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Seaspiracy Review: the Facts, the Opinions – the Urgency

by Stephanie Phelan
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coral in ocean

Seaspiracy – the newest Netflix documentary looking at the issues faced by 70% of the Earth’s surface, our oceans and waterways – has received strong backlash for being wildly inaccurate and poorly weighted vegan-diet-propaganda documentary. This may be the case, but here are some issues that we still need to address urgently.

The documentary has many experts weighing in with their opinions on the facts and statistics mentioned in the film. While it’s great to “fact check”, what’s important to remember is that Seaspiracy is helping to showcase the impact humans have on our oceans and waterways. Recent environmental documentaries are trying to dig deeper into the social problems we face today. To the average person, the majority of this information mentioned is new. But to someone who has studied ocean pollution, marine life, or coral restoration – the facts mentioned in this documentary might seem exaggerated or misleading. This is for a reason. We need to cut down our plastic pollution and consumption. We need to introduce more sustainable fishing practices and new technology. And we need to do it fast. 

A sense of urgency comes with the environmental crises we face today, and it has led producers to emphasize facts in film-making. These films are meant to be the first seed planted in our educational journey, not the sole contributor to our opinion. So do your research! But take into consideration all the facts mentioned. Seaspiracy follows filmmaker Ali Tabrizi around the world as he untangles the complex and devastating consequences of commercial fishing. The provocative documentary is the latest project from Kip Andersen, the producer behind Cowspiracy (2014) and What the Health (2017).

For passionate environmental advocates, this film may encourage you to do more research (many, many hours…if you’re anything like me!) But there are 5 urgent issues we face, outlined in this documentary: 

art on plastic pollution1. Pollution in Our Oceans Has to Stop

Do you ever have house guests that come over and tend to trash the place, and you (quietly) say to yourself “WERE YOU RAISED BY WOLVES!?”. Well, that’s how humans are treating the ocean and waterways. Before 1972, almost everything was dumped in our oceans.

I’ve gone tubing down the French Broad river many times visiting friends in Asheville, NC (many people do!). The river being nearly 300 million years old, and the 4th oldest river in the world – is not on my mind in the state of being waved and merry! And in all honesty, the majority of us wouldn’t think about it either. But we should! (for many reasons…) Interestingly enough, the majority of what’s been dumped in our water takes the longest to break down. While cotton t-shirts may only take 6 months to biodegrade, plastic bags and styrofoam take 500 YEARS or more. Single use products are the ones we use daily. And there’s no way to properly recycle them in most areas. This is scary!

Conversation about ocean pollution has largely been centered around consumer waste, particularly plastic straws. But straws account for less than 1 percent of all plastic entering the ocean. And this has mainly been brought to consumers’ attention by others sharing videos on social media. Videos of poor sea turtles with straws caught in their nostrils, or beached marine life with plastic in their stomachs. In Seaspiracy, narrator and director Tabrizi turns scrutiny toward the greatest single source of plastic in the ocean: discarded fishing gear. Fishing nets alone comprise 46 percent of the “great Pacific garbage patch.” 

The Solution

Sustainable Fishing Technology and Marine Conservation shows a promising solution. Sea Shepard is an international, non-profit marine conservation organization that engages in direct action campaigns to defend wildlife and conserve and protect the world’s oceans from illegal exploitation and environmental destruction. There are many other similar organizations working towards preventing the entanglement of marine life and illegal fishing. 

2. Commercial Fishing is a BIG Problem

“It’s entirely right to say that we must use far less plastic,” journalist and environmental activist George Monbiot explains in an interview in the film. “But even if not a single gram of plastic entered the oceans from today onwards, we would still be ripping those ecosystems apart, because the biggest issue by far is commercial fishing.” 

Industrial fishing poses dangers not just to animals and the environment but also to human beings, as Seaspiracy documents. Fishery workers face perilous conditions, with roughly 24,000 dying on the job every year. And in one of the documentary’s most shocking scenes, Tabrizi interviews so-called “shrimp slaves” who say that they were forced to work on illegal fishing boats for years and threatened with death should they try to escape. 

mangrovesNot only are the workers harmed in the shrimp farming industry, but so are our mangrove ecosystems! 38% of our global mangrove ecosystems have been destroyed as a result of shrimp and prawn fishing. And if there’s one takeaway from the Marine Ecosystems class I took freshman year of college – it’s that mangroves prevent land erosion! 

No Mangroves = No Coastal Real Estate. Or  any of the tiny marine species that these mangroves provide a home for! 

The Solution

Water is diverted from it’s natural flow while building these shrimp fishing channels. We can create more sustainable solutions for shrimp and prawn farming. The Fish Site offers many interesting articles, one in particular mentions how satellites and mobile devices accelerate and sustain the process of farming shrimp. 

3. Our Whales, Sharks and other Marine Life are in Danger

sea turtleEvery year, industrial fishing kills more than 300,000 whales and dolphins in the process of trying to catch other species. These incidental catches are known as “bycatch.” By the time fishermen throw bycatch back into the ocean, the animals are often already dead or dying. Commercial fishing vessels also kill an estimated 50 million sharks in this manner annually. As apex predators, sharks are incredibly important to ocean ecosystems. Like many other marine species, there is a ripple effect that occurs when these animals become extinct. 

250,000 sea turtles are captured, injured, or killed by fishing vessels every year in the U.S. alone. While studying in Key West, FL – I also learned about Fibropapillomatosis (FP) in Sea Turtles. FP is the development of tumors that is likely caused by multiple factors (such as ocean acidification) that we do not yet fully understand. The disease may impair the turtle’s mobility and vision, leading to severe weakness and eventually death. At the Turtle Hospital, volunteers have to place weights on rescued sea turtles’ who suffer from “Bubble Butt Syndrome”. Boat hits cause air to build up under the turtles shell, they float on the water’s surface and aren’t able to dive down for food. 

The Solution

Ocean and Marine Life Conservation efforts show a promising solution. The Texas ‘Cold-Stun’ of 2021 was the largest turtle rescue in history, scientists say. While the majority of the problems marine life face are impacted by humans, we also have the capacity to help. As well as educate others. And that’s that main tool we can utilize here – is education and awareness. Next time you visit a coastal community, be sure to take a tour or volunteer at a marine rescue center and be vigilant in respecting the local guidelines!

school of fish4. Do your Research on “Sustainable Fishing”

Fisheries can have significant levels of bycatch while still earning the Marine Stewardship Council’s “Certified Sustainable” stamp. And the Earth Island Institute’s “Dolphin Safe” label, often found on tuna cans, can’t guarantee that no dolphins were killed in the process of catching the tuna. This was mentioned by an EII employee in the film. 

Fish farms, aka aquaculture, are proposed as the “sustainable way” to feed our growing population.  But farmed fish are fed fishmeal, which requires huge quantities of wild fish to produce—meaning that “fish farming is just wild fishing in disguise,” as Tabrizi puts it in the film. 

The Solution 

Advanced analytics and sustainable fishing technology offer many solutions to these problems. Since regulations alone cannot eliminate overfishing, fisheries need other solutions to stay on a sustainable trajectory while minimizing their environmental impact. For most issues, including catch reporting, trade-information sharing, subsidies, tariff policies, and regulation enforcement- greater national and international collaboration will help.

5. Learn to Reduce Your Seafood Intake

Fish is often praised for its omega-3 fatty acids, but fish don’t actually make omega-3s; they get them from eating algae. Omega-3 is found not just in algae but in other whole plant foods including nuts, seeds, beans, vegetables, and fruits—which are free of the neurotoxic heavy metal found in most fish

The process of biomagnification refers to the progressive build up of substances by successive trophic levels – meaning that the concentration ratio in the tissue of a predator organism is compared to that in its prey. Ever wonder why you have to limit certain types of seafood? Or why you should not eat certain types of seafood? Biomagnification is the reason. The easiest way to understand how bioaccumulation and biomagnification work is to use them in a food chain scenario. Bioaccumulation begins at the first level of a food chain. At each level, there is an increase in the concentration of a pollutant from the environment to the first consumer (i.e. pollutants to plankton to filter feeder). The predators at the top of the food chain – are actually ingesting the highest concentration of pollutants!

The Solution

As mentioned in many TexasRealFood articles, we can all benefit from a balanced and diverse diet. Don’t be afraid to try new plant-based foods and sea vegetable superfoods! Don’t be afraid to eat nose to tail. And if you do splurge for “the catch of the day” try catching it yourself, or make sure you’re getting it from a transparent, marine-life-friendly source! Our society needs to bring back ancient food practices and explore new options. Ones that may be new to us, but have been practiced by our ancestors. 

THE BOTTOM LINE

man fishingAs Seaspiracy lays out in vivid detail, the commercial fishing industry is polluting the oceans and destroying marine life at an astonishing rate. 

“Sustainable fishing does exist and helps protect our oceans…One of the amazing things about our oceans is that fish stocks can recover and replenish if they are managed carefully for the long-term.” 

The effects of overfishing are devastating. Many organizations, such as Running Tide, are working towards rebuilding ocean food systems, removing excess carbon, and restoring or coasts. As consumers, we can get involved, get educated and make wiser decisions. Next time you need to relax a bit, I recommend putting on The Living Sea (1995). The Academy-award nominated IMAX film is in 4K UHD on Amazon. With music by Sting, and narrated by Meryl Streep – the film celebrates the beauty and diversity of all life on Earth.

Want to learn more? You can follow many influential pages on Facebook and Instagram, such as:

* UN Environment Programme @unep

* Plastic Bank @plasticbank

* The Ocean Cleanup @theoceancleanup

* Sustainable Fisheries Partnership @sustainablefish

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