Seaspiracy: raised the unspoken truth?

Every so often, a documentary catches the world’s attention. British director Ali Tabrizi’s documentary Seaspiracy – currently available on Netflix – investigates the harm that we humans do to marine species in our oceans around the world.

Already creating a stir on social media, the movie has Tabrizi voyaging from Asia to Europe, initially to study debris in the ocean. His investigation becomes more about marine destruction and bad practices, however, as he discovers whales and dolphins killed when they are accidentally caught with fish, along with them being purposely targeted and killed by the hundreds/thousands, illegal fishing, and human rights abuses in the Thai fishing industry.

Many people who have viewed the documentary say it has put them off eating fish for life. You’ll never look at a nice pink piece of salmon in the supermarket the same way, either, after Tabrizi goes undercover at a Scottish salmon farm and discovers the fish have lice and other infestations, including chlamydia.

Seaspiracy is certainly a stomach-churning look at the commercial fishing industry, and its release is not without controversy. One expert who appears in the documentary, environmental studies scientist Professor Christina Hicks, has since tweeted: “Unnerving to discover your cameo in a film slamming an industry you love and have committed your career to. I’ve a lot to say about Seaspiracy but won’t.”

Courtesy of World wildlife fund

The film raises as many questions as answers. What would sustainable fishing look like? If fishing were substantially reduced, what would happen to the communities who depend on it for work? So with all the criticism of its facts, we thought we’d review some of those facts shared and some of the controversy that has also come out since the show aired.

Some of the facts that were shared in Seaspiracy

 

Sharks kill 12 people a year. But humans kill 11,000 to 30,000 sharks per hour.


There’s a persisting myth that sharks are universally dangerous to human beings. But in reality, it’s the other way around. 

Indeed, 50 million sharks are killed every year through bycatch alone, meaning that they’re scooped up from the ocean accidentally while hunting for other fish. The documentary says that without sharks, and the other fish governing the top of the food chain, the ocean’s ecosystem wouldn’t be able to cope. And yet, in total, 100 million sharks are killed every year. (This fact alone should be enough to force drastic change!)

The oceans will be empty by 2048

In the documentary, experts claim that fishing takes 2.7 trillion fish from the ocean every year. If this rate continues, marine biologist Dr Sylvia Alice Earle shares that the ocean will be empty, and soon. “The estimate is by the middle of 21st century if we keep taking wild fish at the level we are today there won’t be enough fish to catch,” predicting virtually empty oceans by as soon as 2048,” she shares.

We are destroying our oceans.

Not only is fishing gear contributing to plastic pollution and the death of marine life, but fishing is also hurting ocean ecosystems. For example, bottom trawling (dragging nets. Nets that are big enough to envelop 13 jumbo jet planes,  along the ocean floor to catch fish) deforests about 3.9 billion acres of seafloor annually. That’s the equivalent of deforesting 4,316 soccer fields every minute.

“By continued extraction of fish out of our oceans, you’re essentially deforesting our oceans,” author Richard Oppenlander said in the doc, adding that these “methods of removal are devastating to habitat, to ecosystems.” 

93 percent of the world’s CO2 is stored in the ocean, according to the documentary, so protecting the ocean is in everyone’s best interest.

Courtesy of Oceania org

Fishing nets make up 46% of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. 

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, three times the size of France, is the most polluted patch of water on the planet. Located between Hawaii and California, it’s filled with all kinds of plastic — especially all the leftovers from fishing activities.

But the documentary says that the role of overfishing in the patch hasn’t really been told. In fact, they say that “the whale in the room” is that a lot of large animals you see wash up on beaches with plastic in their stomachs often have fishing nets in them.

The claim about fishing nets in the patch has been disputed. The 2018 study quoted in the film was based on plastic that floats, and did not account for microplastics, tiny particles of plastic that often sink. For the ocean as a whole, a 2019 study from environmental charity Greenpeace found that fishing nets likely make up 10% of plastic waste.

It was a discussion that made it onto BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, with the statistic clarified by climate activist and Seaspiracy contributor George Monbiot.

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Plastic straws account for just 0.03% of ocean plastic.

According to the BBC, the two studies referenced in the movie both provide estimates, with a calculation made from these estimates. But it basically comes down to this: Plastic straws are not as big a problem as people think they are, and fishing nets are a far more serious threat to the ocean.

Courtesy of WWF

Bycatch is responsible for killing numerous whales, dolphins, and other sea animals.

Bycatch is defined as non-target marine catch who are left dead or dying as a result of the fishing industry. According to Seaspiracy, more than 300,000 whales and dolphins are killed each year as bycatch; 30,000 sharks are killed every hour; and 250,000 sea turtles are injured or killed (in the U.S. alone). Not to mention, there are many other animals killed as bycatch, including non-target fish that are too small, sea birds, and other animals. 

Basically, when consumers eat one fish, they are not just responsible for the life of that one fish, but also the life of many other marine animals.

Even farming creates waste

Exploring the option of fish farming as an alternative to wild fishing, the documentary makers claim to discover that an individual salmon farm makes as much organic waste as 20,000 humans.

Think about that for a second. It’s a lot.

All marine wildlife is being affected

Again, according to the documentary, as many as 50 million sharks are caught every year as what they term ‘bycatch’, aka an accidental catch.

So it’s not just salmon and cod being killed, but sharks and dolphins, too, largely for no reason. This is problematic as it unnecessarily takes life, but also because sharks and dolphins are essential for fertilising phytoplankton.

And why are phytoplankton important? Well, the documentary states that they’re really rather good at absorbing carbon dioxide, which is essential for reducing the Earth’s carbon footprint and slowing down global warming.

To put it into context here: they say phytoplankton absorb four times as much as the Amazon rainforest. That’s a lot.

Slavery is a problem 

You might be shocked to read this, but several times in the documentary, it is claimed that working on fishing boats is a form of modern day slavery.

Men who once worked on boats give anonymous interviews and share how they were kept against their will, in inhumane conditions.

The stats do all the talking really, with the documentary makers drawing a comparison between the number of dead American soldiers from the five year Iraq war to the number of dead fish workers over the same five years – 4,500 compared to a reported 360,000. Captain Hammarstedt from Sea Shepherd shares: “[It is] the same criminal groups behind drug trafficking and human trafficking.”

Courtesy of BBC (Shocking Whale slaughter)

One fact that has been overlooked

Whales accumulate carbon in their bodies during their long lives, some of which stretch to 200 years. … Wherever whales are found, so are phytoplankton. These tiny creatures produce every second breath we take, by contributing to at least 50 per cent of all the oxygen in our atmosphere.

Whales store carbon in their bodies both during their lifetime and when they die. Their carcasses sink to the bottom of the ocean trapping carbon which is unlikely to re-emerge for millennia. A 2010 study posits that eight types of baleen whales, including blue, humpback, and minke whales, carry 30,000 tonnes of carbon to the bottom of the sea each year. The authors also go on to stipulate that if whale populations returned to their former glory this carbon sink would increase by 160,000 tonnes a year.

“Phytoplankton captures approximately four Amazon rainforests worth of CO2 each year. In this regard, even a 1% increase in phytoplankton productivity caused by whale activity would have a significant effect on global carbon sequestration.”

Not only do they store carbon in their bodies passively, whales also increase the ocean ecosystem’s ability to store additional carbon. Through the very process of swimming and diving as well as excreting faeces, whales increase the level of nutrients on the ocean surface, notably iron and nitrogen, which in turn boosts the growth of phytoplankton and marine plants that generate energy through photosynthesis, and in the process remove carbon from the atmosphere. In fact, further studies indicate that the 12,000 sperm whales in the Southern Ocean help capture 200,000 tonnes of carbon per year by stimulating phytoplankton growth and death through their iron-rich defecations.

Phytoplankton is hugely important to marine ecosystems but also to our environment. These microscopic creatures are believed to play a fundamental role in the generation of at least 50% of all oxygen found in the atmosphere, whilst at the same time capturing about 37 billion metric tonnes of CO2, which amounts to 40% of all CO2 produced. To put this into perspective, phytoplankton captures approximately four Amazon rainforests worth of CO2 each year. In this regard, even a 1% increase in phytoplankton productivity caused by whale activity would have a significant effect on global carbon sequestration.

Courtesy of Whales.UK

The debate

The documentary questions the sustainable seafood movement and looks at the way the Dolphin Safe and Marine Stewardship Council labels may not be able to provide the assurances consumers are looking for.

Representatives of both organisations have accused the film-makers of misleading statements.

An executive with the international organisation responsible for the Dolphin Safe tuna label, Mark Palmer, has said his comments were taken out of context.

In an interview in the documentary, Palmer, the associate US director of the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP), which is operated by the Earth Island Institute, was asked if his group could guarantee that no dolphins were ever killed in any tuna fishery anywhere in the world.

“I answered there are no guarantees in life but that drastically reducing the number of vessels intentionally chasing and netting dolphins as well as other regulations in place, that the number of dolphins that are killed is very low”, he said.

“The film took my statement out of context to suggest that there is no oversight and we don’t know whether dolphins are being killed. That is not true.”

The Marine Stewardship Council, a not-for-profit set up by WWF and Unilever over 20 years ago, has since questioned Seaspiracy’s claims, issuing a response to them on 26th March this year.

 

Regarding the claim that sustainable fishing is impossible, they say: ‘This is wrong. 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 include the Patagonian toothfish in the Southern Oceans or the recovery of the Namibian hake, after years of overfishing by foreign fleets, or the increase in some of our major tuna stocks globally.”

Climate change is a threat to marine life

Actually, director Ali Tabrizi doesn’t make this claim at any point in the movie, which has surprised some scientists. Dr Bryce Stewart, a marine ecologist and fisheries biologist, posted a Twitter thread on 27th March pointing out the omission.

“People will either believe it [Seaspiracy] and completely overreact, or find it so easy to discredit some of the statements that the real issues get downgraded or disbelieved. In that way, I feel this film does more harm than good.”

“On the flip side, it was good to highlight misconceptions about issues like the threat of plastic straws relative to many other factors. But what about climate change? If you are discussing the oceans and the marine life in it then climate change is a massive part of the discussion.

So, is Seaspiracy 100% true? 

As with any documentary, Seaspiracy has come under fire. Its critics claim that it shares a biased viewpoint and that some of the facts are unsubstantiated.

Marine biologist Bryce Stewart said on Twitter: “Does it highlight a number of shocking & important issues? Absolutely. But is it misleading at the same time? Yes. It regularly exaggerates & makes links where there aren’t any.

While we at activescuba can’t confirm or deny the truth of the claims made in the documentary, what we can say is this: the Earth needs our help, and it needs it fast. Choose to do your bit in whatever way suits you – and if that’s reducing your meat and fish consumption, good for you.

What can save the oceans? Giving up seafood?

But my main problem with Seaspiracy is that its makers want us to believe that not eating fish is the central way we should go about fixing the problems that industrial fishing creates for the oceans.

To opt for vegetarianism and veganism is a very respectable position, and it may (have to) become a majority decision in the coming years, to limit the climate crisis as well. But right now, this is a position that only a small fraction of the population of wealthier countries will take.

When you decide on an absurd policy, you must knock down the alternatives, however sensible they might be. And so, Seaspiracy attacks several of the NGOs in ocean conservation, including the Plastic Pollution Coalition and Oceana.

The message I wish the filmmakers had conveyed instead is that pushing for legislative changes and improved enforcement of existing laws is the best way to get involved. Just like the fight against tobacco in enclosed public places was won by smoking bans, and not by appeals to smokers, the fight against illegal fishing and the other shenanigans of the fishing industry will be won by political actions directed at governments, not appeals to vegans in New York, London, or Vancouver.

Governments make the decisions that shape the oceans, and 90 percent of the global fish catch is governed by just 30 countries and the European Union. Better policies can rebuild fisheries. The problem we face, really, is that not enough people are involved and helping to push for better decisions and better policies.

Courtesy of the Independent

Summary

This documentary is certainly eye opening. If it was designed to bring the discussion of overfishing and the death of marine life and damage to the oceans. Then it certainly reached its goal. However as we have seen if you are going to use such facts then they need to be up to date based on the latest data. The data needs to be challenged and investigated in a balanced manner. Speaking with all sides and point of views. So to avoid misleading people then not achieving the ultimate goal which is change for the good of all marine life and the oceans themselves.

Although some of the facts are not quite what was stated, we can debate the vegan promoting and don’t eat fish at all theme of the show. 

We can look at some of the figures whether there is 10% actual bycatch or the 48% claimed whether 46% of the plastic in the ocean is made up of fishing nets etc or its just 46% of the great pacific garbage patch of all plastic in the ocean. The view shared that there will not be enough fish in the ocean by 2048. 

 

To be honest whether it’s 2048 or 2058, 10% or 30% the one glaring fact remains that a large amount of our marine life are being unnecessarily killed every year and that our oceans and the life in them are suffering and in turn so will we. So 1 fact remains that is undisputed. We cannot just do nothing! We all have a responsibility to ensure the longevity of our beautiful oceans and the many wonderful marine life that live in them. We can fish but it needs a global effort to ensure this is carried out responsibly while increasing marine life not depleting it further. Along with reducing the waste this creates to zero. We also have our part to play in this as well.

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