By: Jo Berry
British director Ali Tabrizi’s documentary Seaspiracy – currently available on Netflix – investigates the harm that we humans do to marine species in our oceans around the world.
Already causing a stir on social media, the movie has Tabrizi voyaging from Asia to Europe, initially to study debris in the ocean. His investigation becomes more about marine destruction and bad practices, however, as he discovers whales and dolphins killed when they are accidentally caught with fish, illegal fishing, and human rights abuses in the Thai fishing industry.
Many people who have viewed the documentary say it has put them off eating fish for life, and you’ll never look at a nice pink piece of salmon in the supermarket the same way, either, after Tabrizi goes undercover at a Scottish salmon farm and discovers the fish have lice and other infestations, including chlamydia.
Seaspiracy is certainly a stomach-churning look at the commercial fishing industry, and its release is not without controversy. One expert who appears in the documentary, environmental studies scientist Professor Christina Hicks, has since tweeted: "Unnerving to discover your cameo in a film slamming an industry you love and have committed your career to. I’ve a lot to say about Seaspiracy but won’t."
The Plastic Pollution Coalition, who also feature in the film, were equally unhappy about their portrayal: “Unfortunately, although the filmmakers said they were interested in the work of Plastic Pollution Coalition, when we answered the questions, they bullied our staff and cherry-picked seconds of our comments to support their own narrative.”
Viewers and critics have also questioned some of the explosive claims that Tabrizi makes in his movie – so which are agreed and which are disputed? Here’s a closer look at the facts contained in the movie.
RadioTimes.com has contacted Netflix for comment.
46 per cent of the waste in the ‘Great Pacific garbage patch’ comes from discarded fishing nets
Most scientists and environmentalists agree that plastic pollution is a huge problem for our oceans. In the documentary it is claimed that only 0.03 per cent of it is from drinking straws, while fishing equipment makes up a huge percentage of the waste – including 46 per cent of that in the Great Pacific garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean.
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However, when Tabrizi asks Jackie Nunez from the Plastic Pollution Coalition what the main source of plastic was in the Great Pacific garbage patch, her response is “microplastics”.
In fact, both Tabrizi and Nunez are right – in a 2018 report, it was noted that 46 per cent of the mass of plastic waste was comprised of fishing nets, while microplastics accounted for eight per cent of the total mass but 94 per cent of the estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic floating in the area.
The ocean will be empty of fish by 2048
This claim was originally made in a scientific paper in 2006 by Boris Worm, but in a follow-up paper in 2009 that he co-wrote, it was found that in certain areas with limited fishing, stock had recovered somewhat.
Marine ecologist Bryce Stewart has commented on the documentary’s claims, and said: “When you actually looked at the data it was based on, it was based on a massive extrapolation into the future. To see it appear in that film again was a real surprise, because it was a statistic that was questionable to begin with.”
A study in 2016, reported by the National Academy of Sciences of the United States Of America, predicted that over 50 per cent of fish stocks could be sustainable by 2050.
Tabrizi, meanwhile, has defending using the statistic. “We are not scientists nor did we claim to be. Despite there being some confusion about this particular projection, the overall state of fisheries are in severe decline.”
There is slavery in the fishing trade
It has been acknowledged that slave labour has been uncovered in the past in Thailand, and on fishing ships in the waters of Papua New Guinea, Russia, South Africa, New Zealand and Indonesia.
However, the Thai Enquirer has noted some of the aspects of Tabrizi’s reporting should be called into question. Journalist Cod Satrusayan wrote that the Thai Enquirer “has spoken to several organisations about how the fishing industry is portrayed in the film and every organisation including the Environmental Justice Foundation and the Thai government agree that the film misrepresents the situation on the ground and at sea.”
In fact, Sayrusayang adds: “While the film was only too happy to point out the gross labour abuses that occur in Thailand and the developing world (with solemn narration and appropriate music), not once are locals consulted or featured on screen. The scene depicting Thailand wasn’t even filmed in Thailand.”
The ocean floor is being destroyed
The documentary claims that 3.9 billion acres of sea floor is destroyed by bottom trawling every year. This is the process where trawlers drag heavy weighted nets along the sea floor to catch fish and is used by commercial fishing companies because it can catch a large number of fish in one go.
Greenpeace agrees with Tabrizi, and have long campaigned against this practice, as it drags up everything from the ocean floor including turtles, juvenile fish and deep sea corals – in fact, they claim an estimated 3000 tonnes of deep sea coral was believed to have been destroyed by the New Zealand fleet last year.
Sustainable fishing is impossible
In his documentary, Tabrizi claims that sustainable fishing does not exist, and questions the role of the Marine Stewardship Council, who certify fisheries around the world. The Marine Stewardship Council, a not-for-profit set up by WWF and Unilever over 20 years ago, has since questioned Seaspiracy’s claims, issuing a response to them on 26th March this year.
Regarding the claim that sustainable fishing is impossible, they say: ‘This is wrong. One of the amazing things about our oceans is that fish stocks can recover and replenish if they are managed carefully for the long-term.”
“Examples of where this has happened include the Patagonian toothfish in the Southern Oceans or the recovery of the Namibian hake, after years of overfishing by foreign fleets, or the increase in some of our major tuna stocks globally.”
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Food safety certifications don’t guarantee the safety of fishing practices
If you have bought tinned tuna or another variety of tinned fish, chances are the label will state that the product is ‘dolphin safe’ or ‘dolphin friendly’, thus promising that dolphins and other sea life were not harmed when the fish was caught.
In the documentary, Mark J Palmer of the Earth Island Institute, the organisation that manages this certification on our tins, is asked whether every tin labelled ‘dolphin friendly’ really is safe. “Nope. Nobody can,” he replies when asked if he can guarantee what is written on the tin. “Once you’re out there in the ocean, how do you know what they’re doing? We have observers on board – observers can be bribed.”
That’s quite an allegation, but Palmer himself has since said his comments were taken out of context. “I answered that there are no guarantees in life, but that by drastically reducing the number of vessels intentionally chasing and netting dolphins as well as other regulations in place, that the number of dolphins that are killed is very low,” he told IntraFish, according to Newsweek. “The film took my statement out of context to suggest that there is no oversight and we don’t know whether dolphins are being killed. That is simply not true.”
We should all stop eating fish
Once you have watched Seaspiracy, the last thing you will probably want to eat is a tuna sandwich or scampi and chips. It is worth noting, however, that the producer of the movie is Kip Andersen, the vegan activist who also worked with Tabrizi on his previous food industry documentary, 2014’s Cowspiracy.
It could be claimed that Andersen has a vested interest in us all giving up fish – he owns a vegan recipe subscription service (PLANeT BASED) that is handily mentioned on the official website for Seaspiracy (www.seaspiracy.org).
Also, while some nations like the UK have a wide range of non-animal and non-marine food products to choose from on a daily basis, it is worth bearing in mind that not everyone can afford to avoid seafood, and in fact many communities depend on fishing to survive.
As Greenpeace states on its website: “A blanket ban on eating fish would unfairly disadvantage these communities. It is industrialised fishing that’s the true evil here, not traditional harvesters taking what they need to feed their family.”
Climate change is a threat to marine life
Actually, director Ali Tabrizi doesn’t make this claim at any point in the movie, which has surprised some scientists. Dr Bryce Stewart, a marine ecologist and fisheries biologist, posted a Twitter thread on 27th March pointing out the omission.
“People will either believe it [Seaspiracy] and completely overreact, or find it so easy to discredit some of the statements that the real issues get downgraded or disbelieved. In that way, I feel this film does more harm than good.”
“On the flip side, it was good to highlight misconceptions about issues like the threat of plastic straws relative to many other factors. But where was climate change? I must have blinked and missed that. Please can we see a much more scientific and balanced film next time.”
Seaspiracy is available to stream on Netflix. Check out our lists of the best series on Netflix and the best movies on Netflix, or see what else is on with our TV Guide. Also visit our dedicated Documentaries hub for more news.