Scientists And Marine Organizations Criticise Netflix Documentary "Seaspiracy"

Seaspiracy does highlight some little-known issues regarding the marine environment, notably the misconceptions around plastic pollution and the use of slave labor in the seafood trade. Image credit: Watchares Hansawek/Shutterestock.com

The documentary Seaspiracy is currently climbing the ladder of Netflix’s most-watched shows, resulting in shoals of people on social media declaring they're never eating fish again. It’s a sensational feature-length documentary that explores the environmental impact of fishing – fish guts and all – and the effect of humanity on the world’s seas. 

While many have praised Seaspiracy for highlighting important environmental issues – overfishing, the destruction of marine ecosystems, and more – some scientists have questioned a few of its claims and others have criticized the film’s approach. It has also received a fair amount of pushback from marine organizations for being misleading, some of whom say their interviews were taken out of context.

The main mantra of the documentary is that sustainable fishing is impossible. As such, the only way to save the world’s marine ecosystem is to stop eating fish completely. However, many people disagree with this interpretation.

One point of contention is the Dolphin Safe and the Marine Stewardship Council labels, the little badges you find on seafood package that intend to show the fish was caught in a sustainable way using practices that minimize damage to other species, such as dolphins. The film argues that these labels are pointless, as fishermen are prone to lie or bribe officials regarding their catch methods. They also claim that the organizations behind the labeling have ties to the fisheries industry, making them ineffective at preventing the wider problem.

Earth Island Institute, which manages the dolphin-safe label project, suggests this is meddling: “The recent film Seaspiracy falsely claims that the dolphin-safe tuna program is a conspiracy to benefit the global fisheries industries. Nothing could be further from the truth.” 

“In fact, the dolphin-safe tuna program has provided and continues to provide massive benefits to dolphin populations around the world. Despite our efforts to provide documentation of this to the filmmakers, they chose instead to grossly distort and mischaracterize the program,” they added.

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a not-for-profit group that grants certification to sustainable fisheries, also dished out similar complaints with the film, saying: “Sustainable fishing does exist and helps protect our oceans."

"One of the amazing things about our oceans is that fish stocks can recover and replenish if they are managed carefully for the long-term. Examples of where this has happened and stocks have come back from the brink include the Patagonian toothfish in the Southern Oceans or the recovery of Namibian hake, after years of overfishing by foreign fleets, or the increase in some of our major tuna stocks globally. And what is even more amazing, is that if we take care of our fish stocks – they take care of us. Research shows that fish stocks that are well-managed and sustainable, are also more productive in the long-term, meaning there is more seafood for our growing global population, which is set to reach 10 billion by 2050," a statement adds. 

Scientists who were interviewed for the documentary have also had their reservations about the film upon its release:

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The Plastic Pollution Coalition, who was also interviewed for the film, put out a statement alleging that the filmmakers “bullied our staff” and “cherry-picked seconds of our comments to support their own narrative”.

“The film misrepresented the ocean plastic pollution crisis to suit the filmmakers’ agenda. The film claimed 48 percent of ocean plastic consists of fishing nets, while not including the fact that this came from a study of one ocean gyre. In fact, fishing gear represents 10 percent of ocean plastic overall, according to a Greenpeace report,” they added. 

In sum, the film does highlight some little-known issues regarding the marine environment, notably the misconceptions around plastic pollution and the use of slave labor in the seafood trade. However, some of its claims have been considered by some to overstated and misleading. 

 “Does [Seaspiracy] highlight a number of shocking and important issues? Absolutely. But is it misleading at the same time? Yes, from the first few minutes onwards," Bryce Stewart, marine ecologist and fisheries biologist at the University of York in the UK, summarized in a Twitter thread.

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