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Seaspiracy: fact or fiction?

Netflix’s newest documentary is one of the world’s most-watched films, but are its claims about seafood valid?

Heights
Heights
April 29, 2021
9 min read

The documentary film Seaspiracy debuted on Netflix in the spring of 2021. Within days, it became the streaming service’s third most-watched movie in the entire world. But now, those millions of viewers are wondering if they should give up fish, boycott canned tuna brands, and act on the startling footage they saw in Seaspiracy

Let’s dive in to the fact and fiction behind Netflix’s blockbuster hit, and whether you should change your diet or change your mind.

What is Seaspiracy about?

Over the course of its 89-minute run, Seaspiracy gets into the complex details of the global fishing industry and how human behaviour like overfishing and plastic packaging are impacting our oceans. 

The documentary, directed by Ali Tabrizi, specifically reviews and critiques a few key areas:

  • Sustainable fishing, and the branding and labelling around “sustainable seafood” (for example, “dolphin-safe” logos on canned tuna).

  • Marine conservation and environmental organisations, such as the Marine Stewardship Council and the Earth Island Institute.

  • The use of human labour in the fishing industry, including human rights abuses in the fishing industry.

  • The impact of human litter on the oceans, such as ghost nets (abandoned fishing nets still floating in the sea) and plastic trash.

As it wraps up, Tabrizi argues for his core thesis: Every individual needs to give up eating seafood, and we must push for governments to legally protect the oceans and create marine reserves. 

Seaspiracy fact check: is Seaspiracy accurate?

The Netflix film makes many claims interwoven with shocking footage and startling expert interviews. Not unlike dolphins and other bycatch (industry lingo for the unwanted animals and fish accidentally caught when trying to target a specific fish species) struggling in a fishnet, it’s hard for many viewers to detangle themselves from what’s fact and what’s hyperbole. 

This has led to some harsh reviews from critics. 

The New York Times, for instance, found the film's emotions-based methods distracting. "Even the film’s notable points seem to emerge only briefly before sinking beneath the surface, lost in a sea of murky conspiratorial thinking," the publication's scathing review concluded. 

And Decider notes that while the fishing industry has obvious ethical problems, the film's choice to label the entire industry as a global conspiracy is "almost pointlessly sensational." 

 Yet even the pushback from researchers and from the fishing industry has had pushback. 

Let’s “sea” what the controversy is about with a quick look at some of Seaspiracy’s most significant claims.

Claim: a significant percentage of imported seafood is illegally caught

Seaspiracy cites a study from 2014 that argues that 20-32%of the seafood (then worth just over $2 billion) brought to the U.S. is actually caught illegally. The film generalises this statistic, and says that one in three fish are illegally caught.

The University of Washington’s Sustainable Fisheries department (which, it should be noted, is funded by the fishing industry) initially argued on its Seaspiracy fact check page that the claim is false because the study had been retracted.

Verdict: True-ish, and perhaps worse than what Seaspiracy claims

After the initial pushback from Sustainable Fisheries went live, the author of that original “fact check” then withdrew the above claim.

The debate around the retraction of the retraction shows how tricky it is, even for industry insiders and university experts, to fact-check such a complex topic. 

But the truth may actually be worse. A lot has changed since the old study that Seaspiracy cited came out. 

According to a 2021 report by the U.S. International Trade Commission, Americans imported $2.4 billion of illegal, unreported or unregulated seafood in 2019 alone. This is far more than the $2 billion from the Seaspiracy study, yet only 11% of all imported seafood. 

Claim: American fishermen kill 250,000 sea turtles as bycatch every year

“Bycatch” is how the fishing industry refers to the many marine animals caught by accident when pursuing the target species (i.e., catching dolphins when you’re trying to catch fish).

The illegal fishing statistic we discussed above is not the only time the documentary uses old research. In this case, the study highlighted by Seaspiracy is from 2004.

Industry insiders rightfully called foul. But then other researchers jumped into the debate and argued that both sides were wrong.

Verdict: Not true (but additional studies show it’s still a major problem)

Again, the science is murky. A more recent report argues that 8.5 million turtles were killed as bycatch over a 17-year-period. However, that study did not break down this number by geographic regions. And this most recent update is more than a decade old. 

While Seaspiracy’s claim is wrong, the real picture is still far worse than what the industry claims. 

Millions of unwanted fish, sharks, turtles, whales and even seabirds continue to be caught. And even if it’s “accidental,” the end result is the same: A massive amount of life lost for every fish that’s intentionally caught. 

Claim: The international fishing industry is awash with human rights violations

Seaspiracy documents the stories of Thai fishermen. It shares footage that claims they’re essentially enslaved aboard massive fishing fleets to help keep the cost of seafood at a very low price for American consumers.

Verdict: Very true

This is a long-standing problem in the industry, and is driven by consumers' need for low-cost seafood. But it’s a worldwide issue and not just relegated to Thailand.  

According to Human Rights Watch, the seafood sold by the world's top four retailers is often connected to human rights problems like:

  • human trafficking 

  • enslavement 

  • physical abuse and beatings 

  • and even murder

And because so much of the world’s seafood gets processed and transported numerous times, even so-called “ethical” seafood can be hard to track. 

“Vessels often change their name, call sign, or flag to avoid detection,” explains Yale University. “The global economy has also become accustomed to tangled and convoluted supply chains where it is very difficult if not impossible (perhaps by design) to discern whether forced labour is being used to move goods across the ocean or catch the fish that ends up on our dinner plates.”

Take action: what should you do after watching Seaspiracy?

The University of British Columbia's Daniel Pauly, who is one of the leaders at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, writes that Seaspiracy has an "avalanche of falsehoods" and "employs questionable interviewing techniques."

However, he argues that the general point of the film still stands: That the global fishing industry is largely unregulated and is "sometimes [a] criminal enterprise that needs to be reined in."

Where does that leave you as a consumer after you’ve turned off Netflix and put down the popcorn?

Should you change your diet?

"Is it a good thing that we’re more aware now because of Seaspiracy?," asks registered dietitian Sophie Medlin, the head of nutritional research at Heights. “I think so.”

But before you jump into cutting out all seafood or making any other change to your diet, Medlin recommends that everyone do their own studying of the topic, make choices based on research, and not simply react emotionally to the latest viral documentary. Medlin suggests the following:

  • Keep in mind that eliminating any type of food group en-masse will always lead to a significant impact on your nutrition. 

  • Fish is one of the best sources of omega-3 fats for your general health, and especially your brain care. If you cut out fish, it’s critical that you add a high-quality omega-3 supplement, or ensure you add seaweed and algae to your diet.

  • Think about your underlying “why,” especially as it pertains to ethics and morals. “We also see more and more foods being demonised and moralised for environmental and other reasons,” she says. “We need to be particularly careful of this narrative.”

That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be considering the impact on our communities and the environment as we make food choices. Documentaries like Seaspiracy are powerful reminders of how our everyday actions can cause ripple effects around the globe.

With research and planning, savvy consumers can tackle the problems in Seaspiracy in a nutritionally sound way. For example, yes -- most people get their omega-3s from fish. But fish are rich in omega-3 fats because they eat marine algae that’s high in these nutrients.

That’s why we use high-quality, pure omega-3s derived from marine algae in every batch of the Smart Supplement. We take you straight to the source and support your brain health while completely avoiding the fishy dilemmas posed by Seaspiracy

Should you buy more sustainable products?

A core argument in Seaspiracy is that individuals need to make a habit of buying products that are sourced, produced and packaged with ethics and environmental sustainability in mind. And regardless of how researchers might nitpick each statistic and study used in the documentary, it’s an important goal to embrace. 

You can get started by:

  • Supporting local, small fishing companies when possible, which avoids the human rights quagmire of overseas fishing. 

  • Consulting ethical seafood guides like the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch or the Environmental Defense Fund's Seafood Selector (while Seaspiracy criticizes these guides’ efficacy, they’re great resources to help discerning consumers begin to learn which fish species are more sustainable than other fish species).

  • Looking for sustainable labels, such as the Oceanwise or Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) logos on foods. Again, Seaspiracy criticizes some of these organizations, but some third-party oversight is better than no oversight.

  • Only buying products with minimal, resuable, or recyclable packaging.

 True change on a global scale will require far more than just individuals changing their shopping habits. However, together we can all make a difference in big and small ways.

At Heights, we’ve embraced that mission fully:

  • We regularly measure and analyze the environmental impact of our packaging.

  • We’re constantly updating and changing our packaging as technology advances, including switching to 100 % recycled and recyclable paper and cardboard. 

  • We’ve switched to local manufacturers to reduce our company’s carbon footprint. 

  • We’ve added ingredient information to all of our packaging and marketing materials so you have the information you need to make the choices that are right for you and your family.

  • We are creating a refillable packaging system to reduce our reliance on single-use supplement containers, thanks to a WRAP circular plastics grant.

  • We’re pursuing BCorp certification to demonstrate our commitment to sustainability and being a positive member of the global community.

 

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