I nearly switched off Seaspiracy, the Netflix horror-doc about overfishing, four minutes in when it presented us with a shot of dozens of whales that had stranded themselves on a sandy beach. We were expected to believe that all these whales had died because of plastic in the ocean, when anyone who knows anything about whales knows they do have these moments of disorientation, which no one has yet fully explained but which some have suggested are to do with ocean noise.
There are a few jaw-dropping factual errors like this and hoary but rechaufféd scientific facts, such as Boris Worm’s prediction that all the world’s main stocks of commercial fish would be overfished by 2048, which is a bit too exact. The film helps itself liberally, and without crediting them, to narratives created a decade ago by films such as The Cove and The End of the Line – the film of my book made by Rupert Murray. In other words, it was astonishingly derivative and prone to journalistic clichés such as “follow the money” which another generation of documentary script-editor would have deleted.
On top of that the film’s call to action – don’t eat fish because no fishing is sustainable – is thoroughly unsatisfactory. It is more inclined to drive its young audiences to despair or not bother rather than a thoughtful search for solutions. (Though if all the millennials were to stop eating farmed salmon sushi at the drop of a hat, this would leave more of the small pelagics that are rendered to make salmon food in the sea for poor people to eat, so maybe it isn’t such a bad idea.) This film’s producer has already put a generation of millennials off cow’s milk – even grass-grazed cow’s milk which is full of Omega 3s and made on top of a carbon sink. Now he gives them something else they can’t ethically ingest. Expecting the whole world, even the developing world, to go vegan is a bit unrealistic to say the least.
And yet, I find a lot to admire in how Ali Tabrizi’s film has rounded up all the terrible things going on in the sea, put them up on a screen and punched peoples face with them. Who cares that this shock-doc isn’t subtle? The scale of the problem merits the treatment. The problem of overfishing is immense, global, remote, horrifying and it is really hard to get people to focus on. Until now, Tabrizi’s generation thought banning plastic straws was more important. But it isn’t. Overfishing is. It is screwing up 70 per cent of the planet and he manages to communicate that to a new audience with all the latest global warming ramifications.
Seaspiracy pulls it off by landing just so many punches. Thump: the destruction of ecosystems by fishing is affecting the ocean’s ability to act as a carbon sink. Boff: some 46 per cent of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is from fishing gear – so why aren’t all those plastic campaigners talking about fishing? Kerrunch: yes, those Japanese people who round up dolphins in Taiji every year to sell them to aquariums do indeed massacre the rest because they believe it is pest control – dolphins eat fish. Kerthump: many far-East fishing fleets are riddled with modern slavery. Oof: a growing number of observers that are paid to check up on such fleets are being murdered.
The film gets stuck into the people who are supposed to ensure that “sustainable fishing” means exactly that. The Marine Stewardship Council comes in for an epic hiding. The people who put the blue ticks on the mackerel tins have conveniently rigged the definition so it leaves out a vast mortality of dolphins, seabirds, turtles and other fish, as well as (we are only now realising) the huge contribution made by trawling to climate change. Professor Callum Roberts, BLUE’s Chief Scientific Adviser, delivers one of the best put-downs of the MSC I have ever heard, which should leave them reeling. And the people from the Earth Island Institute who are supposed to ensure that “dolphin free” tuna does not kill dolphins come over as just weird. What about tuna-friendly tuna – do we only care about dolphins because they share our DNA and regard everything else as food?
All this needed saying. And as Tabrizi says, when he manages to get on an Asian long liner a hundred miles off the coast of Africa with a posse of gun-waving Gabonese marines, “I don’t see how enforcing sustainable fishing 100 miles out at sea is possible.” He’s right, we don’t do enforcement out there on the oceans remotely well enough.
So, do I agree we should stop eating all fish? No. Do I think that there is a Seaspiracy? Not really – just a global, sometimes criminal, chaotic cock-up. The film just doesn’t have any solutions. But there are some – we need proper protection of 30 per cent of the oceans by 2030, a high seas treaty to regulate all those long-lining animal-murderers and we need to work with coastal communities who want to go on fishing and to safeguard their resources for the future. There are indeed viable examples of sustainable fishing – and ocean protection. We need, in other words, all the things that the Blue Marine Foundation works for all day and late into the night. We need this marine super-year, culminating in COP 26, to deliver some better marine protection. And for all that Seaspiracy is a pretty good advert. So thanks very much, Ali and Co, for making it.
Charles Clover is author of The End of the Line (Ebury 2004) and co-founder of Blue Marine Foundation.
Cover image: Alex Hofford/Greenpeace