A Biologist and a Commercial Fisherman Review 'Seaspiracy' Documentary

A Biologist and a Commercial Fisherman Review 'Seaspiracy' Documentary

About one minute into the recent high-profile docu-drama “Seaspiracy,” the director and host Ali Tabrizi hits us with a motion graphic of a whale taking a watery excretion along with the following statement:

“When dolphins and whales return to the surface to breathe, they fertilize tiny marine plants in the ocean called phytoplankton, which every year absorb four times the amount of carbon dioxide than the Amazon rainforest does and generates up to 85% of the oxygen we breathe. So, in a world concerned with carbon and climate change, protecting these animals meant protecting the entire planet. The way I saw it was if dolphins and whales die, the ocean dies. And if the ocean dies, so do we.”

Individual parts of that may be accurate. Plankton are plants so they do absorb carbon and produce oxygen. Whale feces certainly fertilize these microscopic plant communities, but they’re hardly the only source of nutrients. However, Tabrizi’s general bent and phrasing seems to imply that A + B = C, or that we are only able to live and breathe because of marine mammals. This leaves the discerning viewer wondering what other information in this film is complete whale shit.

Seaspiracy was released on Netflix March 24 and immediately received a lot of attention. Directed by and starring Tabrizi, a 27-year-old British filmmaker, and produced by Kip Andersen, who also created the similar 2014 “Cowspiracy,” this documentary follows Tabrizi and his wife around the world as they seek a culprit in the ill-defined crime of destroying “the sea.”

The film points out some real, glaring issues with the health of our oceans including climate change, pollution, plastic refuse, acidification, and over-fishing. We’re surprised by how much of this information comes as shocking revelations to the filmmakers, but they’re nonetheless important for the world to acknowledge. On the premise that Earth’s oceans are not as healthy as they could be and that real action is needed to solve certain crises, we tend to agree.

On the conclusion that we must all become vegan to solve these problems, as a fisheries biologist and a former commercial fisherman working for a company called MeatEater, we tend to differ.

The film begins with Tabrizi becoming concerned with the health of the ocean after seeing dead, beached whales on the news. His activism quickly transforms from donating to nonprofit enviro groups, to picking up trash on the beach, to angrily demanding that restaurants stop using plastic straws because they’re “killing whales and baby sea turtles.” Unsatisfied, he decides to travel to a completely different ocean to document the traditional Japanese practice of capturing and killing dolphins—that millions of people had already seen before in the documentary “The Cove.” Laced with menacing imagery of police surveillance and vague fears of violence, Tabrizi and his wife film the brutal ordeal from high on a cliff and express agony in the senseless killing.

“Why kill these dolphins?” they ask, using the device to draw yet another tenuous connection, this one between marine mammal murder and overfishing. Soon we also find out that some 50% of waste plastic in the ocean is discarded fishing gear, so we really don’t need to worry about single-use plastics anyway. Tabrizi next turns his ire toward major environmental nonprofits working toward solving such issues as marine mammal bycatch and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. He accuses them of taking bribes, they get angry and throw him out, and continues his quixotic quest to single-handedly fix the saltwater covering 70% of the Earth’s surface.

With the new-found enemy in commercial fishing, Tabrizi and crew head for the belly of the beast—Southeast Asia. They take spy cameras into Chinese fish markets. They trespass on Thai loading docks and act surprised to get chased with a fillet knife. They blur the faces of former slave ship crewmen telling of the horrors they endured.

Yes, all of that is real. Slavery, murder, piracy, and the rape/pillage of the high seas are all serious, heartbreaking problems. Bluefin tuna stocks are a shadow of their former abundance. If you didn’t know about that stuff prior to seeing this film, we’re glad Tabrizi was able to share that information with you. If you want to learn more, read about it in a reputable source.

However, this portrayal—dressed in the black hoodies, hidden cameras, and ominous soundscapes of a spy thriller—does a poor job of painting a global picture of commercial fisheries.

Sam Lungren, MeatEater’s fishing/supervising editor, worked on commercial fishing vessels for a good portion of his young adult life. He wasn’t pressed into that service; he hustled his ass off to get the job. There was nearly zero bycatch in their salmon seine besides the pervasive jellyfish, and what few rockfish, greenling, and salmon sharks that did turn up were simply turned back alive. Every salmon caught went straight from the net to the refrigerated seawater hold, then at the end of the day to the same water in a tender vessel, which would rush the fish to processing facilities in town. Far from some unregulated frontier bonanza, they listened to daily radio broadcasts from Alaska Department of Fish & Game regarding which areas would be open or closed the following day, based on daily fish delivery reports and spotter plane observations.

The last summer he worked in Prince William Sound saw a larger return of the target pink salmon than any ever recorded. Most American, Canadian, and first-world fisheries are closely managed like this. Yet, Tabrizi and his guests have the audacity to suggest that there’s no such thing as a “sustainable fishery.” Here’s another indicative quote from near the end of the film:

“They make it appear on paper as if eating, on one hand, sustainably-produced salmon is better than killing a bluefin tuna, and therefore creates a justification in the eyes of the consumer,” Dr. Richard Oppenlander, a dentist, vegan food producer, and activist, said in Seaspiracy. “But that’s like essentially saying that it’s more sustainable to shoot a polar bear than shooting a panda, when in reality neither one is sustainable and neither one is right to do.”

That conclusion, that no fisheries are actually sustainable, is disputed by many scientists who actually work in the relevant field. Dr. Ray Hilborn is a professor at the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences and has published more than 200 peer-reviewed articles and several books, many pertaining to sustainable fisheries.

“There are some basic facts that are generally accepted in the ocean science community—first, at the simplest level, a fishery is sustainable when it continues to produce food into the future at an undiminished rate,” he said. “Many fisheries have been sustainably managed for thousands of years.”

Hilborn noted that Seaspiracy largely ignored the fact that countless communities worldwide are completely reliant on fish for food, and it’s in their best interest to keep those populations healthy.

“Fisheries are an important part of food security and employment for many of the poorest people of the world. It is simply not an option for those people to stop fishing,” he said. “In most developed countries, we know that fish stocks are increasing. The idea that oceans are being emptied of fish simply is false.”

Hilborn reminded people that ethical and environmentally-conscious fish consumption is still in fact attainable: “If you are concerned about the oceans, you can be very selective about the fish you eat—those that are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council or on Monterey Bay Aquarium’s best choice are good alternatives are almost certainly well managed and sustainable and usually have a lower environmental impact than a vegetarian diet.”

For many humans (likely including a lot of readers on this site), the vegan diet promoted by Seaspiracy as the antidote to overfishing and ocean decline simply isn’t possible or rational. Valentine Thomas is professional spearfisher, freediver, and fisheries reform advocate. While she sees a lot of problems with the way we manage global fisheries, the idea that we can boycott commercial fishing into oblivion and thus save the world is laughable as well as unhealthy.

“I struggle digesting a lot of vegetables. So for me being a vegan diet is actually impossible. Same thing with my boyfriend who has Crohn's disease,” Thomas told us. “There are so many communities relying on [seafood] where it's hard to find meat replacements. It's a lot of work to be able to fill those gaps when it comes to the nutrients that you need. The movie’s narrative is so small that it's ‘stop eating fish’ is the only solution. It's not the only solution. Don't tell people to go eat and fake shrimp instead.”

Thomas pointed out that the ingredients of the shrimp substitute promoted in Seaspiracy are not what most people would consider healthy, nor are they ecologically sound. The production of palm oil receives a lot of credit for the destruction of tropical rainforests.

So, if you’re like us, you’re not likely to agree with the suggestion that becoming vegan will somehow solve the world’s problems. But beyond problematic conclusions and lack of any tangible solutions, Seaspiracy played it pretty fast and loose with their facts in order to get there. In fact, the film’s misrepresentation of data to make false and/or outdated claims creates further misaligned conclusions against the fishing industry. Scientifically speaking, however, many of those conclusions don’t hold much water, says Stephen Klobucar, a postdoctoral fisheries researcher at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and a regular contributor of MeatEater fishing articles.

Front and center to their assertions of failing ocean fisheries, Tabrizi references one bold statement from a 2006 study—all fisheries would collapse by 2048. In that study, the conclusion was derived by examining some fish stocks during a period of declining catch rates and extrapolating the negative trend outward until the line crosses zero. This is incorrect and has been soundly refuted, again and again.

Enter Brandolini’s Law, which states, “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude larger than needed to produce it.”

Well, here goes nothing. When the 2006 study was published, the broader media ran with the statement, causing headlines and turmoil in the fisheries community and beyond. However, after constructive discussions between some of the original “collapse by 2048” researchers and scientists that refuted the premise from the beginning, they reexamined a broader dataset of 166 fish populations. Their 2009 study concluded that the ocean’s fish stocks are not on a path to total collapse—they’d actually been stable over the previous 20 years. But, once the bullshit gets out there, it’s hard to get rid of it. Even 15 years later, the falsehood is still recycled.

More recently, a 2020 study examined 882 marine fish populations—much more data than the 2009 study, which already disproved the 2006 claim. From that research, 66% of the world’s ocean fisheries, accounting for nearly 80% of all seafood consumed, were characterized as not overfished. Moreover, 78% of the fisheries considered overfished from even the 2009 study had improved by the 2020 study.

So it bears repeating, while there are some regional issues regarding illegal harvest and human rights within the worldwide fishing industry, by and large, managed fisheries are sustainable, especially in the United States.

As a further argument against the notion of sustainable fisheries, Tabrizi brings to light another misrepresented statement—40% of catch is wasted as bycatch. This comes down to semantics, and again, a singular report with questionable conclusions.

Bycatch does happen to varying degrees with varying impacts. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization defines bycatch as “the total catch of non-target animals.” This is a widely accepted definition. However, bycatch doesn’t always result in dead fish and sea creatures being disregarded as waste. Some bycatch is used. Some bycatch is returned safely to the seas. Generally, bycatch is sustainable as long as the non-target species isn’t threatened.

However, in 2009, a group of people decided to redefine the word “bycatch.” Instead of using the UN’s “total catch of non-target animals” definition, they used “catch that is either unused or unmanaged.” Not to get too far into the weeds, but essentially if a fishery is deemed unmanaged, by their definition, the entire catch is considered bycatch.

For example, when characterizing India’s bottom trawl fisheries, the 2009 study used data from 1993, when some of the fleet used illegal net mesh. Therefore, under their new definition of bycatch, the entire catch of the bottom trawl fleet is bycatch, even though most of it was sold and eaten.

Now, discarding fish does happen. It’s an unfortunate reality of the global food system, whether the industry is fishing or farming. However, that definition of bycatch inflated the actual number of ~10% to 40%. Again, media and advocacy groups ran with it. The idea that some snippets of data from 1993 would still be relevant in 2009, and then still relevant in 2021, is a red flag in and of itself. It’s in the best interest of all parties to continue to improve and advance fisheries management.

As another example, the film states that 250,000 sea turtles are killed as bycatch in the U.S. each year. Those data are from a 2004 study and helped spur the development and refining of fishing methods and equipment. Trawlers now employ “turtle exclusion devices” and sea turtle deaths are down 94% to approximately 4,600, and worldwide the majority of sea turtle populations are increasing. Just as many fish stocks are stable or increasing from years of improved management and sustainable harvest.

All told, 3.3 billion people rely on seafood. If fishing stopped, where would we make up that difference? Likely, the answer would be more complicated than the problem. Rather, simple steps such as knowing where your seafood is sourced and sticking with wild caught fish from the U.S. will go a long way to maintaining sustainable ocean fisheries.

Or, better yet, catch your own damn fish. If it’s legal to keep, it’s very likely sustainable. And we can guarantee it’s going to taste a lot better than imitation shrimp.

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