'Seaspiracy' Film Reveals Destruction of Marine Life by Overfishing and Pollution

It conveys an important message that's somewhat obscured by sensationalism.

Overfishing, Northern Gannets, Trawler Fishing for Herring in the English Channel.

Getty Images/Christian Aslund

If you open Netflix this week, there's a good chance you'll see "Seaspiracy" on the trending list. This new documentary, directed and produced by 27-year-old British filmmaker Ali Tabrizi, has managed to do exactly what many documentaries are designed to do – stir up a fiery controversy. In this instance, it's all about the oceans and whether or not they're poised on the brink of collapse, due to plastic pollution and overfishing.

Tabrizi loves the ocean deeply – there's no doubt about that – but it's not clear at first what ocean-related issue his film focuses on. He jumps around from condemning the killing of dolphins to lamenting plastic pollution to describing the atrocities committed by fishing boats to the destruction of coral reefs. Viewers get a dramatic and horrifying overview of many things wrong with the ocean, but no particularly in-depth look at any one of them.

The narrative pivots aggressively at times, jumping from one thing to the next without smooth transitions, which can feel confusing. There's plenty of drama, with scenes of Tabrizi sneaking around dark corners at nighttime wearing hoodies in the rain and filming Chinese shark fin markets with hidden cameras. Police lights and sirens make repeated appearances in an effort to underscore the danger of his mission.

Inadequate Answers

The film footage is breathtaking and gut-wrenching at times. Tabrizi manages to get some truly awful scenes of dolphin-killing, whaling, aquaculture, illegal fishing, and more that will remain seared into viewers' memories, especially that of an exceedingly bloody whale hunt in the Faroe Islands of Denmark and lice-ridden salmon swimming around a Scottish enclosure. But the scenes sometimes lack context, and when Tabrizi goes looking for it, the answers he accepts are unsatisfactory to someone with a more skeptical mind. 

For example, why are the Japanese mass-slaughtering dolphins in a secret cove? Tabrizi (who admits he thought whaling only existed in history books – a revelation that's oddly uninformed for someone making an ocean documentary) hears it is because they're captured for marine shows, but that doesn't explain why others are not released. One representative from Sea Shepherd says it's because the Japanese view dolphins as direct competitors for fish in the ocean and believe they must be culled to maintain stock levels. This has huge implications if true. Somehow that turns into dolphins being a scapegoat for overfishing – a way for the Japanese to hide their own unsustainable fishing practices. Those are two very big, separate ideas, but neither gets any further attention because suddenly Tabrizi is on to sharks.

Questionable Labels

Some of the interviews are revelatory, particularly the one with Earth Island Institute, which oversees the "dolphin-safe" label on canned tuna. When spokesman Mark J. Palmer is asked if the label guarantees no dolphins have been harmed, he says, "Nope. Nobody can. Once you’re out there in the ocean, how do you know what they’re doing? We have observers onboard – observers can be bribed." Palmer is made to look foolish, but I couldn't help admiring his honesty and realism. Ethical labels are imperfect attempts at doing things better. They may not get it right every time, but they're better than nothing because at least they give shoppers a chance to vote with their money and say, "This is something I care about."

The Marine Stewardship Council's (MSC) repeated refusal to speak to Tabrizi is admittedly suspicious. It does feel ironic that the world's leading authority on sustainable seafood won't talk to him about sustainable seafood. The MSC has since issued a statement that "sets the record straight on some of the misleading claims in the film," but it would've been nice if they had done it on film. But then even when Tabrizi does get an excellent explanation of what sustainable fishing can be, as the EU Commissioner of Fisheries and Environment Karmenu Vella offers, he doesn't want to listen.

Controversial Interviews

Tabrizi delves into ocean plastic pollution, challenging the idea that microplastics are the primary source and citing a study that found rogue fishing nets and gear comprise the majority. (This turns out to be only in a single Pacific Ocean gyre, not throughout all oceans. A Greenpeace study says fishing gear comprises only 10%.) Armed with this information, he grills the Plastic Pollution Coalition on why it doesn't tell people to stop eating seafood as the most effective way to stop plastic entering the seas. You can tell the interviewees are caught off guard by the line of persistent questioning that clearly assumes a foregone conclusion. It feels uncomfortably disingenuous. 

The fact that several interviewees have spoken out in frustration about how their words were misinterpreted by the film raises red flags. Professor Christina Hicks tweeted, "Unnerving to discover your cameo in a film slamming an industry you love and have committed your career to." In a statement the Plastic Pollution Coalition said the filmmakers "bullied our staff and cherry-picked seconds of our comments to support their own narrative." Marine ecologist Bryce Stewart (who was not in the film) said, "Does it highlight a number of shocking & important issues? Absolutely. But is it misleading at the same time? ... Many of the scenes were clearly staged and I know that at least one of the interviewees was taken out of context."

The appearances of environmental journalist George Monbiot and renowned marine biologist Sylvia Earle add credibility to the film, and both are staunch advocates of not eating seafood under any circumstances. Earle looks at it from a climate perspective, which is a nice addition to the film:

"We understand that leaving trees or planting trees really helps the carbon equation, but nothing matters more than maintaining the integrity of ocean systems. These big animals, even the little ones, they take up carbon, they sequester carbon when they sink to the bottom of the ocean. The ocean is the biggest carbon sink on the planet."

Monbiot, who has spoken out against fishing in the past, calls for a total shift in perspective: "Even if not a single gram of plastic entered the oceans from today onwards, we would still be ripping those ecosystems apart because the biggest issue by far is commercial fishing. It's not just far more damaging than plastic pollution, it's far more damaging than oil pollution from oil spills."

Insidious Industries

Perhaps the most profound part of Seaspiracy is the section on slavery in the Thai shrimp industry, featuring interviews with formerly enslaved workers who speak in secrecy and describe horrifying years of abuse at sea, including beatings with iron rods and the bodies of murdered companions kept in onboard freezers. The passing mention of mangrove swamps destroyed to build extensive shrimp farms is also an important reminder to be careful about buying shrimp.

The Scottish farmed salmon industry, with its 50% mortality rate, rampant disease, and extreme levels of fecal waste, is another solid section. None of the information is new or revelatory; many people already know that farmed salmon has an atrocious feed-conversion ratio (it takes 1.2 kilograms of wild fish feed to produce 1 kilogram of salmon) and that flesh is colored artificially, but it's worth repeating. 

Valuable Takeaways

Seaspiracy has an important message for the world. There's no doubt that the future of the planet depends on the health of the oceans, from the apex predators like sharks and tuna that keep populations in balance to the phytoplankton that capture four times as much carbon as the Amazon rainforest. We cannot continue fishing on an industrial scale – but to say that we should stop eating fish altogether makes me uncomfortable.

As someone who's traveled a fair bit, I've seen places that depend on fish for survival. It strikes me as arrogant and presumptuous to come in, as an affluent Westerner, and say that the mainstay of an impoverished country's diet should not be allowed to continue. In Christina Hicks' words, "Yes, there are issues, but also progress, and fish remain critical to food and nutrition security in many vulnerable geographies." 

Greenpeace even weighed in, telling Treehugger that dramatically reducing seafood consumption in countries where it's possible is an effective way to help the oceans, but that "there can be no environmental justice without social justice." It went on:

"That’s why Greenpeace’s campaigning for ocean protection includes campaigning for the rights of local communities and small-scale fisherman who rely on the oceans to survive: for their livelihoods and food for their family. We’ll continue to challenge industrial food production systems that destroy nature and oppress people, while maintaining a firm commitment to ensuring human dignity and access to a healthy diet. We all depend on thriving oceans to survive."

That's where I wish Tabrizi had gotten into the much more complicated question of who is eating all this industrially-harvested fish, because I doubt it's the subsistence fishermen I saw unloading their small wooden boats at the Negombo fish market in Sri Lanka. He himself admits that the canoe-based fisheries off West Africa worked fine until industrial trawlers showed up.

Because I live in Ontario, Canada, I readily admit that I should not be eating fish imported from far away – at least, nothing other than the fresh Lake Huron whitefish that I buy straight from my friend's family-owned fishing boat on summer evenings.