By Rebecca Maxwell and Lina Idrees
The Netflix documentary Seaspiracy shook viewers with its shocking revelation of the effects of the fishing industry on the environment. Film-maker Ali Tabrizi’s investigative journalism takes viewers on a journey as he uncovers countless truths about commercial fisheries and their imminent threat to our marine ecosystem’s future. He exposes the multi-billion dollar industry as corrupt and presents this critical issue as one which needs to be urgently addressed and - most importantly- solved.
One of the many problems of the film, however, lies with its solution. Towards the end, this dramatic, global scale phenomenon is presented as readily tangible and the future of our seas falls on seafood consumers.
Tabirizi’s chaotic storytelling has received considerable criticism for its drastic range of issues and misinformation, impractical call-to-action which some have even dubbed "vegan propaganda" as well as his counterproductive disservice to organisations who do "critical work to protect oceans and marine life".
From plastic straws to human trafficking: the (brief) reality of our seas
Tabrizi’s trip around the world from England to Japan to France to Scandinavia to Africa ironically mimics the chaos of ‘around the world in 80 days’; his journey takes him across seas (literally) from plastic straws in Kent to the mass slaughter of dolphins in Taiji. Tabrizi exposes a complex web of issues within the fishing industry: commercial whaling, overfishing, micro plastics, fish farm slavery and marine conservationists' shortcomings - all within 90 minutes. One of the issues whirled into the thematic mish-mash of his investigative journalism was a 3 minute section on human trafficking. This alarming section was one of the many pressing issues the film failed to give a sufficient amount of screen-time to.
In Bangkok, Tabrizi interviews three Thai men employed on a slave shipping vessel who heartbreakingly share their experiences of trauma and slavery onboard the ship. This brief section on human rights abuses at sea - while an essential step forward for awareness - remained brief. The failure to shed a brighter light on this extreme political injustice (not to mention the lack of corporate responsibility by their employers) was exacerbated by the sudden shift of focus back to Tabrizi’s tumultuous, high-stakes journey.
This issue is much more complex than the film allowed, as the “fisheries sector is important to the economy of Thailand as the source of income, employment, foreign exchange earnings and supply of animal protein food” (Piumsombun). This massively relied upon industry also faces "extreme labour shortages… which many boat owners try to resolve by trafficking in migrant workers from some of the poorer countries in the region” (Ng, 2020)
How do we even begin to confront mass human injustices whilst also sustaining an industry that generates 2 million jobs and an export value of USD6 billion? Eradicating seafood from our diets entirely to therefore purge the entire seafood industry does not draw a neat, linear line to a clear-cut solution.
"For a low– or middle–income country disrupting the gradual, hard-won responsible management of a fishery would also cut off potential economic lifelines; for example, exports to richer countries or better domestic trade” (Steadman, 2021). Removing ourselves from fish consumption does not necessarily rid ourselves of all problems, as it will inevitably only create new ones such as mass economic rupture and forced cultural reconstruction.
The solution: go vegan?
In the face of a jumbled collection of politically charged marine injustices, we are also presented with a solution. This solution however tries to slap a simplistic answer onto a massively multi-layered crisis. How and why then, is his call-to-action to eradicate seafood from our diet so simply put forward?
The answer to go vegan has stirred critics with some calling the documentary ‘vegan propaganda’ and has since split viewers on social media. Veganism is first and foremost a privilege, one which is Eurocentric and rooted in elitism. Not everyone can afford to go vegan and although Tabrizi attempts to emphasise the importance of our collective efforts to trigger radical change - our activism cannot start and end with this.
Systemic issues such as the mass industrialisation of fisheries and cheap labour need structural fixes. Instead of discrediting ongoing solutions like sustainable fisheries and government regulations, it would have been more helpful to highlight legitimate efforts by organisations and how we - both as consumers and humans on our planet - can contribute to these efforts. Claiming that sustainable fishing is ‘impossible’ ignores the complex trade-offs between fisheries and conservation. Yes, going vegan and switching to a plant-based diet is better for our planet. However, conveying an absolutist message does not provide a balanced approach between seafood consumers and commercial fishing companies - neither of which are going away anytime soon.
Looking forward: an intersectional approach
The film in its entirety failed to acknowledge the (successful) ongoing efforts by organisations who have since claimed to be misrepresented in the film through ‘misleading claims’. Out of context interviews were used to portray organisations such as the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP) and The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) as dishonest. Professor Christina Hicks, an environmental social scientist at Lancaster University who was featured in the film, tweeted:
"Unnerving to discover your cameo in a film slamming an industry you love and have committed your career to.”
Issues of by-catch, overfishing, and the destruction of marine ecosystems are ‘precisely the issues the MSC certification process is designed to address’ (McVeigh, 2021). A statement released by Oceana, an NGO which campaigns for the protection of our ocean, was released after a former employee who featured in the film appeared to struggle to provide a definition of sustainability. The statement read: "Choosing to abstain from consuming seafood is not a realistic choice for the hundreds of millions of people around the world who depend on coastal fisheries – many of whom are also facing poverty, hunger and malnutrition.”
Seaspricay left viewers feeling helpless to change, leaving veganism as the sole solution. But what else can we do? We can start by raising awareness. Although the film has its shortcomings, it is not entirely irrelevant. Tabrizi has brought to attention several pressing issues within the fishing industry and as consumers we are right to challenge where organisations seem to be falling short of their objectives. However, we cannot simply dismiss these organisations like Oceana, who have successfully secured more than 225 policy victories that have strengthened the health and biodiversity of our oceans. We can start by supporting other organisations such as Human Rights At Sea that work to both expose and end “abuses at sea by acting as a Global Catalyst for change”.
Focusing our attention towards sustainable fisheries, bycatch levies, existing governmental regulations, and organisations which work towards addressing labour abuses will allow for a more intersectional approach to our activism. One which is not reductive or scare-mongering but rather empowers viewers to educate themselves, spread awareness and start conversations to address these injustices.
Some NGOs and organisations to check out:
Human Rights at Sea: a CIO based in the UK which raises international awareness of human rights abuses at sea and delivers social justice through legal and policy development
Environmental Justice Foundation: a registered charity based in the UK which is working to secure a world where natural habitats and environments can sustain, and be sustained by, the communities that depend upon them for their basic needs and livelihoods.
Seafood Working Group: a global coalition of human rights, labor and environmental organisations that work together to advocate for effective government policies and industry actions to end the related problems of labor exploitation, illegal fishing and overfishing in the international seafood trade.