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Seaspiracy: vegan propaganda or important warning?

Johannes Moehrle discusses the environmentalist documentary taking the world by storm.

This month’s most talked about Netflix release was an unusual one, yet it sparked more debate than some of the platform’s most popular shows. The documentary Seaspiracy made it into the Netflix top 10 in no time, and the heated reactions about it in the media were just as quick to arrive. Many praised it for attacking the environmental impact of fishing head on, qualifying it as the absolute “must watch”. Meanwhile, others criticised it just as vehemently, and labelled it a piece of propaganda against the fishing industry and accused it of taking statistics out of context to promote veganism.

The documentary, directed by Ali Tabrizi and produced by Kip Anderson, exposes what is perhaps the biggest threat to our oceans: industrial fishing. At first, it might come as a surprise, since throughout the years, despite the rising awareness about plastic pollution in our seas, we have heard little about the dangers linked to our ever-increasing fish consumption. The recent BBC documentary Blue Planet II failed to even mention industrial fishing, and environmental organisations such as Oceana or the World Wildlife Fund fail to mention our fish consumption as a direct threat to the ocean. 

To give us an understanding on how fishing—not plastic straws nor any piece of single use plastic—is the most important threat to the oceans, the documentary discusses many damages that it causes. On the top of the list are bycatch of sea turtles, dolphins, and sharks, the destruction of the seabed through the trawling of huge heavy nets, and most obviously, the emptying of the seas which are at the point of collapse. Despite the controversy, the destructiveness of these practices have not been denied even by the harshest critics of the documentary, instead, they have taken issue with how this information is presented and supported. 

Throughout the one-and-a-half-hour documentary, the audience is bombarded with statistics and scientific studies combined with interviews with environmentalists, marine biologists and key actors from the fishing industry. Some fact checkers have looked at the individual numbers presented and have found that although these are not invented, they are in some cases taken out of context. For example, the claim that if fishing continues at its present pace, oceans will be “virtually empty” by 2048, refers to a 2006 New York Times article and, through it, a study published in Science. However, this assertion has since been refuted by many, including the scientists in charge of the initial study. Such a lack of precision from the documentary is indeed frustrating, as it undermines and diminishes its credibility and value.

Nevertheless, Seaspiracy gets more things right than wrong, and it does tackle the problem linked to the depletion of our oceans. Indeed, even if our oceans are not going to be empty by 2048, there isn’t much to be reassured by; 85% of all fish stocks are currently overexploited or depleted, and populations who are dependent on fish to feed themselves (an estimated 120 million people) are therefore becoming increasingly food insecure. Thus,  an environmental problem becomes a humanitarian crisis. 

Another humanitarian issue linked to the fishing industry and exposed by the documentary is the form of modern slavery to which many workers, especially in Southeast Asia, are subjected.  Researchers have established a link between the fishing industry and forced labour, human trafficking, physical abuse and even murder, and reports from the International Labour Organisation confirm that these practices are common place in the fishing industry.

Fishing companies are not the only ones in the industry who are involved in immoral practices. Seaspiracy is also concerned with the role that sustainability labels and environmental organisations play in an industry that more and more resembles a sinking ship. The director, Ali, interviews several executives of charitable organisations for environmental preservation. One such executive, Mark Palmer from the “Dolphin Safe” label, a label that guarantees that no dolphins were killed in bycatch, admitted that there is no way to actually provide such a guarantee, and that their inspectors could easily be bribed once out at sea. The failure of these key players presented in Seaspiracy to ensure the sustainability of fishing practices seems to be a sufficient argument for the authors to claim that sustainable fishing is impossible. Such a statement however, closes the doors to finding potential innovative solutions to ensure that fish can be caught in sustainable ways.

Therefore, with all the environmental and humanitarian problems caused by industrial fishing, and with their belief that sustainable practices is an impossibility under current circumstances, Seaspiracy only offers one drastic solution: eliminate fish from our diet unless you are one of the 120 million who directly depend on it. This is perhaps the message that unsurprisingly gets most of the documentary’s detractors worked up, because any discussion about the protection of the environment that touches on our food consumption is immediately presented as an ideological battle rather than a clear-sighted exchange.

Objectively, if fishing is, as the documentary suggests, the main threat to the survival of our oceans, then it can’t be a bad idea to stop taking tons of fish out of it every day. Ultimately an end of industrial fishing will be beneficial for the environment and humanity in the long term, so why is it that problematic that this documentary presents a change in diet as the “only solution” to save the oceans? 

Of course, veganism and vegetarianism is a powerful and effective course of action that should be considered by all of us, but whether we like it or not, such a drastic change in diet is a position that for now only a small proportion of people will take. Veganism, although on the rise, remains an unrealistic option for a large amount of the world’s population, as there are many cultural, geographical and financial constraints that come with any change of diet. So, by promoting this as the “only solution”, the documentary refuses to acknowledge any other legitimate efforts that can be made, excluding many people from the conversation.

Ultimately, Seaspiracy can be appreciated for having raised awareness of the danger that marine life is facing. By confronting the powerful fishing industry in front of the large Netflix audience, the documentary broke new ground by affecting the public discourse on an oft-overlooked, but nevertheless pressing global issue. That said, the questionable factual precision to support some of the documentary’s arguments undermines the important message that the film sets out to convey. And while their advocacy for a plant-based diet is relevant to the discussion, presenting it as the sole solution is counterproductive. But whether we decide to change our diet or not, let’s remember that oceans cover almost three quarters of our planet and that they are our lifeline. We must do whatever we can to protect it.

Image Credits: Australian Institute of Marine Biology (CC BY 3.0 AU)

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