Seaspiracy: a wake-up call or vegan propaganda?

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A new documentary about the fishing industry and its environmental and humanitarian effects has caused great debate. Seaspiracy, now streaming on Netflix, is a genuinely shocking investigation into the state of our oceans. Directed and narrated by vegan filmmaker Ali Tabrizi and produced by Kip Andersen, known for his all-exposing documentary Cowspiracy, it’s fair to assume that Seaspiracy is created with an agenda in mind.  It tackles themes such as bottom trawling, unsustainable hunting practises, and even slave labour on Thai waters.

The film certainly makes a good case for veganism. Our eating habits are causing a tangible effect on the oceans, more so than single-use plastic or climate change.

Our eating habits are causing a tangible effect on the oceans, more so than single use plastic or climate change

The idea of sustainable fishing is completely rejected by the documentary. Supposedly sustainable ‘dolphin-safe’ tuna labels are discredited. Tinned tuna is awarded a dolphin-safe label on the assurance that no dolphins have been harmed in the fishing process. In reality, however, we discover that it’s difficult to guarantee that the tuna truly is dolphin-safe. Experts tell us how observers can be bribed and a lot of the time are not even on board. The expose of the fishing industry continues around the globe, from shark fin soup in China, to infested salmon farms in Scotland. Viewers are overwhelmed with faced-paced, dramatic stories for an hour and a half. The result is somewhat exhausting and enough to put anyone off fish for at least a little while.

Perhaps more disturbingly, we learn that fish are more sentient than we knew, with research suggesting they have the capacity to experience pain and fear. While we see fish being chopped up in front of what we only assume are its family and friends, biologist Jonathan Balcombe narrates about the complex social lives that fish lead. The imagery is harrowing.

At our current rate of consumption, the outlook looks bleak, but the film does offer a solution, that is to simply not eat fish. In western society this seems simple, New Wave Foods is one company featured in the documentary. They offer plant-based alternatives created from sea plants which are “just as delicious, just as healthy for you, but better for the environment”. Helpfully, there is also a plant-based meal planner linked from the Seaspiracy website, albeit costing a monthly subscription charge. It seems ignorant to assume that this is an easy solution globally, however. Over 50% of the world’s traded seafood comes from developing countries, many of these communities relying on fishing for food and an income. Tabrizi fails to acknowledge this, perhaps assuming his viewers on Netflix will have the means to access fish alternatives.

Over 50% of the world’s traded seafood comes from developing countries, many of these communities relying of fishing for food and an income

Naturally, the response from some critics in the industry has been overwhelmingly negative with some even questioning the integrity of the film. Perhaps one of the most contested claims is the fact the oceans will be empty by the year 2048. This terrifying statistic appears in huge red letters across the screen around 38 minutes into the film. Numerous fact-checking articles have claimed that this fact is wrong. They cite that the original author, Professor Brain Worm, has pointed out that the research is old and the conclusions probably dated. The claim originates from a paper published in 2006. The official Seapiracy website however still maintains that “the 2006 study has not been corrected or retracted”.

Even some of the experts featured have since spoken out in opposition to the film. Mark J Palmer is featured as a spokesperson for the Earth Island Institute, which is the organisation that provides dolphin-safe labels for tuna. He asserts that his statement was taken out of context and distances himself from the documentary.

It is frustrating for consumers. There is an increasing movement towards conscious, sustainable choices It’s a trend that Seaspiracy is capitalising on. But when we face conflicting opinions and half-truths from different sources it’s difficult to know what to do. It’s even possible that Tabrizi’s militant attack on the whole fishing industry could cause more rifts and turn people away from organisations that are only trying their best to do some good. Personally, I will be trying to do more fish-free Fridays in the future, but I am reluctant to take this documentary as gospel truth.

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