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Illustration by Thumy Phan @thusisterstudio

Vegetarianism won’t fix it: How Seaspiracy evaded western accountability

I’m sure you’ve heard of Seaspiracy by now, but for those that haven’t, it’s a Netflix documentary about the environmental impact of fishing. It has since leapt into Netflix’s ‘top 10 most watched’ and has been the central point of a veritable social media flurry. However, it has also not escaped controversy, and not just for the missed title opportunity of: ‘Conspirasea’. 

The documentary gets some things right. It exposes the scale of the industrial fishing industry, how ‘ethical’ food labelling can be misleading, and the role NGOs and charities play in upholding poor fishing practices and minimal regulation. To this end, it was informative for those with little to no knowledge of the state of our oceans. However, because the film lacked nuance, lots of people took to social media, tweeting and creating infographics centering the message: ‘stop eating fish!’. Therein lies the  problem: this simplified, so-called solution should never be the main takeaway from a documentary which claims to lay bare the evil truths of industrial fishing. 

Illustration by Thumy Phan @thusisterstudio

The initial swathe of negative reviews from scientists and activists for Seaspiracy were due to its inaccuracies and misinformation. One glaring faux pas on which Seaspiracy has since been called up on is the use of incorrect statistics – seemingly just to serve as a shock factor to further the documentary’s publicity. Ali Tabrizi, the documentary’s director, claimed that the oceans would be “fishless and empty by 2048”. This comes from a 2006 paper by Worm et al., titled, ‘Impacts of biodiversity loss on ocean ecosystem services.’ This paper details the role and status of marine biodiversity in sustaining the ocean ecosystem services, such as food supply, water quality control and ecosystem sustainability. This outdated paper was later retracted by the authors for mischaracterisation of results but Seaspiracy continued to cite it for the use of its sensationalist statistic.

But to me, as a geographer interested in conservation, I believe the most crucial flaw in the documentary is the missing discourse on the very specific and very deliberate role capitalism has had in colonising the oceans in the first place. More crucially, it failed to shed light on what actions we as individuals could – and should – take to put pressure on the current system in place. To quote Liam Campling and Alejandro Colas from their book: Capitalism and the Sea, “the global ocean has served as a trade route, strategic space, fish bank and supply chain for the modern capitalist economy.” Sea beds are drilled for fossil fuels and minerals, coastlines and coastal communities are replaced with real estate and entertainment hubs, while our oceans continue to be abused by toxic discharges of our carbon civilisations.  At a time in history where people across the globe are mobilising around system change to create a better future, the documentary’s failure to recognise capitalism as the main cause of the climate crisis is astounding. By not centring the industrialisation of fishing within the wider context of capitalism, the documentary failed to acknowledge that it is not the eating of fish that is causing the climate crisis, but in fact the system itself. A system which operates through prioritising over-production and profit at the cost of  exploitation of resources, people and the planet itself.

A gross oversimplification of the wider root causes of the industrialisation of fishing is perhaps not surprising however, when you realise Seaspiracy’s glaring exclusion of voices and practices of frontline communities. Indigenous groups in coastal communities have been ethically fishing in the ocean for centuries exposing another inaccuracy in the documentary’s assertion that  there are no current ways of fishing sustainably. The Tagbanua people of the Philippines, for example, hunt specific species at different times of the year, which maintains healthy stocks of all  fish. Following the documentary, The Indigenous Anarchist Federation tweeted: “You need to remember that the harm to the ocean caused by overfishing is a problem with capitalism. We Indigenous people loathe the mega-corporate operations destroying our fisheries & oceans. As always, we ethically fish our ancestral waters”. This is the nuance that the documentary lacked. It also represents a missed opportunity for knowledge exchange:the documentary could have amplified Indigenous sustainable fishing practices which the west desperately need to learn from. The filmmakers failed, like so many before them, to platform underrepresented voices who are best placed to talk not only about ethical fishing but also the impacts of  the legacies of capitalism and colonialism on the fishing industry and planet more widely. 

When Tabrizi does discuss issues which concern local communities in the Global South he does so briefly and without centring their voices. This is best exemplified when he touches on the roots of so-called ‘piracy’ in Somali. This started because international fishing vessels began to operate illegally in Somali waters. This depleted local fish stocks and led to Somali fishing communities forming armed groups to deter the invaders. This would have been a perfect opportunity for Somali environmentalists or activists to be interviewed, enabling their voices to offer an alternative narrative to that which has been portrayed in Western media. This example is reflective of a wider missed opportunity to discuss the role the West plays in the colonisation of the ocean. 

Controversy does wonders for publicity and it lines the pockets of the filmmakers too. They got the reaction they wanted, with thousands of people heading to social media to tell their followers to join them in watching Seaspiracy and giving up fish as a result. But it’s not the controversy which bothers me, so much as the glaring omission of western accountability and the silencing of voices from coastal communities. What I’ve learnt from Seaspiracy is that it’s important to watch environmental documentaries with a critical eye. Who is at the centre of the documentary? In this case, a Western filmmaker and so-called ‘ocean activist’ – though, after watching the documentary, it sounded like Ali Tabriz had just discovered the ocean and pulled the juicy stats out for the sake of sensationalising something that is regularly spoken about in the ocean conservation space.  

Illustration by Thumy Phan @thusisterstudio

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