‘Seaspiracy’, the latest chapter in environmental documentaries, was released in March, following the success of its sister documentary, ‘Cowspiracy’. ‘Seaspiracy’ has caused a lot of ripples about marine conservation, opening a lot of people’s eyes to the negative impact we as a race have on the ocean, and even Scotland got a feature (much to my disbelief!) Many have vowed to reduce their fish intake or cut it out altogether upon watching it. Any documentary which creates that level of individual change is certainly due it’s credit.
The investigative documentary, made by filmmaker Ali Tabrizi, aimed to spread awareness of the impact that eating fish has on our oceans and the environment whilst highlighting the importance of the oceans in general. There were many hard pills to swallow about how even British fishing causes bycatch and therefore the death of dolphins.
However, as soon as it was released to Netflix, viewers started to have problems with the content and the overriding message of the documentary, which was essentially:
‘The only way to save our oceans is to completely eliminate fish from our diet.’
Critics alleged the documentary used some big and questionable statistics and took interviews out of context.
Overall, the documentary had good intentions, but these were not well executed – to the extent that Netflix actually had to retract certain facts that the documentary presented, due to insufficient evidence and inaccuracies. One fact in particular claimed that by 2048, our oceans would almost be empty. This misrepresentative, shock-effect statistic came from a 2009 study, which the original scientists retracted as a result of the sufficient improvement which has taken place in our oceans since then.
In relation to Scotland, the fishing industry is critical for bringing in revenue, tourism and providing livelihood for rural, coastal and island communities; fishing is of much greater importance to Scotland than to the UK as a whole. In the West of Scotland especially, there are a lot of historical ties between fishing cultures and Gaelic culture, stretching right back to the 1800s when King George II was persecuted, and fishing was the only way to make a source of income.
As highlighted in the documentary, there are problems in the sustainability of Scottish fishing. Touched upon was the misleading definition of the ‘protected area’, which apparently counts for 37% of Scottish Seas, but a mere 5% of this is fully protected from bottom-towed fishing methods. External research shows the Biogenic Habitats assessment highlighted the loss in extent of 6 priority marine features: blue mussel, flame shell, marl, seagrass beds and serpulid aggregations.
Scottish salmon farm fishing was a large focus and although some of the facts and figures were disproved and exaggerated, the reality of salmon farm fishing is undoubtedly as distressing as the documentary made it out to be. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency conducted a survey in 2017 which showed that pesticide emamectin had been found in nearly all of 302 samples of 8 salmon farms in Shetland.
Another SEPA report from 2019 details the level of azamethipos released from fish farms has also increased by 72%, with 16 toxic chemicals being permitted for us and subsequently for discharge by fish farms in Scotland.
The more stats I read, the more my heart sank. I always saw Scottish salmon as sustainable because it was local, and, well, Scottish. It appeared at first that ‘Seaspiracy’ had won – they were right and Scottish fishing was not sustainable. But on further reflection, I just knew this wasn’t the case. Based on the discrepancies in other parts of the documentary, that couldn’t be it.
I spoke to Caitlin Turner, President and founder of the Marine Conservation Society here at Stirling University, as well as the 21/22 Sustainability officer for the Student Union. She agreed with the overall message and problems with Scottish Aquaculture expansion on the environment, pointing to problems even ‘Seaspiracy’ had not spoken on. Turner went on to detail the problems with the documentary’s narrative.
“Many fishermen on Scottish coasts and islands fish using low-impact methods: creeling, potting, even diving. These are not the methods degrading our marine environment; rather, they are a sustainable means of fishing whereby the environment remains preserved, whilst the fishermen can provide for themselves, their families and communities.”
“It’s these very fishermen who are in fact calling for the reinstatement of an inshore limit around the Scottish coast, as part of the Our Seas coalition, to see a ban on trawling and dredging in order to allow our coastal marine environments to recover. But the generalized message behind ‘Seaspiracy’ doesn’t consider this; it instead has seen fishermen, sustainable fisheries scientists, and even conservation groups across the world being demonized for their ties to fishing activity, and, as ‘Seaspiracy’ claims it, the subsequent destruction of our oceans.”
There also needs to be a discussion about how, from a British perspective, it feels uncomfortable for a southern English filmmaker such as Ali Tabrizi, who has received worldwide acclaim for the documentary, to be commenting on Scottish fishing in such an extreme and intense manner, whilst completely ignoring English fishing and the detrimental impact this has on our oceans.
Martin Sutcliffe, the aquaculture and fisheries development officer at Dorset Coast Forum, has been establishing new aquaculture initiatives all through the southwest of England. Now, considering how aggressive the portrayal of Scottish aquaculture was, paired with the fractious political relationship between the two countries, it doesn’t sit right that England’s part in these ventures is not mentioned and brushed over. It paints a subconscious picture of England not participating in the abhorrent aquaculture, when in actual fact a £10 million fund for England’s fishing and aquaculture sectors, was announced last month.
Earlier this year, I the pleasure of watching ‘Iorram (Boat Song)’ at the virtual Glasgow Film festival. It was a stunning yet simple piece following the communities of the Outer Hebrides and their fishing livelihood. Written completely in Gaelic, the film provides viewers with a greater understanding of the history, traditions and reliance these communities have on the seas to survive, and how they care for the sea in return. There is so much culture in fishing, something filmmaker Tabrizi failed to consider.
I found the portrayal of fishing and seafood culture in Asia to be deeply problematic. These factors do not take away from the overfishing problems, but it shows there are multiple perspectives and layers to this problem. Alongside Iorram, another documentary which sheds light on the culture and beauty of fishing, ‘Jiro dreams of Sushi’ focusing on one man and his respect for fish and his Michelin sushi restaurant in a Japanese subway station.
Caitlin believes one of the most critical questions that people should be asking is: ‘how can I ensure conservation efforts are accessible and intersectional?’ She believes that working with fishermen is crucial to ensure that marine protection measures provide, rather than remove, income opportunities and include disabled people’s voices in strategies to reduce waste.
‘Seaspiracy’ missed a vital topic and an opportunity to talk about how environmentalism needs to be more intersectional instead of whitewashed and ableist. Having spent a beautiful year in Scotland, I’ve fallen in love wand spent so much time learning and hearing about Scottish culture, and more specifically parts of Scottish culture with the sea. I was ready to defend my second home and their sustainable fishing, and it was disappointing to find out that ‘Seaspiracy’ was right. Scotland isn’t perfect and neither is their fishing. My picture-perfect view was distorted, and reality had set in. This piece originally started out as an expose of sorts and attacking ‘Seaspiracy’ for its exaggerations. It still is. But I realised while researching that I didn’t want to be a ‘Seaspiracy’ by not telling the whole story to fit my pre-empted agenda. Telling the full story with both sides is vital for journalism and film making alike.
There is a privilege within this film which is quite unnerving. The assumption that everyone will be able to go plant-based is ignorant of many external factors in people’s lives that make this very difficult and sometimes impossible. 800 million people around the world depend on small-scale fisheries and aquaculture for their livelihood, with 50% of the global catch coming from small-scale-fisheries. This reliance and lifestyle cannot just be eliminated because Netflix says so.
The importance of other conservation efforts was pushed aside and dismissed, alongside ocean clean ups, reducing single use plastic, campaigning, and educating for new regulations and supporting locals. Global warming was only briefly mentioned and brushed off, when in fact the production of aquatic foods has a much lower carbon footprint and has far fewer biodiversity impacts compared to production of crops and livestock.
At the end of the day Netflix and Tabrizi wanted an impactful punchline, which is what they achieved. They edited the content to give the result they wanted – but at what cost? There is undeniably truth in what they’ve put forward, but by not being 100% transparent and unbiased, the impact on local and small fisheries could be catastrophic in Scotland and around the world.
If you want to help or be a part of the University of Stirling Marine Conservation Society, you can contact them on Instagram @uofsmarineconservationsociety
Featured image – Hashtag legend