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What Seaspiracy does not tell you

Seaspiracy, the Netflix documentary, proposes a plant-based diet to protect the oceans. But, it’s not the whole truth

Tuna in a fishing net. (Image courtesy: Netflix)
Tuna in a fishing net. (Image courtesy: Netflix)

The global fishing industry has been cast as a transatlantic food mafia in the Netflix documentary Seaspiracy, which, in the month since its release on the streaming platform has gained as much as censure as it has praise. Director Ali Tabrizi travels the world, filming guerrilla-style and passionately narrating the tale of how industrial fishing is destroying the oceans.

There are gruesome accounts of mass killing of dolphins in Japan, distressing interviews covering human slavery in Thailand’s shrimp trade, and chilling footage of European fishing boats stealing fish from African waters. The stark visuals of Faroe Islands’ coast turning crimson due to whale hunting is enough to make viewers swear off seafood forever. But that’s when the well-meaning film takes a problematic turn. It advocates giving up fish and switching to a plant-based diet as the only solution to over-fishing and destruction of marine ecosystems. It makes no effort to address issues of food sovereignty, or people’s rights to define their own food systems, eat locally and in line with their cultural habits, and produce food in a sustainable manner.

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One cannot help but feel that the diet change advocated by the documentary is meant largely for those who can afford Netflix subscriptions. Apart from a five-minute segment that shows large European fishing vessels wiping out all the marine food that sustains that marginalised communities, there is no footage of how seafood is central to the diets of coastal populations. “It’s unjust in many ways. The film talks about a very important issue of industrial fishing upending marine ecosystems. But it was irresponsible of them to make that final statement—completely give up eating fish—because millions of marginalised people in developing nations depend on fish as their sole source of protein and micronutrients,” says Goa-based Dr. Aaron Savio Lobo, a marine conservationist and member of the IUCN SSC Marine Conservation Committee.

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Seaspiracy has been accused of cherry-picking facts and exaggerating figures to support a one-sided narrative. It referred to a 2006 research paper, titled Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services, which said overfishing and loss of biodiversity would wipe out all marine species in 50 years. In the film, Tabrizi says that if current fishing trends continue, we will see empty oceans by 2048. That paper, however, is outdated. The BBC quotes the lead author of the paper in its recent story Is Netflix’s Seaspiracy film right about fishing damaging oceans? as saying “Since then, we have seen increasing efforts in many regions to rebuild depleted fish populations.”

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“You need to know what’s available locally and seasonally, and then choose what to eat,” says Akansha Tiwari, an independent wildlife filmmaker, whose work includes Tangled Seas, a film on discarded and lost fishing nets and marine debris. She suggests using resources such as Know Your Fish, an online repository managed by ocean researchers that promotes conscious consumption of seafood with a seasonal guide on what’s available.

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To be more mindful of the impact of consumption on oceans and marine systems, Dr Lobo suggests macro as well as micro changes. “At a larger scale, a policy level, one solution is to improve fisheries management. We need a cap on certain kinds of fishing that are highly destructive, like bottom trawling. We need policies addressing aquaculture. Aquaculture is still focusing on species which have high commercial value,” he says.

Dr. Lobo spent several years working with indigenous communities along the coast of India and shares a few lessons of catching and consuming fish with sensitivity. In settlements near the Brahmaputra in Assam, the Bhagirathi in West Bengal and the Padma in Bangladesh, local communities have mastered the art of cooking the fish from head-to-tail, including the innards, he points out. “This reduces wastage and over-fishing,” he says. Coastal populations do not eat bombil or mackerel through the year. “Their seafood-heavy diet has marine creatures a little lower down the food chain, like clams and crabs, as well,” he points out.

He also draws attention to the kinds of artisanal fishing practices that pay attention to sustainability. In Goa and Maharashtra, the practice of mangrove fisheries is prevalent. A net is placed along the mangroves, like a curtain. This happens about four times a month when the tides are high. The tidal calendar determines the catch. “It depends on a healthy mangrove to have a good catch. Local fisherfolk know this. One of the good things about India is that we have our mangroves protected,” he says. “But we have to be aware of keeping the communities central to all our protection measures.”

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