Seaspiracy faces valid criticisms, but they should not detract from the central message of the film that commercial fishing is bad for the environment. The documentary, produced by Kip Anderson of Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret fame, chronicles filmmaker Ali Tabrizi’s journey to uncover the environmental and social impacts of the international fishing industry. Through interviewing scientists and non-profit advocates, Tabrizi concludes that not only is fishing bad for the environment, but it is also bad for human consumption as well. The resounding message of the film is one of responsibility, but it is unclear who Tabrizi wants to hold responsible.
As with most pro-vegan documentaries, the film’s ultimate call to action falls onto the laps of consumers in the form of a plant-based diet. The idea that individual actions can change systematic issues is a core tenant of neoliberalism. Namely, that the market, rather than governmental institutions, is the most efficient strategy to enact change. Most importantly, this change can only be driven through the act of individual consumption. There are many arguments for veganism that I agree with (I have been a vegan for six years). However, the idea that consumers should be held responsible for the actions of producers is not one of them.
Perhaps the embodiment of neoliberalism, the documentary centers on Tabrizi himself. The opening shot pictures Tabrizi alone on a beach picking up trash. He tells the camera that he is concerned for the health of the ocean and he single-handedly wants to figure out what is ailing it. This causes him to lead a naïve journey throughout the world to investigate the real threats the ocean is facing. This quest for knowledge centers the narrative of the film on Tabrizi rather than the issue itself.
He begins his quest at a cove in Taiji, Japan, where dolphins and whales are killed every year. This is where the documentary begins to veer into murky waters, muddying the line between journalism and entertainment. As with most dramas, the plot is driven by conflict. In Tabrizi’s case, this conflict is spearheaded by Japanese police who are apparently following him and his film crew (filming in Taiji is severely limited). Because of this, the team ultimately decides to change locations for “safety” reasons. Throughout his travels, Tabrizi receives warnings that he is in danger of either arrest or murder, sometimes both. These warnings are coupled with footage (and sometimes cartoons) of people on boats, either being held captive or thrown off. While I do not doubt some of the places Tabrizi visited were dangerous, the sensationalization of the crew's experience detracted from the issues that the film attempted to address. It is easy to forget that Seaspiracy is in fact a documentary and not an international crime drama along the lines of Captain Phillips.
Throughout the documentary, Tabrizi came across as an arrogant Westerner. It is important to note that most of the countries he visited and criticized were developing countries such as Liberia or Thailand. While it is true there are many labor issues in developing countries, some as extreme as slavery, Tabrizi never mentions the history of colonization in these countries as to put these practices into context. Furthermore, it is never mentioned that most of the demand for fish comes from the West, which is driving worker exploitation in the East. It is not surprising that Tabrizi seems to have a flawed perspective. As Brian Kahn from Gizmodo says, “[He] comes off as ‘I alone can fix this problem I have only recently learned about,’ and that solution is my preferred method.” Rather than letting the research speak for itself, Tabrizi opted to center himself in the narrative. This method only works if the documentarian is likable, and unfortunately, Tabrizi is not.
So is commercial fishing really to blame for the death of our oceans? The answer is yes, but it is much more nuanced than the documentary leads its viewers to believe. The leading cause of ocean death is climate change, as increased carbon in the atmosphere leads to ocean acidification, which kills coral and fish alike. Surprisingly, climate change in relation to the oceans is never mentioned in this film. Commercial fishing is certainly bad for the environment. Trawling destroys sea beds and overfishing causes extinction. But climate change, unlike commercial fishing, is a positive feedback loop. Namely, we can stop fishing, but if we wait too long to stop emitting greenhouse gasses, we cannot stop the climate from changing. So regardless if we are fishing or not, the ocean will die. Critics say that this film is vegan propaganda, and this fact makes it hard to dispute. It is important to note that the fishing industry is a large emitter of greenhouse gasses, so its elimination would certainly be a good thing. Still, Cowspiracy, Seaspiracy’s sister film, spent most of its time examining how animal agriculture causes climate change. Seaspiracy does not mention this once.
Perhaps the strangest flaw of Seaspiracy is that capitalism is never mentioned. How can a film that critiques an industry not critique the economic system that gave birth to that industry? Most of the problems of commercial fishing exist because of the profit motive. Humans have been fishing for thousands of years, and before industrialization, overfishing was almost unheard of. It would seem that fishing itself is not the problem; rather, it is a symptom of a much larger culprit: the economic system that pushes for infinite growth on a planet with fixed resources. Instead of calling for a complete economic overhaul, the film calls for even more consumption, but in the form of a vegan diet instead of a meat one. It is contradictory to critique a problem caused by capitalism and then call for more capitalism. Even worse, the film never mentions what would happen to the 36 million workers worldwide if the fishing industry was abolished. It seems Tabrizi believes that as long as they all go vegan, everything will just work itself out.
In the end, Seaspiracy took the complex problem of climate change in relation to the global food supply and boiled it down to a simple problem of consumer choice. Even more annoying, this was framed as a problem that was discovered by the filmmakers instead of the thousands of scientists and researchers who have been studying this issue for years. What’s worse, this discovery was dramatized to make the viewers believe the filmmakers were at risk of death the whole time. While it has its issues, Seaspiracy still portrays important criticisms of the fishing industry that should not be ignored. However, it is unfortunate that many people will be drawn away from this issue and most likely veganism itself because of the way it was sensationalized. Like I said in the beginning, regardless of its many shortcomings, the main takeaway of Seaspiracy should be that the fishing industry is indeed bad for the environment. Go vegan if you want, but that alone won't save us.