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The film’s over-simplification and outdated statistics risk adding to the challenges already facing the world’s oceans.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

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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 The lead author of the 2006 report that contains the statistic has since said the research is outdated.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?]