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.”
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.”