Updated: Apr 27
By Jorge Cervera Hauser
April 25th, 2021
Poor research, misleading, and full of contradictions. A film about a young filmmaker named Ali on his quest of recycling (pun intended) old documentaries (that his millennial audience hasn’t seen), superficially googling “facts”, and using mom & dad’s travel miles. All under the tutelage and backing of the veteran producer of other documentaries like Cowspiracy and What the Health.
To me, that is Seaspiracy in a nutshell. I finally watched the film last night after almost a month of people asking my opinion and insisting I watch it. That same month, I was reluctant to sit down and watch the film, and in all honesty I had a lot of preconceptions about it… but also, for the sake of objectivity I decided not to create an opinion on the matter, much less share one, until I watched it, so here I go.
First of all, I expected to ideologically differ from the film’s arguments but to my surprise, what I found was an irresponsible research full of holes, and a “shocking” but weak narrative that was all but objective and flooded (pun intended) with half-assed truths. Ideology is and should be subjective, but facts are not. I applaud having disagreements as they make us wiser, (I am all for keeping an open mind at all times) but Seaspiracy was the environmental equivalent of Info Wars, and that my friends, is not cool.
I will try to break down the film in several aspects that caught my eye as I kept calling bullshit out loud while I watched the film:
THE UNANSWERABLE QUESTION (REALLY?)
Ali desperately tries to figure out if there is such a thing as “sustainable fishing”, so much that he asks the question rhetorically out loud several times throughout the entire film.
Before addressing the ultimate mystery, I took the freedom to pick up and answer the other issues that Ali highlights:
- Is overfishing a problem? YES
- Are ghost nets and fishing gear a major issue? YES
- Is bycatch a crude reality? YES
- Is the fishing industry packed with money, political interests and shady shit? YES
And now, for the most sought out inquiry of the film (drumroll please): IS THERE SUCH A THING AS “SUSTAINABLE FISHING”? MOST DEFINITELY
An interviewee uses a key concept that Ali easily discards and does not elaborate during the film, which is “the INDUSTRIALIZATION of fishing”.
There is nothing wrong with fishing, just as there is nothing wrong with agriculture and cattle farming if it is done in a small scale by using artisanal ways and local resources.
Living in a coastal area and buying your seafood from the local fisherman that uses selective fishing methods such as spearfishing, a rod and reel, or targeted deep-sea fishing can be objectively regarded as sustainable.
In fact, the film mentions local Somali fishermen that had to turn to piracy when the overseas fishing industry came with their big boats and stole their resources. That is a real issue that Ali failed to dig into.
According to the WWF, “As the largest traded food commodity in the world, seafood provides sustenance to billions of people worldwide. Approximately 3 billion people in the world rely on wild-caught and farmed seafood as a primary source of protein.” This means seafood is the primary source of protein for people worldwide, and the majority of these people are certainly not in a position where they can afford or access organic superfoods and a fancy vegan diet. (I will take a deeper look into this fantasy further down my article)
Yes Ali, using the proper techniques, local fishing can be sustainable and is essential to communities facing hunger, unemployment, malnutrition, and have no access to the neighborhood Whole Foods.
It’s obvious that the main source of research for this guy before embarking on his life-changing epiphany came from sitting down and watching The Cove, Plastic Oceans, Shark Water, Mission Blue, Chasing Coral and maybe, just maybe, The End of the Line.
When the filmmaker dude boasts about FINDING this place in Japan called Taiji, I shed some tears laughing. The Cove is a great 2009 documentary by Louis Psihoyos that won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2010. It focuses on the annual Taiji dolphin hunt.
Along the way, he continues to “discover” many issues and facts that renowned scientists and filmmakers have been telling us for many, many years. I understand that the targeted audience for this film is young, and that the movie is meant for people that aren’t necessarily aware of certain data. That doesn’t give you the right to claim dibs on facts that were already out there. In many cases Ali takes the information out of context for the sake of shock and drama.
Ali quotes a study that supposedly claims that by 2048 the ocean will be empty of sea-life. In reality it is an outdated 2006 paper suggesting that by 2048 the exploited fish populations would be so depleted that they would yield only 10% of their historically highest catches. Fisheries management have improved since then, and even though we still have a long way to go, the 2048 narrative is no longer true.
Also, the filmmaker mislabels (pun intended) discards as bycatch. The latter, highly addressed in the film, are the wildlife caught without being targeted, and the discards are the ones thrown back to sea after being caught, which currently make up to a little over 10% of the world’s marine catch, which is ridiculous, but it is not the 48% claimed in the film. Bycatch, even though “accidentally” killed, ends up in the market and feeds people.
Besides the older, yet mainstream documentaries, other sources of information I was able to identify throughout the film (since he avoids quoting sources) were Google, Wikipedia, and A LOT of The Independent headlines.
THE MEAN INTERVIEWS
As a producer and filmmaker myself, I know how easy it is to take a 2-hour long interview and turn it into a short and misleading clip. If you are a skilled interviewer, it is fairly simple to lead the interviewee right into your traps and in the direction you want to take the conversation, and get them to say specific things you are fishing for. Even if you are not that skilled conducting an interview, in the editing suite you can cut out 1hr 55min of smart dialogue to show only, out of context of course, the 5 minutes that will make that person look stupid.
The filmmaker does this A LOT and is blunt about it. A good journalist would be more objective, or at least smarter in how he presents his point of view through other people’s opinion. The only thing he proves in the way he presents his interviews is that he is cocky and a smartass.
Across the film, the filmmaker questions various marine focused non-profits and institutions such as Oceana, WWF, The Nature Conservancy and the Marine Stewardship Council among many others and accuses them of holding financial interests that makes them look the other way or even support commercial fishing.
Ali conducts his interviews in a rude manner, treating people like shit who are being nice to him. It is obvious that even before each interview he knew who was on “his team” and who wasn’t as he came in already prepared to make that selected few look like idiots.
All I am going to say about this is that Public Policy matters, and many of these organizations are experts dealing with Governments and lobbying policy changes, marine protected areas, fisheries management, bans and quotas, and organizing international summits and accords where many countries commit to positive changes for the environment.
I have seen this firsthand as I have had a seat in the Advisory Boards for Marine Parks and Biosphere Reserves in Mexico. These efforts are worth a lot more than Johnny Vegan having an organic avocado toast for breakfast in a fancy café somewhere in Silver Lake.
On the other hand, the filmmaker presents certain individuals and organizations as heroes, especially the favorite modern-age pirates with their own reality TV show: The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. I know for a fact that Sea Shepherd received funding worth tens of millions of dollars directly from the Mexican Government in exchange for patrolling the high Gulf of California in an effort to protect the most charismatic porpoise of them all: the Vaquita.
As laudable as it is, the Vaquita is and has been a lost cause for at least a couple of decades now and their extinction is imminent. It may sound cold, but the Vaquita’s presence in the Sea of Cortez won’t make a difference in our planet’s future. All of the money, the boats, the crew, and the diesel invested in “saving” the Vaquita would’ve been much more useful in one of the many marine areas that are key to the ocean’s health and are being decimated by commercial fisheries (legally and illegally).
How is Sea Shepherd’s presence in Mexico in exchange for several millions, different from certification agencies charging a fee for certifying seafood companies?
The latter are bashed through the film, and funny enough, the few data sources he actually quotes through the film are institutions just like the ones they keep telling us not to believe in.
THE PLASTIC ISSUE
Yes, ghost nets are a horrible thing, I have even tried and failed to remove one from a humpback’s calf. In order to fix this, regulations (and the enforcement of these regulations) need to come into play and that can be achieved by Governments and NGO’s just like the ones the film hates so much. From what I can remember they do not offer a real solution to the issue at hand, but they do mock people trying to change their single use plastic habits.
Let’s support organizations that can achieve the bigger issue, but let’s also improve our daily habits since that is actually within our reach. One less straw in the ocean is one tiny improvement you can take credit for.
Humpback calf trapped in a ghost net | Video: JCH
THE PRIVILEGE POSITION
The film is made by “white privilege” for “white privilege”. Their only conclusion and solution is to stay away from seafood, as if all of the people that depend on it were trust fund babies living “independently” in Tribeca or Silicon Valley engineers with the means and access to plant-based alternatives.
Like I mentioned in the very beginning, billions of people depend on seafood for their survival. Let’s not be as naive as Ali to think that eliminating fish from your diet is the solution because it is not. It is an extremely complex issue that will be impossible to summarize in a documentary, and will never have a single, magical solution to it.
It would be an interesting experiment to make a documentary just to prove how easily you can make certain situations or lifestyles look bad by choosing which truths to tell.
Let’s take vegetarianism / veganism as an example. Not because I have anything against it, but because a lot of documentaries present this as a solution and it is now in our imaginary collective that being vegan goes hand in hand with saving the world.
I would start talking about a Carnegie Mellon University study that measured the changes in energy use, blue water footprint and GHG emissions associated with U.S. food consumption patterns where the plant-based dietary scenario is more harmful to the environment than by keeping the status quo.
Just like we saw with commercial fishing, the industrialization, mass production and over-exploitation of any resource has a negative impact on our environment and everyday life. Documentaries like Cowspiracy and Seaspiracy are turning a plant-based diet into a trend. Unilever (highly criticized by the film in question) has now over 700 vegan products available in Europe. Estimates by Acumen Research for the global vegan food market now expect it to grow each year by nearly 10% and to reach around US$24.3 billion by 2026.
This trend and market growth will have an impact in the food industry turning into that particular niche. It is worth mentioning that the “Vegan Lifestyle” comes with huge profit margins for the producers because of the cheap raw materials (such as protein extracts, starches, and oils), and let’s not forget what the final consumer is willing and able to pay for such products.
According to the industry itself, artificial fertilisers, for example, account for at least 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This is as we stand today, but imagine how it would be in the impossible scenario of the entire world population under a plant-based diet.
I would then make an analogy on the coolest and greenest fruit out there: The Avocado.
To grow a single avocado it has been estimated to take anything from 140 litres (30 gallons) to 272 litres (60 gallons) of water – or about 834 litres (183 gallons) per kilogram of fruit. In some areas, like Peru and Chile, the growing demand for the crop has led to illegal extraction from rivers and has been blamed for an increasing water-shortage crisis.
This means that a single person that eats one avocado a day (I am one of them) for 50 years will end up using over a million gallons of water in their avocados alone. This would only account for a tiny portion of their plant-based diet. To picture the dimension of one million gallons, imagine a pool the size of a football field with 50ft of depth. It would be a small marine ecosystem by itself.
Let’s move on to asparagus by looking at an extract from a BBC article:
“Research by Angelina Frankowska, who studies sustainability at the University of Manchester, recently found that asparagus eaten in the UK has the highest carbon footprint compared to any other vegetable eaten in th country, with 5.3kg of carbon dioxide being produced for every kilogram of asparagus, mainly because much of it is imported by air from Peru. She and her colleagues found, in fact, that the succulent green stalks have the largest environmental footprint of any of the 56 vegetables they looked at, including its land use and water use (which was three times greater than the next highest).”
We could do some really cool motion graphics with a lot of airplanes illustrating how your side of asparagus or your mango breakfast plate are killing the planet.
To conclude in my film, I would lean on the Environmental Journal to prove that the only way to save the planet is by all of us switching to an insect-based diet.
The film would label vegans as the capitalist-pig, planet-destroyer, insensitive being because of whom our planet has its remaining days accounted for. (I would never do that)
There is not one thing killing our planet, and there is not a single thing that will fix it.
In my humble (and very personal) opinion, I would divide the first step into a better world in three fundamental aspects:
Individual Awareness. Let’s be more conscious about our daily habits and not just our diet. Can I try to source my food from small, local producers instead of major corporations? Can I use less plastic, chemicals, and fuels in my everyday life? Can I eat what naturally grows in the current geographical area I am at?
Anthropology. The environmental issues often interlace with social issues. If the local producers, fishermen and farmers are satisfied and making money from their craft, they will be the first ones protecting the one resource they are interested in. If we take care of local communities and favor the small producer versus the large industry, the world will be a better place.
Politics. A necessary evil. Let’s go out and vote for people that want a change for the better and place them in a position of power where they will be able to achieve it. Read, be informed, and learn what is the best thing you can do from where you’re standing and which organizations to donate to. Don’t get all your information from one place and don’t take a political standing based only on one film, one article, or one book.
I am currently applying for an MSc in Oceans & Fisheries and had to make a research pitch to my would-be supervisor during the program. I believe that my elevator pitch is the perfect way to end this essay:
“FISHERIES IMPROVEMENT AROUND PROTECTED MARINE RESERVES”
I have been involved in conservation long enough to understand that the environmental issues most of the times come hand in hand with social and political issues. Trying to solve one without the other usually leads to a war that is impossible to win. I have also played an active role in the process of creating and managing marine protected areas like the Revillagigedo National Park and a new 19M Acre reserve we are trying to secure surrounding the lower half of the Baja Peninsula. In both cases, the first actors always to oppose these reserves are the extremely rich commercial fisheries and the local fishing communities, both with a very strong political leverage. They always see it as we are taking something away from them, when in fact, by protecting and forbidding all fishing in a key area (Sylvia Earle would call them Hope Spots) we are actually helping them by creating a “savings account” that eventually will reach the surrounding areas where fishing is not restricted.
A serious study on the subject would help the powerful fishing industry to understand that by being smart in what we protect, we are actually securing a future for the industry, hand in hand with a proper management and quotas, of course. If you protect “A” you’ll benefit directly from “B”. Opposite to total collapse.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jorge Cervera Hauser is an adventure travel entrepreneur, underwater photographer, producer of the documentary México Pelágico, Board Member for the Revillagigedo National Park, and former Board Member for the Guadalupe Island Biosphere Reserve.