Skip to main content
Menu

Environment & ethics   |   Fish

Seaspiracy questions reality of ‘sustainable’ fishing

A wide-ranging and emotive new Netflix documentary has raised questions about the existence of sustainable fishing and shone a bright spotlight on the negative impacts of large-scale commercial fishing.

Seaspiracy, which aired at the end of March and has gained widespread media, consumer and industry attention, tracks a documentary-maker’s journey from beach-cleaning plastic pollution, to waste from plastic fishing tackle, the plight of dolphins in Japan’s Taiji fishing grounds, and the catatrophic impact of commercial fishing across global oceans.

In stark contrast to natural world-celebrating documentaries shown on channels like BBC, Seaspiracy aired shocking footage of the scale of bycatch (unwanted and often endangered sea species like turtles and sharks), questioned the links between NGOs, eco labels and the fishing industry, and why the issue of plastic pollution is rarely explicitly tied to waste fishing gear, which it said is responsible for the majority of plastic waste in major pollution areas.

It also covered human rights issues such as slavery and looked at the links between foreign illegal fishing activity stealing livelihoods from coastal communities in west Africa.

It has since faced criticism of taking quotes out of context and some erroneous statistics, as reported by the Guardian, while others have refuted the claim that no fishing is sustainable and should not, therefore, be eaten.

Paul Trudgian, managing director of Cornwall-based fish wholesaler Fish for Thought, said he “applauds the fact we’re having this debate” but disputed the documentary conclusion to eat no fish at all.

“At the heart of the programme it was about highlighting some illegal and appalling things that are going on, and that we’ve been talking about for years.

“You can’t argue with the broad statement and the fact these things do happen. The answer is not to stop eating fish, it’s to stop eating the wrong fish.”

Fish for thought
Hot topic: Seaspiracy has sparked a debate on sustainable fishing. Image Fish for Thought/Matt Austin. 

In a blog post in further response, Trudgian said his company asks to be judged on what they don’t sell, such as swordfish, Tiger prawns, tuna or cod from the South West, where stocks are deemed unsustainable.

Guy Singh-Watson, founder of organic food retailer Riverford, which sells a limited range of wild line-caught fish only, said: “We need marine reserves where all commercial fishing is banned. Disturbance of the sea bottom should be illegal. Quotas need to be redistributed to smaller, local boats. Plundering of fish stock in the developing world by large foreign boats must stop, and fossil fuels must be taxed. If that is politically undoable, then yes, we should stop eating fish.”

A spokesperson for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) said: “While we disagree with much of what the Seaspiracy documentary-makers say, one thing we do agree with is that there is a crisis of overfishing in our oceans.

“However, millions around the world rely on seafood for their protein needs. With the global population set to reach 10 billion by 2050, the need to harness our natural resources more responsibly is more urgent than ever. Sustainable fishing has a vital role to play in securing those resources.”

The MSC was one of the labels, along with Dolphin Safe Tuna, that was scrutinised in the film as non credible, and has refuted those claims. The organisation declined to take part in the Seaspiracy documentary while asked by the filmmaker several times.

A spokesperson told Wicked Leeks: “While we agree more attention needs to be given to the crisis of overfishing, MSC decided not to participate in the film because we felt that our views would not be represented in a fair and balanced way.

“Fundamentally, the documentary-makers held a view that only an end to eating fish would save the oceans and that there was no such thing as ‘sustainable fishing’.

“Contrary to what the film-makers say, certification is not an easy process, and some fisheries spend many years improving their practices in order to reach our standard,” the spokesperson said.

Regarding the claims made that MSC fisheries producing bycatch, MSC said the Icelandic fishery in the documentary had been suspended and only let back in once issues were resolved. “Fisheries certified to the MSC standard must provide evidence that they are actively minimising unwanted catch,” they said.

Trudgian said Fish for Thought works with local seafood guides and the Marine Conservation Society to set what species to catch, working with smaller vessels and directly with fishermen, instead of certifications like MSC. “I do agree that some of the certification is dangerous,” he said.  “But where were the supermarkets in all of this? If they wanted to, they could stop all this tomorrow.”

He added that while the sensationalist tone of Seaspiracy could be why the debate has taken off, the fact some stats were misinterpreted means attention is then lost.

“The result is people start to talk about the misinterpretation of facts rather than about some of the really serious issues,” he said, adding that: “Broadly speaking we’re supportive and glad it has been done, and the debate is taking place. Fishing done on that scale is devastating.”

    Comments

    anthony roper

    7 Months 3 Weeks

    Interesting the reactions to films like this. People want to defend their position, pointing to the people who live in coastal areas and who rely on fishing for their protein, for example. But isn't that the point. The rich west send their trawlers with huge nets to hoover up all the fish and stop local small scale fishing boats from meeting their own needs. I also haven't read of that many people picking up on the toxic chemicals that you would also digest whilst eating sea animals!

    People need to watch this film, hard as it is, and then start to talk about it and their responsibility in this matter.

    2 Replies

    view replies

    Ann Owen

    7 Months 3 Weeks

    The only ethical answer for us in the rich West to the information Seaspiracy provides is to stop eating fish, end of. Even if the movie makers got their stats not 100% right, it is glaringly obvious that the whole industry is unsustainable, MSC or not. Just as you cannot be a bit organic when growing veg for the organic market, we should not accept the "sort of" or "nearly" sustainable concept in the fish industry. And because it is a vital source of protein in places like West Africa, we should definitely put a moratorium on our consumption of fish and chose to eat truly sustainable, British grown pulses instead. Time to get into the dried bean game, Riverford, I'm sure the folk at Hodmedod will welcome a conversation with you.

    0 Reply

    Comments Editor

    7 Months 2 Weeks

    Really crucial points there - so much is hidden in how resources are exploited on the other side of the world for our gain. Seaspiracy has started the conversation on how urgent the need to protect our oceans is - it is now up to all of us to engage with that and support positive change in whatever way we can.

    0 Reply

    splendiferous

    7 Months 3 Weeks

    I agree with the comments by Ann Owen; well said.

    Most people in the West do not need to consume fish or meat. In general, We consume twice as much protein as recommended, and can obtain all we need from alternative sources, such as beans and nuts. Indeed all essential amino acids are available in all foods except gelatin. Of course, there are other parts of the world where fish may be a vital source of nutrients.

    In the end, fish suffer when they are killed, they are sentient beings capable of feeling pain, and their life is tough enough without us adding to the list of predators.

    I also have concerns with MSC Welfare standards. According to Compassion in World Farming, (CIWF), MSC are concerned with supplying humans ‘sustainable’ fish, but do not consider fish welfare:

    …..''The MSC have told us that they currently have no plans to address the huge welfare issues faced by wild-caught fish. No responsible certification scheme should be certifying fish that have suffered a truly terrifying and excruciating death. Even minor welfare investments have the potential to significantly improve the lives of countless fish – and the MSC should be leading the way''….. (CIWF)

    If we cannot sort this and many other problems, I do not believe we should be consuming fish.

    1 Reply

    view replies

    Comments Editor

    7 Months 2 Weeks

    Hi splendiferous (great name!) If people choose to eat fish as part of their diet, we must consume 'less and better' - as is now being understood about meat. The true cost of Industrial agriculture, fishing and farming that puts profit before the planet is too high - and now is the time to change that.

    0 Reply

    Doingmybest

    7 Months 3 Weeks

    Is there any way to watch this documentary without signing up to Netflix, which I very much don't want to do?

    1 Reply

    view replies

    Comments Editor

    7 Months 2 Weeks

    Hi Doingmybest, it is currently only available to view on Netflix.

    0 Reply

    Walrus

    7 Months 3 Weeks

    I am amazed! We as a country have recently spent just under five years fighting for the rights of own fisherfolk to catch our fish i.e. fish of all types that are "born" within our own terrtorial waters rather than the free for all we had earlier (OK bottom line we weren't too sucessful at it) where anybody who wanted to was free to cach as much as they want anywhere within out territorial waters. Now that was not sustainable! But several years ago the herring industry was just about decimated because it was decided to stop fishing for herring for several years - now it seems nobody wants them - no kippers! If nothing else that proved that given chance a decent chance fish (like other creatures) can regrow and return to the amount we had before.

    But now due to some gimmicky film making there is a cry to stop eating fish, forget what went before! I wonder how long it will be before the cry goes out to stop eating other types of food following on from another gimmicky film or two? It has after all been proved that mere vegetables too feel pain and shy away from being cut etc. I sometimes wonder how far all this balony will go? I agree that the welfare of the food we eat is important and the animals etc involved whould have lived a life of least pain etc. Is it possible for so called rational people to actually understand their foodstuffs and treat them properly!

    I look forward to any comments on this, I'm sure there are people out there with sensible ideas on these things - please step forward and tell us those ideas; thank you!

    2 Replies

    view replies

    Comments Editor

    7 Months 2 Weeks

    Hi Walrus, whatever we choose to eat sustainability needs to be at the heart of every food industry, on land or at sea. The demands on nature made by vast industrial super trawlers, rainforest clearance for soya or pesticide-heavy monocultural growing make huge profits for some but are destroying our planet and eradicating more sustainable traditional methods of small-scale community fishing and farming. We need a huge change in direction and if this film - flawed as it may be in places - brings debate and positive change, that is a good thing surely?

    1 Reply

    Walrus

    7 Months 2 Weeks

    Within reason I agree but why just sustainable - what happens to the unsustainable substances we choose to use? Remember EVERYTHING used for an alternative reason other than what nature (or your Gods depending on your viewpoint) must count in this - our problem today I believe is deciding what we can and will use and what we can't and will not use, not necessarily in that order or priority. OK yest agree that it is good to tell people everything they need to know to be able to make that decission - but to a certain extent that dicission is not a one man affair - the whole planet - Rich, Poor, Black, White, Pink, Purple, Animal, Vegetable etc etc. must agree. We CANNOT cherry pick what w or somebody else wants - that way leads to death and destruction for all on the planet. this fact MUST be driven home to all concerned not just a chosen few - Gimmicks chose but a few "Target" creatures!!

    0 Reply

    splendiferous

    7 Months 2 Weeks

    Hello Walrus, you ask for sensible responses, I hope this does not disappoint! This may be a 'gimmiky' film, but it has achieved something. People who had no idea that fish suffer when caught, are now aware and informed, even if there are errors in the film, its message needs to be heard. Indeed similar films about our meat consumption, which you may think are gimmiky have also achieved the same objective - to raise awareness. It is astonishing how little people really know about the harmful effect of industries which promote unhealthy eating habits. Young people say to me ' but surely the governernment would not promote unhealthy food if it was bad for us'. They are trusting and many have no idea of what our generation has done to this planet, so, I am sorry to disagree, we need films like this to get people talking and to change attitudes. I think the following quote is very apt:
    "A human being is a part of the whole. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few people nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."
    I really hope plants feel much less pain than animals!

    1 Reply

    Walrus

    7 Months 2 Weeks

    Splendiferous - No your post does not disappoint, thank you fo it. As you say hopefully people may now be aware that all living things - not just fish or animals - suffer when caught, of course that depends both on how caught and how treated after being caught. What is worse - a swift death (I won't say painless, no death if premature is completely painless; or being caught and kept imprisoned for whatever reason and there are many reasons without looking to deeply. As to the degree of pain inflicted we can only assess that by observing the "creature" and how it reacts to the pain both before and after actually being caught, this being primarly because unlike the mythical "Dr Dolittle" we cannot "talk to the animals" ( despite the fact that with some animals that we have had long associations with we may be closer than most). That sadly does include plants and other life forms we do not understand.

    The problem is not so much what our past has done to the planet and it's inhabitants, nor what many of us are doing now. I strongly believe that the main things are the leel of pain weare willing to inflict on other spieces so that we may live and stemming from this the amount of respect we give to that creature before and after it's death so that we may live - if our atittude is one of "oh it's simply a cow or chicken or potato" we are lost before we start. But if as the ancients did who were more in conection with nature in all it's forms and thus gave thanks to the spirit of the creature involved and ensure that ALL PARTS of the creature are used to sustain us. It is not good enough to cut down a tree becasue we like the pattern of the wood but we must also use that wood properly and any fruit, leaves etc produced in it's growth.

    Sadly in many films supposedly produced to show how thigs grow etc. the producerers use only certain so called "gimmicky" lines and style to get some of the message across. Remember the materials used in producing that film are also part of the planet - this too may be from a life form we do not understand - that must be remembered and used accordingly

    0 Reply

    bosey

    7 Months 2 Weeks

    I watched the film and it's biased agenda was clear from the start; I mean , whale hunting is not relevant to the buying practices of most of the world's fish eaters and the sustainability thereof . It was a really silly attempt at pulling on heart strings and it detracted from its attempt at balanced discussion .

    Arguments about sentient beings feeling pain are for another film because any animal in the food chain will feel pain when eaten by a predator . The choice to be a predator or not is ours to make and yes plants as mentioned do have avoidance of pain too.

    So, as Guy said , can we afford to eat fish *right now* ? Personally I only eat herring and sometimes hake , the stocks of both of which are universally said to be healthy . I'll stop if this changes or change species but I have found that after 2 years vegan I was constantly hungry and only dense protein seems to work for me .

    Please let's separate the judgement of eating animals from our responsibility we have to them.

    0 Reply

    Wicked Leeks issue 8

    Wicked Leeks issue 8 is out now

    Featuring a cover interview with Patagonia, the latest news from COP26, and living for a new era. Plus meet the farm of the future, how to eat to protect biodiversity and seasonal eating in autumn.

    Read more

    Ethical organic veg boxes

    Riverford Organic Farmers, leading the Veg Revolution since 1986.

    Shop Riverford

    Guy's news...

    Founder of Riverford Guy Singh-Watson writes a weekly column with news from the farm and more...

    Read more
    Spread the word

    The twin crises of climate change and biodiversity losses will be the defining stories of our future, but it is not too late to change direction. 

    Here at Wicked Leeks, our mission is to help inform and inspire positive change. Our journalism is free to all because of this, but we want to reach as many people as possible who share our desire for a better world. We know our readers are some of the biggest advocates of sustainable living, and you can help us grow this movement by sharing this article widely, with your friends and on social media. Now is the time to act.