Dan Steadman is a former member of Fauna & Flora's marine team. Working closely with Director of Marine, Sophie Benbow, he advised in particular on reducing the environmental impact of fisheries. Dan is now part of the International Fisheries team at The Pew Charitable Trusts, advocating for an ecosystem approach to fisheries in the Northeast Atlantic and representing the organisation in international fisheries negotiations.
Seaspiracy – the controversial documentary on the impacts of fishing – bitterly divided the environmental community, separating those who believe that the entire premise of sustainable fishing is flawed from those who do not. The film has some serious shortcomings (and these should be robustly challenged) but the urgency of its message should not be summarily dismissed.
Let’s start with the problems. Firstly, the film is almost entirely tone deaf to the diverse value systems that exist around harvesting ocean life and is dominated by a western-centric and absolutist perspective. Other than a brief interview with a Faroese whale fisher, people actually participating in fishing are excluded to the point of invisibility. Secondly, its use and interpretation of quantitative evidence is highly problematic and often wilfully misleading (for example, quoting a two–decades–old study of the global footprint of bottom trawling rather than a much more recent one – which estimates a spatial impact that is lower by several orders of magnitude).
Finally, its frenetic pace and desire to turn every complex problem into a “conspiracy” means all those whose perspective appears to differ from those of the film-makers are entrapped to appear as co-conspirators. Long-term solutions to decades-old problems are dismissed in seconds as completely unviable. It is, in a sense, akin to the mass-produced junk food it derides; bite-sized, addictive chunks of hyperbole, offering only minimal long-term sustenance for the mind.
Despite all that, the film is broadly right on some central issues that preoccupy ocean conservationists and these are worth discussing constructively (albeit with some significant caveats) rather than immediately dismissing:
[BUT…when “sustainability” means the status of fished species, there are many successes that the film ignores.]
Sustainability sounds benign and technical but it’s a relentlessly difficult word to pin down, especially in fisheries. It is inarguable that when fishing effort is controlled effectively, targeted fish species can bounce back and this is happening around the world, from pollock in Alaska to herring in the Irish Sea. Whether that constitutes “sustainability” is very dependent on your worldview and these are not easy to reconcile across cultures. However, it is probably true to say that this way of defining the problem – one of resource use, i.e. “overfishing” – locks us into a narrow way of thinking. It means we treat fish differently to other wild animals. We talk about “protecting populations” of tigers, but “managing stocks” of fish. At Fauna & Flora, we believe that the term “destructive fishing” better captures the problem Seaspiracy is trying to address and we are proactively leading an exciting new project to better define the scope of this term. Defining problems clearly, questioning assumptions and engaging in informed debate are vital parts of ocean conservation.
[BUT… it’s also probably the most complex, with a huge polarity of opinion about how to manage it.]
To say that fishing is the predominant threat to marine life is not controversial. This is the last group of wild animals we harvest on a global scale and the impact of that harvesting is geographically widespread and constant. Cementing this perception in the public consciousness through films like Seaspiracy is important in that it better aligns fisheries management with the way we protect threatened species and habitats on land.
However, we should also acknowledge that solutions are more complex and less agreed-upon than other threats; no one wants plastic in the ocean, but there’s a large range of opinion on fishing – from its complete restriction globally to its expansion as a food production system.
[BUT…there are workable solutions to the impacts of fishing that do not involve the complete rejection or restriction of this activity; these are not compromises, they are solutions.]
Seaspiracy makes a big play of the folly of banning plastic straws to reduce ocean pollution, likening it to “trying to stop deforestation by banning toothpicks”. This phrase does neatly encapsulate the difference between interventions that look flashy but solve a relatively minor problem compared to those that may be more difficult but get to the root cause of a major problem. However, one of the reasons that we choose to focus on an issue is not just the relative weight of its importance but the tractability of its solutions and the broader value to be gained from raising awareness on these issues. There are solutions that allow us to keep harvesting species from the ocean while minimising or even entirely avoiding collateral damage, from minor shifts in fishing technology that dramatically reduce seabird bycatch to incentivising transitions from destructive to low-impact practices. False solutions are not the same as effective compromise solutions; we should be critical and realistic about the former, just as we should celebrate and replicate the latter where appropriate.
[BUT…there would be social and environmental consequences in globalised supply chains and universal rejection of seafood consumption is not a viable global ambition]
Perhaps the biggest question Seaspiracy has highlighted in the public consciousness is: should we be eating seafood at all? The kind of wholesale shift in seafood consumption that the film advocates (particularly in high-income, western countries) would of course relieve some of the many pressures caused by wild fish capture, but would also have unintended consequences. For a low– or middle–income country, disrupting the gradual, hard-won responsible management of a fishery would also cut off potential economic lifelines; for example, exports to richer countries or better domestic trade. All food production systems have a cost and from, say, a climate perspective, we know that seafood commodities vary wildly in their cost to the planet, but can – in some cases – be less carbon-emitting than non-animal products. However, much as the sustainable seafood sector is not going away, nor is the global vegan movement. The major market shifts in the plant-based foods sector will continue to radiate and will change the operating model for the seafood sector at all scales.
Seaspiracy is a lot of things, but it’s not irrelevant. The ocean and fisheries community are right to challenge it where it gets things wrong. However, as the first meaningful statement about the impact of the vegan movement on the global seafood sector – at all scales – we ignore it at our peril.