphin-safe or MSC-certified seafood, you are showing a desire to have minimal impact on the environment, but in reality there is very little that can be guaranteed once a fishing boat is out at sea. Nets are not discriminatory, and even those with the best intentions will end up having some bycatch in the form of dolphins, sharks, turtles and whales.
Seaspiracy set out to raise awareness of the very real, deeply worrying issue of overfishing, and the human-rights issues that come with it. In this sense, they were successful – the film climbed to Netflix’s top 10 in the UK and US, and received praise from celebrities worldwide. Despite its obviously one-sided approach, lack of intersectionality and simplification of an extremely complex issue, the film succeeded in both raising awareness and starting a conversation about ocean conservation. Perhaps the whole film should be taken with a pinch of salt, but the overall message stands true.
Fishing is not intrinsically bad for the environment, especially where fish consumption can replace/reduce red meat consumption, which ultimately has the most negative impact on the environment. Ethics notwithstanding, fishing is an industry that supplies over 3 billion people with a major source of protein, and over 90% of fisheries are small scale, with around 50% of workers being women. The film, perhaps understanding that the majority of viewers would be from the Global North, almost entirely ignored the issue of intersectionality, calling for viewers to give up fish entirely – a task impossible for many globally.
However, Seaspiracy showed that the methods in which we fish on an industrial scale are undoubtedly failing in their job to preserve the world’s largest ecosystem. For most of us in the UK, it is not only impossible to guarantee the sustainability of most of our fish, but also unnecessary to eat it in the first place. Globally, this may not be the case, but for those who have the luxury of choice, cutting down on overall fish consumption as much as possible is a good first step to take – for many people this may mean avoiding fish altogether, but others may not have the means to do so. Avoid smoked fish, processed fish and unspecified ‘white fish’, anything ‘mass caught’ (purse-seine, bottom trawled etc)….. If you have to, buy whole fish where possible and know where it has come from, and how it was caught.
Sustainable fishing, in theory, is absolutely possible – Indigenous populations have been practising it for millennia – and there are many people working around the clock to make this a reality. However, with the lack of infrastructure to regulate and enforce well-meaning legislation, we are a long way from having healthy, recovered ecosystems in our seas, and even further from being able to exploit those reserves to the extent we currently do. Because of this, many are opting to cut out fish until better solutions exist that better represent the interest of all involved parties – not only developed countries’ obsession with plundering resources required by many.
Sharkwater extinction – a documentary exposé on the trade of illegal shark fin.
Ghost Fleet – delves into Thailand’s fishing industry and its links to human trafficking.
Ocean Recovery – an evidence-based look at what the future of sustainable fishing could look like based on scientific data.
How To Save a Planet – a podcast interview with Yurok Tribe Vice-Chairman Frankie Myers on the demise of local salmon stocks and how the tribe is working to bring them back.
How To Save a Planet – another episode looking into the sustainable alternatives to fish, and the birth of the kelp-farming industry.