Seaspiracy: What’s the Controversy?

Turtle swimming in the ocean

Written by Freya Graham

If you’ve had a browse through Netflix in the last two weeks, chances are you’ve seen Seaspiracy pop up in the UK Top Ten chart. The follow-up to 2014’s Cowspiracy, Seaspiracy investigates the environmental impact of the commercial fishing industry. The documentary, directed by Ali Tabrizi, explores a range of issues, including bycatch, whaling, and plastic pollution. However, while Seaspiracy has won praise for its exposé of corruption in the fishing industry, the documentary has also been on the firing line. 

Several critics have pointed towards the documentary’s journalistic standards. Around half an hour into the documentary, bold red letters flash across the screen: ‘Empty Oceans by 2048’. This fact is shocking – and it’s also not true. The original statistic, published in a 2006 study led by marine ecologist Boris Worm, was later refuted in a 2009 paper also co-authored by Worm. Seaspiracy’s exclusion of the 2009 debunking has led critics to question fact-checking throughout the documentary, and has even resulted in some pro-fishery organisations labelling Seaspiracy as ‘propaganda’. 

It’s interesting to note, though, that the 2009 paper was co-led by Ray Hilborn, who did not work on the original 2006 study. In 2016, Greenpeace USA accused Hilborn of conflict of interest, as the scientist had professional links to the commercial fishing industry; he received $3.56 million in funding and consultancy fees from seafood corporations between 2003 and 2016. While he was cleared by the University of Washington for any academic wrongdoing, his vested interest remains in question. 

While the 2009 paper showed that the 2006 study, with its finding that the oceans would be empty by 2048, was inaccurate and excessive, it still warns of the dangers of overfishing, stating that marine ecosystems can only recover ‘if exploitation rates are reduced substantially’. Seaspiracy’s fact-checking is problematic, but it is sensationalising the truth, rather than fabricating a falsehood. 

Seaspiracy’s journalistic controversies go further than poor fact-checking. Professor Christina Hicks, an Environmental Social Scientist at the University of Lancaster, features briefly in the documentary, discussing tax subsidies in the fishing industry. Hicks had not been told what the documentary was about, however. In a tweet, she said that it was ‘unnerving to discover your cameo in a film slamming an industry you love & have committed your career to… Yes there are issues but also progress & fish remain critical to food & nutrition security in many vulnerable geographies’. In a later tweet, she added that ‘it’s the premise of the documentary that I don’t want to endorse. I had no idea I was in it or what it was about till a few days ago.’

Hick’s brief appearance in the film was one of the few times the documentary featured a person of colour. The whiteness of the people interviewed in Seaspiracy points towards the documentary’s troubling relationship with race and different cultures. The film opens with an exposé of the slaughter of whales and dolphins in Japan, and is followed by an investigation into shark fin soup, a Chinese delicacy. The first half-hour of the documentary is dramatic; fishermen wrestle dolphins to death, turning the water a deep red, and Tabrizi is asked to stop filming several times. The Chinese and Japanese fishermen are presented as villains. This has led several to argue that Seaspiracy others and demonises Asian cultures without examining the significance and history of seafood in these cultures.

On Twitter, @elisethropology wrote that ‘seaspiracy using asian countries as a scapegoat for a universal problem.. eye opening, but definitely biased, harmful, and totally enables asian racism.. which is especially harmful now with asian hate crimes at an all time high.’ Another Twitter user, @yera_ha, added that ‘Seaspiracy is… corny at best and just absolutely riddled with white savior/colonizer overtones rooted in anti-Asian racism. 24 hrs since watching and still doesn’t sit right with me.’  Later, the film also examines salmon farming and whale hunting in Scotland and the Faroe Islands. Critics have not suggested that the film only targets Asian culture, but rather, have attacked the way that commercial fishing in Asian countries is presented compared to elsewhere in the documentary. 

Other viewers have commented on the film’s ending message. Tabrizi’s voiceover in the final moments of the film makes his position clear; he reflects that ‘the single best thing I could do every single day to protect the ocean and the marine life I loved was to simply not eat them’. Oceana, an organisation featured in the documentary, criticised this message, arguing that a fish-free diet is not viable for everyone. Indeed, the film features communities on the Liberian coast who rely on fishing for their livelihood. Conversations around veganism have also recently begun to acknowledge the privilege intertwined with adopting a plant-based diet. What’s more, the film’s producer, Kip Andersen, is linked to a vegan meal planner company – if we were to ‘follow the money’, as Tabrizi frequently does in the film, then it may transpire that there is a financial incentive behind Seaspiracy’s plant-based message.  Tabrizi responded to Oceana’s criticism by stating that the documentary’s target audience – Netflix viewers in places like the USA and the UK – are more able to cut fish out of their diets, and it is this audience that the documentary’s ending message is ultimately aimed at. 

Seaspiracy’s flaws demonstrate that intersectionality and a just transition are integral to making environmental messages. As we move towards a more sustainable world, we need to ensure we are doing so in a sensitive and inclusive way. Accessible documentaries like Seaspiracy are a vital part of starting a conversation about environmental issues, and while the film is far from perfect, its popularity has captured viewer’s attention and got audiences thinking about the impact commercial fishing has on our oceans – and that can only be a good thing.

Featured image courtesy of Unsplash. Image licence found here. No changes have been made to this image.

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