Seaspiracy was met with its fair share of controversy when it was released this year on Netflix. While the documentary exposes the corruption in the commercial fishing industry as well as the environmental damage it causes, it has received backlash for its journalistic standards as well as its Western perspective and portrayal of other cultures.
“It was a narrative by the West and for the West, without even attempting to give voice to the billions of people who need functioning fisheries for their main source of protein and to make a livelihood,” explains April Burt, Environmental Researcher for the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Oxford, when A Little Insight asked her for her thoughts on Seaspiracy. Ms Burt is particularly interested in the effective management of island ecosystems within small island developing states.
“Friends and colleagues in the Seychelles felt that the global south was portrayed as part of the problem, and then in true white saviourism style, Sea Shepherd is out there patrolling the seas and saving the day. More emphasis should have been put on the power struggle between higher income countries for the fisheries resources in lower income countries,” she adds. When the Seaspiracy team travel to Liberia, the documentary does touch on the problem of subsidised EU fishing vessels encroaching on the waters of African countries, and how this reduces the catch of local fishermen in these developing nations, however this segment is relatively short compared to the portrayal of fishing practices in Japan and Hong Kong. The only African that is interviewed in this section is the former Liberian Deputy Defence Minister for Administration, Joseph F. Johnson. Voices of fishermen or local people that suffer from the consequences of decreased fish catches and overfishing are not featured.
The Western Indian Ocean, for example, was declared overfished in 2015. Ms Burt explains that high-tech equipment used by industrial foreign fishing fleets from the global north are responsible for this. But developing nations are trying to fight back.
“Just last month at the 25th session of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, despite some resolutions, efforts by developing coastal states such as Kenya and the Maldives to reduce catch quotas and rebuild stocks were consistently blocked by the EU delegation.” Explains the Oxford researcher.
“These coastal communities fear the imminent collapse of the yellowfin tuna stocks, which would have dire consequences for the region’s economy. This is in part attributed also to the main methods used by the purse seine vessels of deploying drifting FADs (Fish Aggregating Devices) which predominantly catch juvenile yellowfin, these FADs also contribute to marine plastic pollution and huge by-catch issues. This is a prime example of the dedication of low-income countries trying to stand up to global giants to ensure the sustainability of their fisheries.”
The documentary steers towards the view that there are no sustainable fisheries. This came as the biggest surprise to April Burt who says “This is simply false.”
“One fantastic example of a sustainable fishery is the tuna pole and line fisheries, there are also excellent shellfish aquaculture examples which have no negative impact on the environment. Highlighting existing solutions would have been a far better ending.”
The ending also sees the director, Ali Tabrizi say 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.” This, however, is a lifestyle choice that is possible only for those who are in a position to choose.
“The message to simply not eat fish simplifies a very complex issue and cannot be directed at the 3.1 billion people (nearly half the world’s population) who rely on fish and shellfish as their main source of protein,” states Ms Burt, in contrast to Tabrizi’s conclusion.
When we asked how people in the West can help protect fragile marine ecosystems and fishing communities, Ms Burt makes it clear it’s all about doing your research: “We want to be able to eat fish and we want to make sure that the coastal communities, for example in the Western Indian Ocean, are benefitting from this transaction. We also want to know that the methods used are not destructive or polluting. The best way to achieve this therefore is to do your research and buy fish that is operating under these principles. Take the time to learn about the options available to you, tell your friends and make as informed a decision as possible; we in the UK and other global north countries have the luxury of choice and there is power in our collective choices to make positive changes.”