A Netflix original documentary about the environmental impact of fishing has drawn the ire of local and national seafood experts, who have criticized “Seaspiracy” for a portrayal of the commercial fishing industry that they say is dangerous and misleading. 

A group of industry professionals shared what they thought the 2021 documentary got wrong and what they wish it had done instead during a virtual panel hosted by the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association on Friday.

The controversial movie encourages viewers to boycott the seafood industry as the most effective way to help save the oceans. It is directed by British filmmaker Ali Tabrizi and is from the same team that created “Cowspiracy,” a similar film about the farming industry.

“Seaspiracy,” which has come under fire for using questionable data and studies, explores the role of plastic, whaling, marine parks and others for their impact on the oceans, but lays most of the blame on the commercial fishing industry, claiming that the idea of a sustainable fishery is a myth and accusing the industry of mass animal abuses. 

It paints a dramatic picture: victims of the slave trade warn Tabrizi that his life is at risk if he keeps filming; dozens of dead sharks have their fins hacked off on a warehouse floor; the water turns red as whales are slaughtered; the filmmakers don hidden spy cameras and are tailed by police.

The imagery is effective, but critics warn that its overarching message, that there’s no such thing as a sustainable fishery and that the only way to save the oceans is to give up seafood, is not only fishy, but flat out wrong.

“This is not about fishing, this is about eating fish and scaring people away from eating fish,” said Jessica Hathaway, editor in chief of the Portland-based magazine National Fisherman, adding that the film serves as “visual confirmation biases for veganism.” 

What makes the film so “dangerous,” she said, is that it takes some actual truths, like the threat of plastics in the ocean, coral reef degradation, overfishing and habitat destruction issues, and sneaks in more dubious information, like a prediction that the oceans will be emptied of life by 2048. 

This claim, which came from a 2006 study, has been widely debunked and even walked back by the forecast’s author. 

According to “The Guardian,” Tabrizi has defended his use of misleading or incorrect statistics.

“We are not scientists nor did we claim to be,” he said. “Despite there being some confusion about this particular projection, the overall state of fisheries are in severe decline.”

“You can’t tell the world to stop eating fish,” Hathaway said. “It’s a good quality protein and it’s not cultivated, it’s here” naturally.

“I wish this film had said, if you want to be a smart seafood consumer, start looking for these things,” she added.

Salmon from Scotland, tuna from Japan and shrimp from Thailand are heavily featured in “Seaspiracy,” but largely ignored are the U.S. fisheries, which are regarded as some of the most sustainable in the world.

Michael Conathan, a fisheries policy expert and senior policy fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Aspen Institute’s Energy & Environment Program, criticized the film for taking a one-sided view of the issue and ignoring fisheries that are doing things the right way.

“In talking about the fisheries management techniques that were used around the world, they never talked about the reality that we see here in the United States, which is that fisheries are very well managed here,” he said.

“Fish we catch in the U.S. is sustainable, almost full stop,” he added, citing annual catch limits and other National Marine Fisheries Service regulations. 

For example, the country’s lobster fishery has long been heralded as an example of a sustainable fishery, largely thanks to measures implemented locally. 

Maine, responsible for roughly 85 percent of the country’s lobster haul, has implemented sustainable fishing methods such as minimum and maximum size restrictions to protect both juveniles and breeding stock, prohibitions on keeping females with visible eggs on her tail, statewide trap limits and more.

“I know so many people who are doing things the right way,” said Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association. “There are people who are having a real impact. … I’ve seen some fantastic results to our science-based management,” he said, citing rebounding fish stocks and significantly reduced bycatch.

Martens said previously that he has heard anecdotally that people are buying less seafood as a result of the documentary, but this, he said, is flawed thinking.

“Watching something like this and having the conclusion be ‘do not eat seafood’ is the same conclusion you might get from any other food system,” he said.

Instead of vilifying seafood, Americans should be trying to incorporate more of it into our diets, said Barton Seaver, author and former director of the Sustainable Seafood and Health Initiative at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Seafood is an important source of nutritious food with meaningful ties to economic opportunity, heritage and other facts of life, he said.

The film also lacked any differentiation between huge industrialized fishing operations and smaller, community-based commercial operations, noted Linda Behnken, director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association.

Seaver recommended a “buycott” instead of a boycott – making an effort to support locally harvested seafood by sustainable fishermen.

“Support those who you want to see succeed,” he said.

The film also heavily criticized the Marine Stewardship Council, an independent, London-based nonprofit that sets sustainable fishing standards, and its sustainability certification, claiming the process is too easy, not credible and that the organization is funded by the fisheries. 

“Contrary to what the filmmakers say, certification is not an easy process, and some fisheries spend many years improving their practices in order to reach our standard,” the council said in a response to the film posted on its website. “In fact, our analysis shows that the vast majority of fisheries that carry out pre-assessments against our criteria do not meet these and need to make significant improvements to gain certification.”

This includes the U.S. Gulf of Maine lobster fishery. 

In August, the U.S. lobster industry lost the Marine Stewardship Council’s sustainable seafood certification because an international auditor concluded its rope-heavy fishing methods pose a deadly entanglement threat to the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.

Wholesalers and retailers who sell U.S.-landed Gulf of Maine lobster can no longer use the council’s trademarked “eco-label” of a blue-and-white fish that signals to buyers the product is sustainable – meaning that it is not overfished, the fishery itself is well managed and does not harm another overfished or endangered species.

Maine lobstermen have long argued that right whales are rarely found in Maine waters, and that neither federal regulators, scientists nor even whale advocates have yet to find a dead right whale entangled in Maine lobster fishing gear, but despite this, the council still rescinded its certification. 

The certification is considered the gold standard of sustainable seafood, embraced by high-volume lobster buyers such as Whole Foods, Hilton, Royal Caribbean and Walmart.

It is not the only eco-label out there though, and Monterey Bay Aquarium, Gulf of Maine Research Institute and the federal government have their own labels, all of which still rate the fishery as sustainable.

Of course, not everything in “Seaspiracy” wrong. In fact, all panelists agreed the film has merits.

Overfishing, habitat loss, plastic pollution and climate change are all serious problems that are plaguing the oceans. Slavery and geopolitical issues also have an impact on the high seas and should not be ignored.

“There are lots of implications to this whole story and a million stories you can tell,” Conathan said.

“What the film did well is highlight that the oceans are complex, they’re beautiful,” Behnken said. “The ocean is also stressed” and “there’s much work to be done.”

The film should be a “teaching tool,” Martens said, to get the information out there and “yes, there are some problems, but we are working to correct these problems.”

They are, he said, “empowering people to fight that good fight.”


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