Seaspiracy: Is Eating Fish Invariably Unsustainable?

4 mins read

By Sofia Fujiwara

When Netflix released the documentary Seaspiracy by 27-year old director, Ali Tabrizi, the recurring thing I heard from people was “you have to see this movie, it’ll make you never want to eat fish again”. Curious, I popped a bag of popcorn into the microwave, logged into my Netflix account, and snuggled up to spend my night learning about the fishing industry in all its gore and carnage. Needless to say, I was shocked at the bold statements the documentary claimed such as “there’s no such thing as sustainable seafood” and that the only way for our oceans to recover is if we completely stop eating fish. Tales of forced labour, slavery, and murders were disquieting and unimaginable statistics were launched towards me from all angles of the screen.

So I decided to reach out to Dr. Gerald Singh, an Assistant Professor in Resource Sustainability and Coastal Community Development based at Memorial University, in Newfoundland, to get his take on the claims made in this documentary film. 

Seaspiracy made some dire claims about bycatch and plastic waste in commercial fishing industries fueled by a lack of observers and regulations on board. What is being done to reduce this?

– First, I would say that it is true that globally, fisheries do have a lot of problems. However, I think the movie favours shock over substance. I would say that the movie presents bycatch as something that is rampant, widespread and ignored when in fact bycatch is one of the main issues that many major fishing fleets in the world already deal with. These issues are being addressed through highly regulated gear, such as hook-and-line or trapped based-fishery to reduce the levels of bycatch and specifically hit target fish. Through policies, bycatch actually counts towards your total quota, encouraging the fishing vessel to think carefully about how they manage their fishing practices. Additionally, changes can be made to the timing of catch, to avoid migratory species, as well as to the depths at which you are allowed to fish to avoid certain species. In many countries, there are mandatory observers with almost all industrial fleets with more than just one person on board. Bycatch issues are usually dealt with through a combination of technology, timing, and policy approaches that can be really effective. 

The claim that fishing gear has a larger environmental impact than land-filled plastics was a misrepresentation based on a report of the Pacific Gyre Garbage Patch that calculated the sample by mass rather than the number of pieces of plastics. Keep in mind most fishing gear have flotation devices on them, keeping them near the surface, while tiny plastics are throughout the water column. The microscopic bits of plastic, derived from land, actually make up more of the stuff. With toxicity, pollutants adhere to these little bits, are ingested by fish which then bioaccumulate, and accumulate in small fish, going all the way up to large whales. 

Seaspiracy claims: “there is no such thing as sustainable seafood”; do you agree with this statement?

– The narrator said “it dawned on me that sustainable just means something that can be continued indefinitely into the future” and I disagree that that’s what sustainable means. “Maintainability” is just one part of sustainability. You can easily say things aren’t sustainable if they don’t conform to your value system. But it’s very important to recognize that not everyone agrees with what a desired future looks like. If you kept the world from eating fish, I would not consider that sustainable. Firstly, because it would be really hard to stop people from doing that, and secondly, doing that would contribute to the destruction of entire cultures that are sea-based. That to me, that speaks to the largely urban, affluent western viewpoint the movie takes on, and that is entirely disregarding the perspectives of so much of the world that doesn’t share that particular value system. 

There are plenty of seafood based food systems that are very sustainable. Even if you went vegan, it would require tremendous amounts of input and large issues with shipping, as it will be hard to find locally sourced food all year round. In terms of environmental impact, bivalve aquaculture like mussel and clam farming have even less environmental impact than plant-based agriculture because they require almost no inputs. The effects they have in the environment can be negligible to actually being beneficial because they’re filter-feeding, so they’re actually cleaning waterways by feeding themselves. Seaweed farming is also a fast-growing industry with almost no impact. Farming predatory fish uses fish feed derived from other fish, but this is an area of active research to reduce impacts, and there are also plenty of herbivorous farmed fish like tilapia. Sustainability is something that should be discussed indefinitely, and involves aspects of maintainability, and desirability. It requires a discussion to determine, which is why we have international efforts such as the Sustainable Development Goals. Every UN state member agreed in terms of what they say was a desired future. Having these kinds of deliberative processes to determine what is desired is central to sustainability and something you can’t just lay out in a single definition and expect others to follow. 

What did you find were the most troubling aspects of the documentary?

– The most cringeworthy moments of this movie is the continuation of Anti-Asian tropes that have plagued environmental circles for some time, casting them as this dark, mysterious, and dangerous group. In regards to dolphin hunting in Taiji, the big issue is having Western countries with their own set of values around dolphins, imposing them on another country and trying to represent this narrative of “they’re just nefariously killing them”, which is untrue. They have a specific reason, based on their own traditions and cultures and they don’t want to be judged by the standard of another nation, something that wasn’t explored in the movie at all. These kinds of practices are very common in the western world, whether it be in Canada with culls of seals to protect salmon and cod stocks, or in North America where the wolf population was decimated to protect deer and moose. Presenting Asians as barbaric was very distasteful and showed a real lack of reflection on the differences of cultural attitudes and values.

So, what can we do to manage our oceans while protecting the environment so that future generations can enjoy them? Dr. Gerald Singh argues that the emphasis on individual choice and action caters to a western mentality of the importance of individuality and agency that is the wrong focus for a lot of these concerns due to the difficulty of coordinating individuals to address larger scale problems and competing interests. Instead, he encourages everyone to be politically engaged, vote, and chat with their elective representatives to try to influence how governments regulate and how the fishing industry is managed. 

By Sofia Fujiwara

Illustration: Lisa Wilson

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