The latest documentary to hit the airwaves on ocean conservation is Seaspiracy on Netflix. While certainly not the first of its kind, it jumped out to me because I have connections to some of the material discussed.
First, I want to commend the filmmaker for reviving the conversation on ocean conservation and the threats they face as a direct result of human choices.
If you’ve watched the film, you know that the filmmaker attempts to reveal the dark world of illegal activity and misinformation. Unfortunately, he is perpetuating his own.
Filmmaking activism and security
I used to work for an international environmental nonprofit that actively goes undercover to expose environmental crime around the world. The organization has had a hand in exposing illegal dolphin hunts, elephant poaching, rhino horn and pangolin trade, and much more. The dangers of filming criminal networks, even when undercover, cannot go understated.
That’s why I was disappointed to see the Seaspiracy filmmaker approach the issue so flippantly. He arrived in Japan and Hong Kong toting his camera equipment. As a non-native, you can’t fly into the dolphin killing and shark finning capitals of the world and expect to go unnoticed, especially if you’re carrying video cameras. These regions have been targeted by environmental groups for years, so it’s no wonder he was met with skepticism, hostility, even monitoring.
Then, with no security training, he purchases some undercover equipment (he calls “spy” gear, which has its own unsavory connotations in my opinion) in an attempt to have more luck. His lack of training and precaution are a slap in the face to groups that have been carefully working to expose and strike down illegal wildlife killing.
Related, viewers witness amateur activism early in the film. You can’t call up your local Seaside Fish and Chips and ask if they’ll stop using plasticware because “it’s killing fish and sea turtles.”
First, as a documentarian, you’re promoting the message that anybody can call their local eatery and ask the same question with any hope of impact. Realistically, the person answering the phone is probably some teenager or part-time employee with zero decision-making power. This scene was like visual clickbait to me — it was simply trying to get a rise out of people. And even if the filmmaker’s argument is to say that this scene was purely to illustrate a larger point, the majority of viewers — a yet-uninformed audience — don’t know that.
Second, he approaches various antagonists in the film to talk about their role in killing endangered species and wiping out ocean life. You don’t have to study diplomacy to know that this isn’t how to start a conversation or procure answers.
We are losing sharks and seabirds and other marine species at an unprecedented rate. Humans are causing this race to extinction, which will throw the oceans into chaotic imbalance and collapse.
Eating fish is not the problem. Overfishing is the problem.
When the filmmaker talks about the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), he does not paint an accurate picture.
Here’s how I know and here’s why you should believe me:
- I was the US Communications Manager to the MSC for two years. I left my role there because I really wasn’t passionate about seafood.
- I co-host a wildlife conservation podcast with a close friend.
If seafood isn’t my jam and protecting wildlife is what I talk about in my free time, I have no reason to defend this organization other than ensuring people know the truth. So let’s break it down.
This film claims that the MSC “hands out blue ticks” (sustainability certification).
Here’s how the MSC works in simplest of terms:
- The MSC creates an internationally recognized sustainability standard using the best available and most up-to-date scientific evidence, as well as best-practice guidelines from the United Nations.
- Fisheries must proactively reach out to MSC if interested in applying for certification; meaning that seeking certification is optional.
- The MSC’s scientists will help to educate fisheries on what kinds of practices work best should the fishery indeed pursue certification.
- Then, fisheries choose which third party, internationally accredited auditor they wish to use to conduct the certification review; this process can last anywhere from 12-18 months. To avoid conflict of interest, MSC may not be involved in this process at all.
- If a fishery meets the criteria as determined by the independent third party, it earns the sustainable certification. The fishery may then choose whether or not it uses the MSC’s logo on its products. If the company chooses to use the MSC blue tick logo, then and only then does the MSC make money from the logo licensing agreements.
“Consumers want to know that no marine mammal are being killed in order to put fish on their plate.” –Seaspiracy
We as consumers don’t want to know that our preferences and choices are killing the planet. That’s why you don’t see this in the news. There have been innumerous studies about how to communicate information so as to effect change, and making people feel guilty is not one of those methods. Switching to plastic straws is a small step that is achievable to the average consumer; making a lifestyle choice to eliminate a primary protein from our diets, less so.
The hard truth is that bycatch happens. All the time. Fortunately, fisheries that have been certified to the MSC standard have made leaps and bounds toward reducing or eliminating bycatch. You can read about some of the improvements that certified fisheries continue to make, even after earning certification (including 112 improvements to benefit endangered species and prevent bycatch).
Only a handful of fisheries have been rejected certification over 20 years.
While this is indeed correct, it’s misleading. Fisheries choose to seek certification; it is entirely optional. Prior to seeking certification, fisheries will update their methods and practices (which costs money) to give themselves the best chance at achieving certification. So it makes good business sense that a fishery is not going to seek certification if it knows it is likely to fail, especially given the investment (time and money) that goes into it.
Millions of people around the world depend on fish and seafood for their livelihoods or their primary source of protein. They don’t necessarily have the choice to make lifestyle changes that will protect our oceans more fully. With that understanding, it’s imperative that overfishing is stopped. Groups like MSC are trying to do that.
Perhaps it’s the naïveté of a young amateur filmmaker, but I’m overall disappointed in this film because as documentaries are meant to inform people, this one doesn’t convey messages of thoughtfulness, safety, or complete and accurate information.