Seaspiracy was released on Netflix in March 2021. (Image: fair use)

Seaspiracy is a feature-length documentary about ocean conservation, commercial fishing and the impact humans have on the global marine environment. It was released on Netflix in March 2021 to critical acclaim and soon became the number one most-watched programme on Netflix in the UK and Ireland, and top ten in many other countries. It has received praise for bringing many of the damaging aspects of commercial fishing to a wider audience and highlighting the scale of the decline of many fish stocks. However, it has also received significant criticism for getting a number of facts wrong, making misleading claims based on questionable and outdated information and misrepresenting the contributions of many of the people who agreed to take part in the documentary.

Seaspiracy was made by 27-year-old Ali Tabrizi, a filmmaker from Kent who is credited as the director, cinematographer, editor and camera operator. Little information or background is provided about him, other than he grew up with a love of the oceans which inspired him to make this documentary. What began as a “romantic notion” about how incredible the seas are soon changed into Seaspiracy as he realised the damage which commercial fishing, pollution, fish farming and other human activities have caused to the marine environment. Seaspiracy is therefore presented as Tabrizi going on a journey to learn about what is really happening to the seas as his investigations take him and his wife Lucy around the world.

The start of Seaspiracy is extremely fast-paced. It begins with whales and dolphins washing up dead on the beaches of southern England near to Tabrizi’s home, sparking him into taking action to find out what led to the deaths of the creatures. This is found to be plastic pollution and we then see Tabrizi carrying out a beach clean, joining anti-plastic campaigns and asking businesses to stop using plastic straws. We then quickly switch to the issue of Japan resuming whaling and Tabrizi and Lucy decide to travel to Japan to investigate the mass slaughter of dolphins that takes place in Taiji which they say will help them “see the bigger picture” of what is happening in the world’s seas and oceans. All of this happens within the first ten minutes.

Once in Japan Tabrizi claims that he and Lucy are under surveillance by the Japanese police and secret service. Their car is stopped by the police and they are forced to sneak around like spies gathering covert footage of the dolphin slaughter. The sheer number of topics which have been discussed along with the clearly contrived nature of the visit to Japan means that Seaspiracy starts off in an extremely confusing manner, with the viewer trying to work out exactly what the aim of the documentary is. The investigation into the Taiji dolphin slaughter is also disingenuously presented as being an exposé when it is already widely known – the 2009 film The Cove drew international attention to this issue and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2010.

Seaspiracy has been a success for Netflix.

After this somewhat frenetic start, Seaspiracy begins to calm down and it becomes apparent that the focus of the documentary is to uncover the truth about the impact of commercial fishing on the world’s seas and oceans. A major thrust of Seaspiracy (and the reason for the title) is that much of what we have been told about ocean conservation is wrong, at least according to Tabrizi. We are told that in order to save the oceans we must eliminate consumer plastics with a huge focus placed on small consumer items such as plastic drinking straws. Tabrizi says that only 0.03% of marine plastic is made up of straws, while in some areas, such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, close to half comes from lost and abandoned commercial fishing gear. This leads to Tabrizi concluding that many ocean conservation organisations and engaged in a deliberate misdirection campaign to encourage people to focus on plastic pollution caused by consumer goods rather than that caused by commercial fishing. In a line which has been much quoted he compares trying to save the oceans by stopping using straws to trying to save the rainforests and stopping logging by stopping using toothpicks. Through doing this the conservation organisations are engaged in a conspiracy to protect the commercial fishing industry from criticism and allow it to continue its destructive and polluting form of fishing.

One of the most controversial aspects of Seaspiracy is the interviews with conservation organisations. Many of the interviewees have claimed that their words have been edited in a way that distorts and misrepresents their views and takes the claims they have made out of context. In a tense interview members of the Plastic Pollution Coalition cannot give a straight answer when asked if it would make more sense to simply have less commercial fishing take place in order to reduce the amount of plastic going into the sea since most of it comes from commercial fishing nets and equipment. A representative of the Plastic Pollution Coalition cannot answer this question and passes Tabrizi over to the organisation’s founder Dianna Cohen. She also does not give a convincing answer when asked if eliminating fishing and eating fish would be an effective way of reducing plastic pollution and says that this is “not my area,” “I don’t have time” and “I don’t have an opinion about that.” While these answers are extremely unsatisfactory the interview is very short and has clearly been edited down from much longer footage, leading the viewer to question what has been left out. Like many of the organisations featured in Seaspiracy the Plastic Pollution Coalition has released a statement saying that their views have been distorted, taken out of context and misrepresented (more on this below).

Another notable interview in Seaspiracy is with the Earth Island Institute, the organisation which is responsible for the Dolphin-Safe logos which are included on cans of tuna to show that they come from a fishery that minimises cetacean bycatch. In another very short interview, Earth Island Institute’s Mark Palmer cheerfully admits that there is no way of knowing if a tuna fishery is actually Dolphin-Safe. His breezy attitude does not sit well with the seriousness of the deficiencies he is outlining in the Dolphin-Safe scheme and he goes on to describe how observers are rarely on tuna fishing boats, they can be easily bribed when they are and admits that it is impossible to tell what is happening on tuna fishing boats out at sea meaning that dolphin bycatch could be much higher than anyone realises. He also says that their major sources of income comes from licensing out the Dolphin-Safe accreditation – Seaspiracy makes it clear that they believe this is a conflict of interests which encourages Earth Island Institute to increase their income by verifying fisheries as free of dolphin bycatch without properly checking them.

The Marine Stewardship Council is responsible for designating fisheries as sustainable but would not talk to the makers of Seaspiracy.

There is an attempt to interview the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the non-profit organisation which verifies fisheries across the world as being sustainable. The MSC will not give Tabrizi an interview so he turns up at their London office and asks to speak to them. After keeping him waiting for a while they tell him that there is no one there who can be interviewed. Tabrizi says that it is telling that “the world’s largest sustainable seafood organisation doesn’t want to talk to me about sustainable seafood.” Later in the film Professor Callum Roberts, one of the UK’s most prominent fisheries scientists, says that MSC sustainability certification “isn’t worth a damn.” It is also pointed out that eighty per cent of the MSC’s £30 million funding comes from licensing out its sustainability ecolabel and, like Earth Island Institute, this creates a perverse incentive to give the label to as many fisheries as possible in order to maximise income. Tabrizi finds that Unilever was a co-founder of the MSC and at that time Unilever was a major seafood retailer. Tabrizi believes this explains why the MSC is so keen to protect the interests of the commercial fishing industry, highlighting that in the last twenty years only a handful of fisheries who have applied to the MSC have been denied sustainability accreditation. While both Earth Island Institute and the MSC have released statements starting that their views have been misrepresented and taken out of context anyone watching Seaspiracy will have serious questions about the way in which both of these organisations operate.

Captain Paul Watson
Captain Paul Watson pictured in 2009.

Sustainable fishing is a major thrust of Seaspiracy. It is clear that Tabrizi is highly sceptical about whether or not any fishery can be truly sustainable and is backed up by Captain Paul Watson, the founder of the campaigning organisation Sea Shepherd. He says that there is “no such thing” as sustainable fisheries, they are “impossible” and that it is a “marketing phrase.” A representative of Oceana, the world’s largest marine conservation charity is interviewed and gets herself into a mess trying to define what a sustainable fishery is. Again we only see highly edited excerpts of the interview and she even says that it is a difficult question to answer when she has “so little time to think about [it].” It does not appear that contributors who support the arguments Seaspiracy is making have their questions put to them under such time pressure. Interviewees such as Paul Watson, Callum Roberts and George Monbiot all seem to be given ample time to put their points across in a much more relaxed way.

Like the Plastic Pollution Coalition, Earth Island Institute and the MSC, Oceana has released a statement stating that the interview they took part in was edited to misrepresent their views and was not a true reflection of the organisation. Many viewers may see the focus on undermining the concept of sustainable fisheries as somewhat concerning and counterproductive, and the push to claim that there is no such thing as a sustainable fishery a strange decision for a documentary that is campaigning for healthier seas. Moving towards sustainability, even if it is difficult to define and even more difficult to achieve, is surely better than the alternative of unsustainable and destructive fisheries.

Statistics are used throughout Seaspiracy to back up the film’s claims, although these are often presented to the viewer quickly and with little context given. These include the claims that there are 4.6 million fishing vessels across the world, that 10,000 to 30,000 sharks killed per hour and that enough long lines are set each day to wrap 500 times around the world. We are also told that 2.7 trillion fish are caught every year which works out at five million per minute. The statistics are accompanied by a very small text box at the bottom of the screen which provides the reference for each claim being made. The text is very small and difficult to read without pausing the film as the captions do not stay on the screen for long. Sometimes these references are from peer-reviewed scientific journal articles, but others are from mainstream newspaper stories. On one occasion a member of the Sea Shepherd organisation says that they had caught a tuna boat which had “slaughtered” forty-five dolphins in order to catch eight tuna. To emphasise this point a graphic appears on the screen showing forty-five dolphins alongside eight tuna. Eagle-eyed viewers will also see that the text box at the bottom of the screen says “no independent source could be found for this claim.” This conflation of scientific facts with unverified anecdotes from biased and partial activists does not help Seaspiracy‘s defence against claims it contains many inaccuracies and factual errors.

Boris Worm
Professor Boris Worm, lead author of the 2006 study used for the 2048 claim.

Indeed, a number of the statistics are facts that the audience is told are also highly contested. For example, the claim that the oceans will be “virtually empty” of fish by the year 2048 comes from a footnote in a scientific paper published in 2006 which has been highly disputed by many prominent marine scientists. The study’s lead author, the fisheries scientist Professor Boris Worm, told the BBC that “The 2006 paper is now fifteen years old and most of the data in it is almost twenty years old … since then, we have seen increasing efforts in many regions to rebuild depleted fish populations” and said that if the study was carried out again it would not reach the same conclusions due to the “countless efforts under way to repair the damage that has been done.” A reference for the study is given on-screen in small text but the highly contested nature of the empty seas by 2048 claim is not mentioned by Tabrizi. In the scene based in Japan at the start of the film Tabrizi also tells the viewer that tuna can sell for millions of dollars in Tokyo. While this is technically true it is due to a tradition where rich Japanese businessmen will bid against each other for the publicity and prestige of buying the first tuna of the new year. In this auction (and this once-a-year auction only) the price of the tuna is inflated to hundreds of times its true market value. Tabrizi makes no mention of this, showing either a serious lack of research or a deliberate attempt to mislead viewers.

Many other areas of commercial fishing and fish production are covered in Seaspiracy such as the Scottish fish farming industry. We are told that fish farming is not the answer to catching wild fish such as salmon in farms require large amounts of feed which are made from wild-caught fish and raising one kilogram of farmed salmon takes many more kilograms of wild-caught fish. They had originally said that it took between five and twenty kilograms of feed to raise one kilogram of salmon but this was deemed inaccurate and the filmmakers removed this claim from the film just before it was released. Issues around the amount of feed are not the only reason not to eat salmon as conditions for fish within fish farms can be extremely poor. Tabrizi is taken to a huge metal container filled with hundreds of dead salmon which have been removed from the fish farm and we are told that salmon are “confined to swimming in circles in their own filth,” are “eaten alive by parasites” and suffer from diseases such as chlamydia leading to a fifty per cent mortality rate.

Scottish Fish Farm
The Scottish fish farming industry is heavily criticised in the documentary.

Representatives of the Scottish fish farming industry have of course denied these claims with a spokesperson for the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation telling the Independent: “While this film raises some very important issues, the allegations made against salmon farming in Scotland are wrong, misleading and inaccurate. Contrary to their claim, the filmmakers have not reached out to, or actively engaged with, our sector. Aquaculture is a key part of the answer, not the problem, with regards to concerns over wild fish stocks.”

Some of the most serious allegations come towards the end of Seaspiracy when the links between the commercial fishing industry and organised crime are explored. Tabrizi states that in some parts of Asia (and perhaps elsewhere in the world) a disproportionally high number of fisheries inspectors have been lost at sea while one fishing inspector from the Philippines, Gerlie Alpajora, was shot dead in her own home, allegedly because of her work in enforcing fisheries regulations. The Thai shrimp farming industry is also heavily criticised both for the destruction of mangroves in order to clear land for shrimp farms and for allegations that modern-day slavery is rife throughout the industry, with claims made that shrimp farming is only profitable due to the use of slaves in the farms. All of these areas are covered at breakneck speed, meaning that there is little time to consider the implications and seriousness of the issues being discussed before Seaspiracy moves on to the next topic. Representatives of the fishing industry criticised in this section of Seaspiracy have disputed the claims. The English-language news website Thai Enquirer has said in response that an outdated view of the Thai shrimp farming industry is presented, only Caucasian experts or those representing Western organisations are interviewed and say that the scene representing Thailand was not filmed in the country.

Many of the organisations and groups criticised in Seaspiracy have responded by saying that there were misrepresented, had their words taken out of context or have had their contributions edited in a way that alters what they have said. Many have released statements to try and clarify their position. Oceana has said that contrary to the claims made in Seaspiracy they do have a definition of what sustainable fishing is and have released a statement saying that only “a brief excerpt from what was a two-hour interview with a former employee” was included. They also say that the huge amount of work that Oceana had done across the world to stop illegal fishing and make both small-scale and industrial fishing more sustainable has been ignored. The Plastic Pollution Coalition released a strongly worded statement in which they said that the makers of Seaspiracy “bullied our staff and cherry-picked seconds of our comments to support their own narrative.” The Marine Stewardship Council (click here) and the Earth Island Institute (click here) also released their own statements in an attempt to set the record straight and refute the claims of Seaspiracy, as did a number of other organisations featured in the documentary.

George Monbiot
George Monbiot, the writer and environmental activist, features in Seaspiracy [file photo].

The only contributors who have endorsed Seaspiracy are those who have views that align with those of the filmmakers. George Monbiot wrote an opinion piece in the Guardian a few weeks after the release of Seaspiracy in which he praised the film while also acknowledging that it contained a number of inaccuracies. He listed the claim that the seas will be empty by 2048, getting two figures about bycatch wrong and confusing carbon stored in sea lifeforms with carbon stored in seawater (he could have also added the false claim that tuna are worth millions of dollars and the fish feed inaccuracy). Professor Callum Roberts has also stated that he supported the film, telling the Guardian “It’s not been made for its scientific rigour. It has used the techniques of film storytelling to make its case.” Ali Tabrizi has also defended Seaspiracy and the way in which contributors were interviewed. Referring to the interview with Mark Palmer of the Earth Island Institute he said: “We did not claim in the film that the Dolphin-Safe label is a conspiracy to benefit global fisheries industries. We asked if they could guarantee ‘dolphin safe’ tuna is in fact dolphin-safe, to which Mark Palmer replied that they could not guarantee it.” He also said that he had wanted an interview with the MSC but they refused to speak to him and he would have discussed how “[the term] ‘sustainable’ is so vague that even bycatch of seabirds, dolphins and seals can be considered sustainable. This is not what consumers think of when they pick up a fillet of fish with the MSC blue tick.”

Seaspiracy is a powerful documentary. At its best, it reveals the damage which commercial fishing does to the world’s marine ecosystems and successfully shatters the Captain Birdseye image of a commercial fisherman being a benign character on a small boat cheerfully taking a small number of fish from the sea for people to eat. The real damage we are doing to the world’s seas and oceans through industrial-scale commercial fishing is clearly presented and no one can watch Seaspiracy and believe that commercial fishing can continue across the world in its current form. Its exposé of the MSC, Plastic Pollution Coalition and Earth Island Institute does raise many valid and worrying points about the way these organisations operate, but this also brings us on to the film’s biggest weakness. The interviews which have been used in the film have clearly been carried out in a ‘gotcha’ style and then edited by the filmmakers to remove footage which does not suit their narrative. It would be interesting if the makers of Seaspiracy released the full and unedited interviews in order to allow viewers to make their own minds up about these organisations. Seaspiracy also chooses to ignore all of the good work that these organisations have carried out. While Tabrizi may not agree with Oceana’s refusal to tell people to stop eating fish the organisation has won hundreds of legal victories around the world to protect fish stocks, stop polluting activities such as offshore oil drilling and successfully had a number of areas declared marine reserves. Ignoring this success and instead undermining the organisation through the use of highly edited interviews appears at best counterproductive for a documentary that aims to restore the health of the seas and oceans.

Sustainable Fishing
Seaspiracy makes the claim that sustainable fishing is not possible.

The sheer number of topics and issues covered in the ninety-minute running time is also a problem. There simply isn’t enough time to give issues the consideration and attention that they deserved and many are simply touched upon before the next topic or issue is moved on to. While Seaspiracy has certainly led to a huge number of people becoming aware of many issues regarding commercial fishing which they did not previously know about, many issues are reduced to too simplistic a level. For example we are told in stark terms that the best thing to do for marine ecosystems is not to eat fish but this ignores the more than a billion people in the developing world who rely on fish as their primary source of protein. In developed countries, fish and fishing are tied to a whole range of economic, social and cultural factors meaning that eliminating, or even just reducing the amount of fish we consume will need a level of consideration and realignment which is completely absent from Seaspiracy. Indeed, the blunt message to simply stop eating fish and the outright rejection of the possibility of sustainable fishing has led to claims that the real aim of the documentary is to promote veganism. The non-profit organisation About Seafood have referred to Seaspiracy as a “vegan indoctrination movie” and “recognisable propaganda.” Tabrizi certainly has a background in vegan activism. His only other film credit listed on the Internet Movie Database is the short documentary film Vegan 2018 and Seaspiracy’s producer Kip Anderson also produced the equally controversial Cowspiracy. This 2014 documentary film claimed that agriculture and the raising of livestock was the biggest cause of carbon emissions and environmental destruction, but, like Seaspiracy, its claims and much of the evidence it relied upon was disputed by members of the scientific community.

Environmental writers and marine biologists have also criticised Seaspiracy. Brian Kahn, The editor of the environmental news website Earther, has written that people shouldn’t watch Seaspiracy due to the “facile way it frames up how to solve the problems facing the ocean and society in the privileged vegan bro savioriest way possible.” The world-renowned fisheries scientist Professor Daniel Pauly offered his views on Seaspiracy to Vox, stating that he “wanted to like it” and it did contain “damning evidence and dramatic footage required to make the important point that industrial fishing is … a too often out-of-control, sometimes criminal enterprise” but overall he felt that the documentary did “more harm than good” due to the “avalanche of falsehoods” it contained. Bryce Stewart, a fisheries scientist at the University of York was quoted in the Independent as saying:

“Does [Seaspiracy] highlight a number of shocking and important issues? Absolutely. But is it misleading at the same time? Yes, from the first few minutes onwards. It regularly exaggerates and makes links where there aren’t any. Many of the scenes were clearly staged and I know at least one of the interviewees was taken out of context … This is the worst kind of journalism. People will either believe it and completely overreact, or find it so easy to discredit some of the statements that the real issues get downgraded or disbelieved. In that way I feel this film does more harm than good.”

Seaspiracy has had a huge impact and led to discussions about commercial fishing and the damage being done to the seas and oceans in the wider media. While anyone who cares about the fish stocks and the health of the seas will encourage this the divisive and contentious way the film makers have gone about achieving this may yet prove counterproductive. Watching Seaspiracy it cannot be helped but think that covering these issues in a more measured way may well have led to a documentary that was ultimately more powerful and effective at getting lasting change to protect the marine environment.