Conspirasea of the Commons? Not quite.
Updated: Apr 1, 2021
Netflix's look at the dark side of the seafood industry builds up mostly justified outrage but fails to deliver a just outlet for it. Here's my take.
This week Netflix dropped it's long-teased documentary, Seaspiracy, about an ocean in peril, drowning in plastic, pillaged by overfishing, and rife with all manner of lawlessness. And to a large extent, this is true. In fact, despite it's rather sweeping breadth, the documentary doesn't even begin to cover the full extent of Our Ocean's plight. Climate change, ocean acidification, the race to mine the deep sea, potential extinction of tropical coral reefs, agriculture-related dead zones, and loss of habitat (among others) are undermining the largest, most important part of our biosphere.
With so much going wrong, it's overwhelming, and I commend director Ali Tabrizi and Co. for getting millions of people talking about some of these challenges and putting the ocean's struggle in the top 10 of the world's largest entertainment service. This is a big win for our ocean.
HOWEVER, we cannot overlook the film's egregious mischaracterizations of organizations and professionals who have dedicated their lives to saving the ocean. Nor can we accept the sweeping generalizations made about a source of food vital to more than 30% of the world's population. Finally, I'm disappointed that this film works so hard to "shock and awe" only to offer a disappointing and polarizing "solution".
Alternative Facts for Alternative Proteins
Seaspiracy has an air of credibility almost entirely provided by Her Deepness, Sylvia Earle and a handful of other notable ocean heroes like Prof. Callum Roberts and Prof. Christina Hicks (who has already announced her displeasure with the film). Famous cameos aside, you don't have to look very hard to see just how poorly researched and narrow this film is.
Plastics is a large, complicated issue into which my colleague Patty Villarrubia-Gomez and I recently dipped our toes through 10 webinars featuring 27 experts. Seaspiracy barely touches the issue in any meaningful way and I encourage you to check out our Unmasking Plastic initiative. For a much more credible understanding of the plastic problem, watch The Story of Plastic. All I'll say here is that ambush interviews on topics outside of someone's expertise are proof of nothing. With a bit more effort, Tabrizi and Co. could have directed their questions to the Global Ghost Gear Initiative, which has put together a coalition of more than 100 organizations to tackle the issue of ghost fishing gear. Most of the world's major environmental NGOs (eNGOs) are part of this coalition, they aren't ignoring or hiding the issue.
Attacks on the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) are sweeping and based on a tenuous "follow the money connection" and assumptions of collusion. In the MSC's 25 years of existence, they have done more for sustainable fisheries than the world's governments have managed to do. Their finances, mechanisms, and governance are highly transparent and Tabrizi's "gotcha" about their funding scheme is a major disservice to what is a truly genius method of sustainable conservation finance. I disagree strongly with some of the fisheries receiving the MSC certification. I sometimes believe that assessments of bycatch, Fish Aggregating Devices, and slow-growing species are completely wrong. But the MSC does not certify fisheries, certified third-party assessors do! Publicly thrashing the MSC as a blue-washing agent of industry without any apparent understanding of how third-party certifications work is my definition of embarrassing.
As an aquaculturist, I could really delve deep on the shallow mischaracterization of aquaculture presented in Seaspiracy. At worst, it's a patently false mischaracterization of a massive global industry dominated by shellfish aquaculture, seaweed, and freshwater fish, not the massive scale marine finfish farming Tabrizi claims. At best, it's a highly one-sided take reliant on activist claims and outdated tropes. For an excellent analysis on the state of aquaculture, check out this recent review in Nature.
But there are two things I want to mention to demonstrate this documentary's often shoddy "investigations". You may recognize the following image as part of a rapid collage demonstrating the massive scale of finfish farming. On my second watch of this scene, I realized how familiar this bay was. It's a bay in Xiapu County, Fujian Province, China. And it just so happens to have been one of my research sites for my graduate thesis studying Chinese multi-trophic mariculture.
The vast majority of those dark spots are seaweed (primarily kelp and gracilaria) aquaculture. But, there's also a fairly diverse range of wooden platforms used for growing abalone, oysters, and sea cucumbers. I was just as puzzled by holding my first sea cucumber as I was watching this documentary. The bay is a major site of the (definitely unsustainable) production of dà huáng yú (large yellow croaker) but this is declining. While there, I studied the county's plans to reduce fish production in the bay and improve the remaining sites. And therein lies a major problem with documentaries-- their information is often out of date before they are even released. Other take home message: Google Maps images shouldn't be a key part of your evidence damning a large part of the world's food production.
In a final example of cheap, shocking "facts" that have no real substance, salmon activist Corin Smith comments that "people are eating gray fish [farmed salmon] painted pink". In salmon farming, fish feed contains the colorant asatxanthin. Astaxanthin is a pigment often extracted through algae or yeast production and plays an important role in salmon immune systems (and possibly humans). Wild salmon also source astaxanthin from their diet. If we follow Smith's logic, then wild salmon is just gray fish that painted itself pink.
With alternative facts well established, we are quickly led through a handful of expert comments leading us to the conclusion that all seafood is bad and that we should just eat alternative protein products. The film fails to mention that New Wave Foods' plant-based shrimp product isn't even available in restaurants yet. As with many plant-based seafood products, their scale is small and their affordability is limited. These are solutions we must embrace, but they aren't available to us quite yet. For brevity, I'm not even going to broach the fact that many plant products have their own sinister environmental consequences.
The "Tragedy of the Commons" is just that
Tabrizi's fundamental thesis is deeply flawed. Seaspiracy both carefully and carelessly constructs a "gotcha" narrative alleging that a nefarious cabal of fishing companies and their NGO co-conspirators are blue-washing the worlds seafood supply as the oceans are scraped bare and choked with plastic. The audacity of this oversimplification almost renders the film pointless.
Fish and fishery products are the most highly traded food commodity internationally. Approximately 820 million people derive their livelihood from fisheries, aquaculture, and tangential activities. Three billion people rely on fish and fish products as a major source of protein. Fisheries also constitute a "common pool resource" or "commons". Each member of the commons (be it individual fishermen, multi-national fishing companies or countries) works to maximize their own immediate benefit at their own scale before others can beat them to it, usually at the expense of the whole. Without some intervening governance or binding agreement, the classic "tragedy of the commons" plays out with the collapse or exhaustion of the resource. Governing vast oceanic resources is challenging at the national level and largely impossible on the often lawless high seas. Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) do exist to manage important fisheries in areas of the high seas, but these organizations are often fraught with indecision and competing interests, usually ending in disappointment.
Seaspiracy seeks to boil the tragic complexities of an international, heterogenous industry down to a conspirasea set on exhausting the world's fisheries. This devalues the hard work carried out by thousands of real experts working with industry and governments to bring order to a space with millions of actors. Not everything is a conspiracy. In fact, most things aren't. Nevertheless, with the problem simplified, the film can offer an equally simple "solution", stop eating fish because there are no sustainable fish. This is no solution at all. While I concur that western consumers ought to eat much less salmon, shrimp, cod, and tuna, avoiding a vital source of affordable and comprehensive nutrition is unrealistic and unnecessary.
Plenty of fish in the sea? Well, there could be.
Conveniently, Seaspiracy's narrow focus allows it to build its narrative on anecdote, hearsay and supposition resulting in the troubling conclusion that sustainable fisheries don't exist. If that's the case, my colleagues and I have wasted a lot of time and fishing communities across the world that have fished for generations must be suffering from a kind of collective delusion. Unlikely. This is a falsehood with no merit.
Even in those problematic RFMOs, bright spots shine. Within the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) a group of tiny island nations whose waters contain the worlds biggest tuna fishery have banded together in a stunningly successful scheme that provides dividends for people and planet. The Parties to the Naura Agreement have managed to enforce sovereignty over their waters, extract massive financial gain for their peoples, and protect their resource. Here we have an example of an increasingly sustainable fishery on a massive scale.
The target audience of this documentary, those of us living in the west, generally have very well managed fisheries catching dozens of species (there's 175 commercially or recreationally relevant fish stocks in the United States alone). Historically, we have made major missteps in letting the tragedy of the commons play out, but many of these stocks are rebounding thanks to management improvements. One example being the US West Coast groundfish fishery. Fished to the brink of collapse by 2005, closures, no-take zones, rationalization and regulatory overhaul have brought the fishery to a point that environmentalists widely agree is sustainable. For westerners the solution actually isn't to "stop eating fish", it's eat more local, well managed fish.
The reality is that we have the solutions to transform the world's fisheries into a globally sustainable industry producing even more fish than we do today. This is possible if we apply sound management reforms like rights based fisheries management. What's amazing is that most overfished fisheries could be restored within just ten years. We must demand that our governments manage our national fisheries sustainably and to cooperate to protect fisheries on the high seas.
Just outrage, wrong target
Seaspiracy makes you angry. And if you are like me and some other researchers who don't believe that most consumers are willing to actively look for sustainable seafood, then you understand that outrage, shame, and blame are the fuel powering the sustainable seafood movement. The majority of consumers don't want to go through taxing decision making each time they visit the grocery store, and they increasingly expect and trust that their retailers would not sell them a product associated with slavery or environmental destruction. Environmental NGOs, "name and shame" brands that do sell these products, provoking outrage. The result is an incentive to have verified sustainable products as a means of maintaining brand reputation.
Unfortunately, Seaspiracy misses an opportunity to direct consumer outrage towards their governments and retailers. Among the litany of issues I have with this film is that it creates a western savior narrative featuring evil Asian companies, victimized Africans, and incompetent, complicit female NGO representatives all of which is deeply problematic. We end the documentary with the following steps on "how to save the ocean":
No-take zones must be established and enforced. [Agreed!]
Governments must stop harmful subsidies. [Right on the money!]
Avoid eating marine animals. [See below]
If you've made it this far, then by now you realize that avoiding "marine animals" altogether is just nonsense. There's a huge group of sustainably harvested marine animals from pacific oysters to Icelandic cod. Removing the western consumer from the global seafood table could have dangerous consequences as well. Western consumers are powerful and their purchasing power enables western governments to demand that imported seafood is subject to the same sustainability requirements as domestic seafood (check out the US List of Foreign Fisheries). But many western governments don't seize this opportunity to exert influence and level the playing field between good actors and bad ones.
So what can a (now) outraged, western consumer do? We can:
Demand that our governments support the WTO effort to end harmful fisheries subsidies.
Put pressure on government to support the negotiation of a robust, binding new treaty on high seas biodiversity.
Buy local seafood first and make sure it's well managed. Many countries have seafood ratings guide likes the New England Aquarium on the US east coast, the Marine Conservation Society in Britain, and Good Fish in The Netherlands.
Demand that your retailer carry sustainable, ethical seafood.
Eat lower on the food chain. Try seaweed and shellfish. These are nutritious and gentle on the environment.
Update (01.04.21): Labeling the idea to stop eating seafood as "irrelevant" was a bit impetuous. I've edited it to say "polarizing" for added nuance. My original point remains that to simply tell people that all they could do to help is to stop eating seafood is not an empowering request. An alternative would be to say, "Those who can afford it, would be wise to significantly shift their diets towards plant-based alternatives and strive to consume local, well managed seafood." For me, that offers a lot more approachable & realistic possibilities.