On March 24, the documentary Seaspiracy dropped on Netflix. The film details the environmental devastation caused by the seafood industry and the human rights abuses in Thailand, the third-largest exporter of fish in the world.
The two major claims that the film makes are that the Dolphin-Safe Tuna and Sustainable Seafood labels are fraudulent and created by corporations to manipulate consumers into continuing to purchase their products.
Critics paint the film as a one-sided portrayal of the fishing industry that creates a false narrative. For example, the Marine Steward Council (MSC), a non-profit profiled in the documentary, claims that the assertion the filmmaker makes about there being no such thing as sustainable fishing is wrong. A statement released by the MSC said, “Research shows that fish stocks that are well-managed and sustainable, are also more productive in the long-term.” However, the statement neglected to cite the research they were referencing.
The National Fisheries Institution (NFI) criticizes the film for using a 2006 study that incorrectly claimed that the oceans will be empty by 2048. Its author, marine ecologist Boris Worm, debunked this claim. He followed it up with a study in 2009 which concluded that properly managed fisheries can recover, and cited several places including parts of the US, Iceland and New Zealand as improving. Nevertheless, Worm cautioned, “Across all regions, we are still seeing a troubling trend of increasing stock collapse. But this paper shows that our oceans are not a lost cause.”
One thing not addressed is the attempt in recent years to make the supply chain more sustainable by the Seafood Task Force. This organisation consists of businesses, NGOs and government representatives, and was founded in 2014 to deal with the illegal fishing and labor practices being practiced in Thailand, although it has since spread to Indonesia and Vietnam. Its stated mission is to provide oversight to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing activities that are harming the marine ecosystem or taking part in human rights abuses.
The question is, how effective have they been? According to a report by Singapore’s Channel News Asia, the new regulations are ineffective and the owners of the fishing vessels have just found ways around them. Given that as of 2018 there are almost 39,000 fishing vessels in Thai waters, it’s not surprising as it would be nearly impossible to monitor them all.
The film was also critical of fish farming, which is where almost half of the world’s fish comes from. The film claims that the salmon industry in Scotland produces as much organic waste as the entire human population of the nation. This creates a breeding ground for diseases including sea lice and chlamydia and often leads to the death of up to 50% of the fish.
Supporters argue that when farmers are trained properly, the practice can be a healthy and valuable source of fish. But how do you know whether the person who farmed your fish was properly trained or not?
One of the most embarrassing moments of the film came when Mark Palmer, the associate director of the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP), the organisation responsible for the Dolphin-Safe Tuna label sheepishly admitted that they can’t guarantee dolphins or other marine mammals aren’t being harmed.
David Phillips, the director of the IMMP fired back in a statement, “The Dolphin-Safe tuna program is responsible for the largest decline in dolphin deaths by tuna fishing vessels in history. Dolphin-kill levels have been reduced by more than 95%, preventing the indiscriminate slaughter of more than 100,000 dolphins every year.”
However, a 2014 study by the National Resource Defense Council concluded that there are about 650,000 marine mammals killed or seriously injured every year because of industrial fishing practices. This includes dolphins, whales, porpoises and seals. According to the World Wildlife Fund, it is the single greatest threat to cetaceans there is. As Ali Tabrizi, the Seaspiracy filmmaker, puts it: “If dolphins and whales die, the ocean dies. If the oceans die, so do we.”
A 2020 study published by James Cook University noted that the vast majority of the cetacean bycatch are dolphins and estimated that around 80,000 per year are caught in gill nets. The study notes that the number of dolphins in the Indian Ocean has declined by 87% from their numbers before 1980.
Dolphin-Safe Tuna was implemented in the early 1990s, so it begs the question, if the program is so effective why are there still so many dolphins and other marine mammals dying every year?
While the film may have its faults, it is nevertheless a damning indictment against the fishing industry that brings up pressing environmental and social issues. In Part 2 of this article, we’ll look at 15 reasons you should give up or reduce your consumption of seafood.
Palmer Owyoung is an environmental activist working with the Kamala Green Club and the Global Sustainability Hub.