Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
13 April 2021

Seaspiracy: the overfishing documentary that became entangled in its own net

The film’s over-simplification and outdated statistics risk adding to the challenges already facing the world’s oceans.

By Freddie Hayward

Over the past decade, Netflix documentaries such as The Game Changers, What the Health and Cowspiracy have inspired conversations about whether people should adopt plant-based diets. The latest addition to the genre, Seaspiracy, has similarly created something of a splash after it was released on the network, which has 200 million subscribers, in March.

The film’s director, Ali Tabrizi, 27, is the impassioned frontman for what is framed as an exposé of the world’s fish stocks crisis. His travels take in the enduring practice of whaling, the prevalence of slavery in Thai fishing outfits and a brief look at whether aquaculture (that is, “agriculture” for fish) is the solution to what the UN calls the “continuous increasing trend” of overfishing.

Cringe-inducing nods to a kind of investigative journalism are threaded throughout: the snooping around ports in a black hoodie, the “gotcha” interviews with NGOs over their inattention to fishing, and the conviction to “follow the money”. But while these may at first appear to be a harmless stylistic choice, the hurried coverage of each subject means the film fails to capture the full story.

Some marine biologists have criticised the documentary as a simplistic portrayal of a complex industry and a misrepresentation of facts. “The issue I have with the film, unfortunately, is that it regularly overexaggerates issues, it uses incorrect statistics, and makes links where they don’t really exist,” Bryce Stewart, a marine ecologist, fisheries biologist and senior lecturer at the University of York, told me.

Christina Hicks, an environmental social scientist at Lancaster Environment Centre, appeared briefly in the film speaking about fishing subsidies, but she later tweeted that it was “unnerving to discover your cameo in a film slamming an industry you love & have committed your career to”.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

One main criticism is directed at the film’s claim that the sea will run out of fish by 2048. The lead author of the 2006 report that contains the statistic has since said the research is outdated. According to a 2020 UN report, the fraction of fish stocks that are within biologically sustainable levels decreased from 90 per cent in 1974 to 65.8 per cent in 2017. But it also notes that the sustainability of fisheries is dependent on how intensively they are managed, with some successfully increasing their fish stock.

[See also: The nature films that ask us who we are and what we want to be]

The film also targets environmental groups such as the Earth Island Institute which is responsible for the Dolphin Safe sustainable fishing label. That fishers pay these organisations for their sustainability certification creates, the film argues, a conflict of interest. But when it comes to the Marine Stewardship Council, another organisation the film targets, Stewart believes that the criticism is unfair. The MSC has “arguably done more for sustainable fishing around the world than any other single organisation,” he said.

Along with cutting fishing subsidies and creating no-catch zones, the documentary suggests that one solution to the crisis of our oceans is to stop eating seafood. Yet this conclusion has also been criticised as overlooking the issue of global food security and the role of fishing in many cultures.

Ultimately, Stewart believes the film was “too simplistic for what is a very complicated set of issues” and he worries that the inaccuracies will undermine the argument for change. But “it did highlight overfishing as the main threat to marine ecosystems. And that is something that most scientists, including me, would agree with,” Stewart said.

Seaspiracy’s core message, that more attention needs to be paid to the practices of the fishing industry than to the disposal of plastic forks, is compelling – not least because focusing on individual consumer choices as a solution to climate change, plastic waste or the destruction caused by the fishing industry distracts from the responsibility for reform that must be placed on corporations and governments.

Yet, as with some of Netflix’s previous documentaries, the value of this film exists less in its journalistic rigour than in the debate it stimulates. But, in future, it would be preferable if filmmakers could cast their investigative nets with greater precision.

[See also: Brexit isn’t done: what next for fishing?]

Content from our partners
What you need to know about private markets
Work isn't working: how to boost the nation's health and happiness
The dementia crisis: a call for action