Seaspiracy

Let me lay my cards, face up on the table.  I spent my formative years in Shetland in the 1970-80’s in a fishing village where skippers were kings and life pretty much revolved around fishing, the sea, the weather and Shetland culture.  It was the experience of helping out on my father’s fishing boat that made me want to be a marine biologist – all those weird creatures that came up in the old fashioned and inefficient box dredge – starfish, sea cucumbers, algae, “scabby man’s heids” (echinoderms) and of course scallops and queenies.  In the days before GPS we used to watch out for rafts of gulls that would indicate shoals of mackerel just below the surface feeding on baitfish. Like many brought up by the sea and involved in the fishing industry, I love it.  I work with fishers and have had a few contracts around developing fisheries management plans, avoiding catching cod and helping ensure fair payment for gear displacement by offshore developments.  There are some rogues and there have been some bad practices by fishers in the past but I think that the fishing industry gets an unfairly bad press.  I often disagree with fishers but I also have a lot of time for what are an interesting, brave and entrepreneurial group of people.

The movie Seaspiracy sets out to tell the world how fishing is not sustainable, eating fish is bad for you and whale populations are declining because of plastics.  As @Taotaotasi illustrates it’s a disjointed affair with the storyline zipping from whales and plastics, whaling, tuna fishing, shark finning, ineffective institutions, coral reefs, overfishing, salmon farming, mangroves, slavery and MPAs.  It’s a mix of discussion highlighting issues that are of concern and misinterpretation of or wild exaggeration of the science.

Early in the film he highlights the importance of whales in the Carbon Dioxide cycle.  They dive deep to feed, bring the food to the surface where they defecate thus fertilizing the upper regions of the ocean where you find tiny plants (phytoplankton).  More wales = more fertilization, possibly.  Krill, along with many other pelagic animals, also take part in this regular dance from the deep to the shallows, collectively in temperate regions it is referred to as diurnal vertical migration.  According to the International Whaling commission the numbers of whales around the world look to be increasing, recovering from the decimation since the end of the 2nd world war.  The narrator makes a link between plastic debris and deaths of whales through ingestion of plastic, however according to the IWC, “clear cases of ingested marine debris causing deaths remain few and scattered”.

There is a lot of focus on people driving cetaceans ashore to butcher them in Taigi (Japan) and the Faeroe Isles.  The former has only being going on since 1969 and is said to be driven by the sale of dolphins to ocean life centres and the sale of dolphin meat.  He also claims that in Japan it’s driven by the desires of fishers to reduce competition for fish.  The Faeoese whale drive is a much older and ingrained traditional affair and the meat is eaten (there is a good documentary here that explores the issues in the fishery in Faeroe).  It’s not a particularly pleasant spectacle but the animals are quickly dispatched and the folk that eat them are the folk that kill them.  These are pilot whales which are not thought to be endangered. Ironically these animals, along with large tuna are going to be less attractive as food because they have significant amounts of mercury in them.  There are ongoing investigations relating to the health effects of consuming too much whale meat in the Faeroes.   The truth is, as he points out later, that these events are pretty minimal in the grand scheme of things – maybe a 1000 dolphins a year in Japan.  More cetaceans are killed as bycatch in other fisheries.

He states that Pacific Bluefin tuna are at 3% of their original stock levels and that they are endangered.  They are neither.  Current stock levels are 4.5% of the biomass you would expect if fishing effort was zero and it is rebuilding so that the stock has improved to vulnerable status.  Still not fantastic but it illustrates that the relatively young science of fisheries management is having a positive impact (the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission was only established in 2004).  Many stocks of tuna are in relatively good condition and international management measures are improving all the time.  Satellite based monitoring systems are likely to improve management further.

He states that shark populations have dropped to 1% of their origin.  Again, this is needless exaggeration. It is true that Oceanic sharks are thought to have declined by ~70%.  For many shark populations we just don’t know, others such as the Blue shark appear to be at equilibrium or in decent condition. He suggests that 90% of large fish have disappeared.  This is just wrong. The figure is based on a paper that used catch data (which are not a good measure of population size) from a Japanese longline fishery.  He made a statement about a 99% decline in cod.  I can’t work out exactly where that came from (there have been numerous nonsensical stories about cod over the last 20 years including one about there only being 100 cod left in the North Sea) but it is patently not true, overall Atlantic cod are increasing in number. Stocks are doing poorly in the south of their range and in the Western Atlantic – this is likely to do with warming water impacting on reproduction and survival.  Shark finning gets a mention too – I find this practice abhorrent, it is wasteful.  Shark fisheries require particularly careful management due to long generation time and low reproductive rates.

He repeats the completely discredited assertion from 2006 that suggested that by 2048 there would be no fish left in the sea and we would be eating jellyfish.  The original authors of the paper no longer stand by that assertion.  It’s nonsense.  There is a suggestion that large scale extraction of fish isn’t sustainable.  This is just rubbish.  The best managed fisheries, with robust data collection, good science and observer coverage are the large scale fisheries.  These also happen to be the best fisheries when you consider CO2.  Large and efficient purse seiners use less CO2 per kg landed than those romantic wee boats that you find in rural villages.

We can’t catch fish because we don’t know where to draw the line

This made me laugh out loud.  There is uncertainty in fisheries management (along with most other aspects of life) and I’d argue we do know where to draw the line.  There are instances where we don’t get it right but these are becoming fewer.  In the face of an exponentially increasing human population, fisheries management has done pretty well to stabilize fishing effort in most fisheries.  According to the FAO, 67% of fisheries worldwide are now thought to be managed sustainably.

I agreed with much of the section on aquaculture although I think salmon farmers have got a bit better at not feeding fish to fish.  Open pen salmon farming is an awful practice and I try to avoid eating farmed salmon.  Open pen marine aquaculture is not the answer.  Wild fish are a much healthier food choice and are a renewable resource.

If people can’t eat fish they will turn to other sources of protein.  This is discussed in relation to the exploitation of seas around Africa where legal EU boats and illegal fishery pirates are overfishing stocks that local artisanal fishers depend on.  He claims that in the absence of fish people turn to bush meat and then links that to Ebola.  I’d like to see evidence linking these but it is true that if people cant eat fish they will eat other animal protein.  People will not turn vegan because they can’t access fish. If they did that would bring its own environmental concerns. I’d argue that fish are a healthier source of protein and their consumption is less damaging to the planet.  The environmental costs of many terrestrial sources of protein in terms of CO2 and Biodiversity loss are much higher than most fisheries. George Monbiot suggested that the only way to save life in the oceans is to stop eating fish. He suggests that fishing is the main issue threatening the integrity of the oceans. This is patently nonsense. The proportion of threatened fish species is the lowest of any group or animals.

Fisheries management has generally been an overwhelming success. In the face of an exponentially growing population landings from marine stocks have plateaued. They have plateaued because of stronger fisheries management and we continue to improve. Obviously there are issues, as there are with agriculture, big pharma, transport and social inequality.

https://ourworldindata.org/seafood-production

To me the biggest problem in fisheries (well everything really) is inequality.  Rich nations develop robust management systems but still want to eat cheap fish.  They therefore import fish from countries with weaker management systems – for example Australia with its robust spatial management imports 60-70% of its fish from human consumption from Thailand, Vietnam (and New Zealand).  The rich nations export or offshore their environmental issues elsewhere – this isn’t just a problem in fisheries.

Inequality rears its most ugly head in relation to poor labour practices in some fisheries.  There are parts of the world where this is an issue and it is important to keep up pressure on government and supermarkets to end this practice.  Twenty years ago I was an observer on a longliner around South Georgia in the South Atlantic.  The Namibian crew on the boat were paid US$25 a week for a 7-day week.  The sister ship to mine sank with many crew losing their lives – the observer on that boat was a hero and wrote a book about the experience. I have been picking away at the issue since then.  It was an example of marine aprtheid where all the white officers were from the wealthy north and the black crew were from poverty backgrounds in rural Namibia. Poor labour practices mostly happen in Asia and around Africa but we also have a two tier system in the UK and Europe with some boats hiring migrant labour at 50% of the cost of local workers.  But while these are issues of concern and grab headlines, they are not in every fishery by any stretch of the imagination.

This is a disappointing documentary, it’s more about the narcissism of a privileged young white boy talking about things that anyone with a smidgeon of interest in marine conservation can tell you are problematic – Japanese whalers, shark finning, plastic pollution, open pen salmon farming, inequality, tied together with a tissue if falsehoods, exaggeration and nonsense. There is no “big reveal” here.  By breaking the law in Thailand and interviewing without a permit he may have put some poor guy at risk – someone who could very well be dead or imprisoned now.  He interviewed a social scientist who really is trying to help make changes – without informing her of the direction he was taking or what the film was for.  These are worryingly unethical behaviours and I’d be surprised if @netflix were happy with it. He picked on soft targets, folk trying to make a difference in a complex world and I think probably selectively edited the interviews to try and show the interviewees in a bad light.  This guy isn’t an environmental hero.

If you want to keep up with the real science around fisheries and people who really are trying to make a difference, I recommend bookmarking @TrevorABranch pages of all time must read and annual must read papers. In putting this article together, I’ve leaned heavily on the https://sustainablefisheries-uw.org/ library (@SustainFishUW). The site has an interesting article about how misinformation gets into the public understanding of fisheries.

If you have read this article and are concerned about the environment, it should just be a starting point. Read more, inform yourself, take nothing at face value, listen carefully to opposing viewpoints, be ready to change your mind when faced with good evidence. You won’t learn much living in an echo-chamber.

If there are any errors in this piece – please let me know, give me evidence and I’ll correct them.

If you are a twitterer see comments by @BlahaFrancisco, @Taotaotasi, @Jack_IM9, @BD_Stew, @JamesBellOcean and @SeafloorScience

18 thoughts on “Seaspiracy

  1. Although I accept Ali may have not quoted the same figures you work with, at the end of the day you cannot deny that the fishing industry is damaging to the ocean. Your reasoning for criticising Ali which seems to be based on the fact he had a privileged childhood, therefore that makes his findings worthless, is ridiculous. He did not claim to be making a scientific film, and none of what was said really had as much effect on most people as seeing dolphins rounded up in Japan to be slaughtered and whales be rounded up to be slaughtered in the Faroes. You say as if that really doesn’t matter, in which case you are also part of the problem if you believe bycatch is acceptable. The industry is barbaric and damaging to our ecosystems. No doubt you don’t believe in climate change either, yet another human in denial of the destruction we wreak on this planet. I for one do not want to be a party to the inhumane treatment of marine life and as a family we have decided to change to a plant-based diet, which has all the nutrients our family needs, including protein, in the form of legumes and pulses. The only thing I will need to supplement is vegan vitamin B12.

    • Hi Debbie,

      It was presented as a documentary not a work of fiction. In which case it really needs to be factually accurate or people like me, who think truth is important in fisheries, will object. Everything we do impacts on the planet. You are no doubt using a computer or phone to send this message – take a look a the impacts of these on the environment? The great thing about fisheries is that they are a renewable resource – no commercial species of fish has been made extinct by fishing.

      You and I have the right to have an opinion about the whale hunts. We probably differ but I feel very uncomfortable when we start telling other cultures how to deal with their resources. Surely there are folk in Japan and Faeroe who will challenge hunting for cetaceans and be better able to understand the cultural sensitivities. You can take some (ironic) comfort from the fact that the bioaccumulation of PCBs and mercury in large fish and cetaceans make them toxic and so they are likely to be left alone more.

      Bycatch is a problem and people are working to try and reduce it. The way that the animals in the hunts are killed is no worse than the practices we live with in abattoirs. In fact I think if you are going to eat meat you should be prepared to kill the animals yourself and you could argue that the way the pilot whales are killed is more humane than many industrial practices (e.g. US cow feedlots) that kill many more animals.

      I absolutely do believe in climate change (I’m an environmental marine scientist). Its not a “belief” it is knowledge that it is happening and it is the main issue we need to deal with. Fishing is pretty small beer in comparison.

      Good luck with your veganism. I think everyone should try to eat less meat (fish can be much better in terms of its lower impact). And keep challenging everything you see and read. Apathy is the worst thing!

  2. I think yours is a great and interesting article, and I certainly agree that correcting misinformation is critical to the progression of science in general, now more than ever! I do think however your perspective on some of the issues covered in seaspiracy, and therefore your article, is underwritten with a bias based on your own experiences and links to the industry being discussed. This dismantling of the whole film with words like narcissism, falsehoods, exaggeration and nonsense, is in its own way sensationalist, and detracts from the message of the film. I totally agree that clearly not enough research was done into some of the figures presented in the film, as you’ve eloquently discussed. But this should not take away from communicating a critical climate issue to the widest (and largely non-expert) population possible. This film was made from the perspective of a non-scientist ocean lover to invoke an emotional reaction in the viewer, and I think it succeeded in doing that. We all know that action on big complex multi-issue topics like this often fall short of what was campaigned for and demanded at the outset. If the audience gets the message that things are doing well and fisheries are well managed (which may well be your experience) then they are unlikely to demand action from companies and governments perpetuating some of the ongoing problems. Interesting that your article makes no mention of the MSC, and the scale of fishing net plastic pollution that is not being talked about anything like the supposed plastic straw pandemic. These two issues were my main takeaways from a documentary that largely covered topics I already knew much about. If seaspiracy fuels the conversation, shines a spotlight on the negative parts of the industrial fishing industry and expedites change for the good, then surely we can all consider that while not perfect, it has been a force for good and a relative success? But if it is pulled apart and completely discredited for a limited number of factual inaccuracies, then people will lose confidence in the message and are less likely to be energised to do something about it. I hope my feedback will be received in good faith, as it is intended.

    • Thankyou for your thoughtful comment. It would be best if the film had no factual inaccuracies. Its overall premise that the fishing industry is evil and it would be better for the planet if we did not eat fish is wrong. There are problem areas in fishing – as there are with everything, eg read PandaLeaks for a view of WWF or Max Chapin (https://redd-monitor.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/WorldWatch-Chapin.pdf) for issues with big NGOs. As for being a non-scientist, a 5 min search of google will let you check most of the points made – if you are going to publish a documentary you have a duty to get facts correct. I found his “gotcha” approach to soft targets, people really trying to make a difference, incredibly distasteful. I also really didn’t like the fact that one of the academics interviewed did not know it was for this film and the Thai fisher who was interviewed was put in danger. These are unethical practices.

      Plastic is not the primary source of mortality in whales, Pacific Bluefin Tuna are increasing in number, shark populations have not dropped to 1% of their original figures, 90% of large fish have not disappeared, there has not been a 99% decline in cod. All fish will not have disappeared by 2048. Fishing is not the main issue threatening the integrity of the oceans. Climate change is THE issue we should be worried about.

      I didn’t comment on MSC because I’m ambivalent about it – labelling is generally a good thing in my view but I have problems with the fact they do not include enough about labour practices in their certification scheme. Fishing net pollution/ghost fishing are problems – 20% of plastic pollution in the sea globally is nets and ropes. I don’t like open pen salmon farming. I am actively interested in the labour issues in fisheries. These are all things people are working to sort out. None of these things were big reveals.

      “But if it is pulled apart and completely discredited for a limited number of factual inaccuracies, then people will lose confidence in the message and are less likely to be energised to do something about it.”

      The problem is it is so horribly inaccurate, we are not talking about limited factual inaccuracies. This sort of sensationalist western-view documentary with a very simplistic view of complex issues, in my opinion, do more harm than good. Countering this sort of tawdry rubbish soaks up energy from folks who are trying to work with industry and government to solve problems.

  3. Interesting to see an opposing view to Seaspiracy but surely you cannot deny that industrial fishing has led to a widespread decline in sea life in the last 2 decades? Yes, some species might be recovering but the overall picture is one of horrific devastation of our oceans – you only have to look at the communities in east Africa to see its effect. It is clear that it is impossible to judge whether a fish is sustainable unless you fish it yourself, otherwise I would advise leaving them where they belong!

    • I think East Africa is a problem because the governments there are letting Chinese/EU/IUU fishers in. These fish should be left for the locals who depend upon them for subsistence fishing. Small pelagics, which the industrial fishers are targetting for fishmeal, are nutritious food for locals.

      However, industrial fishing can be sustainable – e.g. toothfish and North Atlantic pelagic fisheries. They are well managed, they have observers on board, bycatch is limited and we have a reasonable understanding of the stocks (see https://www.ices.dk/sites/pub/Publication%20Reports/Advice/2020/2020/mac.27.nea.pdf and https://fishdocs.ccamlr.org/FishRep_483_TOP_2020.pdf).

      Overall stocks are rebuilding and there are more fish in the sea than there ever have been (partly because we have taken out a proportion of big predatory fish). The truth is, if we didn’t have a well managed licensed fishery around South Georgia and the Antarctic, illegal fishing would predominate. We are seeing this evolving as an issue around Chagos where the legal licensed fishery (described to me by one of the fishery managers at the time as “20 pairs of willing eyes to ttell us about illegal fishers”) is no more and they regularly catch unregulated illegal fishers. How many are not getting caught?

      Fishing isn’t going to go away – in the real world we need to deal with what is there and use evidence, facts and science to manage it sustainably.

    • No. Ray Hilborn is entirely transparent about who funds his work which is a mix of fishers organizations, government and NGOs. He is probably the most respected fisheries scientist in the world. You may disagree with his views on e.g. industrial fishing or aquaculture but the facts in his work are pretty solid. This is very different to Seaspiracy where we are asked to agree with the conclusions of hte film despite the fact that it is very poorly researched and just plain wrong in places.

  4. Good to read a factual article; too often emotional responses come to the surface and communication breaks down. I wonder if the general public understand the complexity of fisheries eg that there are many very different fisheries, that 1 or 2 (or more) years of poor recruitment to a stock can be more than balanced by a year when many young survive to adulthood and increase the stock substantially, that fish are often very temperature sensitive and the importance of different habitats to different species. I am happy to eat fish caught in Northern European waters where regulation is strict but avoid fish sourced from poorly regulated areas, where incidentally labour practices can also be bad. Of course there can be problems and there will always be some who do not observe rules but UK and EU rules are not easily bent never mind broken.

    • Thanks for the response. I agree. Eat with care – I try to avoid farmed salmon if I can and eat low trophic level fish/shellfish. I’m happy to eat fish caught by well managed “industrialized” fisheries where the CO2 score is low. But I also want to support fishing communities and eat locally caught fish.

  5. Thanks for the informative, balanced article.

    I would be interested to hear your view on bottom trawling. Do you consider corals to be bycatch? Do you support this practice? How many countries still use bottom trawling?

    Many thanks

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