Fishing industry screams bloody murder
Reviewed by Merritt & Beth Clifton
Seaspiracy, whose title is a fusion of “seas” and “piracy,” and a play on Cowspiracy, the 2014 independent blockbluster documentary also produced by Kip Anderson, on March 24, 2021 premiered worldwide on Netflix.
Within 10 days Seaspiracy had become a runaway hit, seen by millions, the most viewed television offering in at least eight nations, among them the island and/or coastal nations of the United Kingdom, Ireland, Hong Kong, Croatia, Estonia, Malta, and Singapore, as well as landlocked Switzerland.
Based on early response, Seaspiracy will likely be the most controversial film of 2021.
Enough nets to mummify the world
Already fishing industry representatives and others involved in perpetuating the fiction that the ocean is potentially an endless resource, if exploited in a “sustainable” manner, are howling bloody murder.
Yet as Seaspiracy demonstrates, the real bloody murder is underway continuously on an almost unfathomable scale, in enough miles of nets to mummify the world several times over, stripping the oceans of whales, sharks, tuna, and even billions of small fish whom most people cannot even name.
The underlying premise of Seaspiracy is simple and obvious: the world cannot have fish and eat them all too, or kill them as “accidental” bycatch.
Grasping at plastic straws
27-year-old British documentarians Ali and Lucy Tabrizi in Seaspiracy follow approximately the same story line that Anderson did in Cowspiracy, but at sea, beginning from the same set of questions about what young people can do most effectively to forestall runaway global warming and save biodiversity.
Ali Tabrizi, a British vegan of half Iranian parentage, starts out believing the widely amplified and commonly accepted claims of mainstream environmental advocacy organizations, including that plastic waste is among the major threats to oceanic health. He participates in beach clean-ups that remove plastic refuse, and becomes fanatically dedicated to discouraging people from using plastic drinking straws.
But then Ali Tabrizi discovers that the plastic waste lost or discarded by the fishing industry far outweighs the relatively small amount left by all terrestrial sources combined, from individual litterbugs to leaking landfills.
On the fish industry payroll
Despite that, not even one of the major conservation organizations addressing plastic waste says much of anything about the ongoing losses of nylon drift nets, lines, and ropes, styrofoam floats, and other plastic paraphernalia from fishing vessels––except for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, whose routine activities include picking up abandoned drift nets, usually filled with dead marine life.
Ali Tabrizi confronts multiple major conservation organizations about their failure to emphasize to donors and activist supporters that the fishing industry is primarily responsible for the oceanic plastic waste problem.
In so doing, Ali Tabrizi discovers that the underlying issue is that most major conservation organizations are reluctant to confront the fishing industry about anything at all. Partly, the major conservation organizations do not want to alienate fish-eating donors.
To a considerable extent, though, major conservation organizations are on the fishing industry payroll.
Marine Stewardship Council
This should scarcely be news to anyone, 23 years after Bob Burton, in Inside Spin: The Dark Underbelly of the PR Industry (2008), exposed the origins and performance of the Marine Stewardship Council, one of the first, oldest, and largest of the fishing industry front groups masquerading as a conservation organization––and one of Seaspiracy’s leading targets for criticism, after the Marine Stewardship Council repeatedly evades questions from Ali and Lucy Tabrizi, eventually having them escorted out of the council front lobby for persisting in trying to get some simple, basic answers.
Wrote Burton, “As Greenpeace in Europe stepped up its campaign against unsustainable fisheries, Unilever, which supplied approximately 25% of the European and US demand for frozen fish, began to feel the heat. Simon Bryceson, a consultant to the global PR firm Burson-Marsteller, advised Unilever that it should bypass Greenpeace and instead develop a partnership with the more ‘conservative’ World Wildlife Fund. Unilever and the World Wildlife Fund split the US. $1 million start-up costs, and in 1997 the Marine Stewardship Council was launched as a nonprofit organization, headquartered in London. For Unilever, accreditation offered the prospect that it could marginalize Greenpeace and reassure skittish customers.”
Earth Island Institute
The very first fishing industry labeling scheme of note was “dolphin-safe” labeling, introduced by Earth Island Institute in 1990. ANIMALS 24-7 published a detailed account of how that program evolved and degenerated in December 2014: Fundraising, FADS, “dolphin safe,” & why Ric O’Barry left Earth Island Institute.
O’Barry is only the first of many longtime marine issue campaigners featured in Seaspiracy whose work ANIMALS 24-7 has often noted, quoted, or cited as source material.
Others include Sea Shepherd Conservation Society founder Paul Watson, Sea Shepherd captain Peter Hammarstedt, marine scientist Sylvia Earle, authors George Monbiot and Jonathan Balcombe, physicians Michael Greger and Murray Kleper, and Don Staniford of Scottish Seal Watch.
Adding up the clues
Indeed, little in Seaspiracy will be new to attentive ANIMALS 24-7 readers, especially Ali and Lucy Tabrizi’s bottom-line conclusions. But the Tabrizis are markedly more entertaining, presenting Seaspiracy much like detectives unraveling a heinous crime––as, indeed, they do.
The Tabrizis explain that overfishing is more harmful to the ecological health of the earth than deforestation, way more so even than rainforest clear-cutting to plant palm oil plantations and pasture cattle.
Aquaculture, the Tabrizis find, whether to produce fish or shellfish, is a particularly resource-intensive, disease-prone, and pollution-generating version of factory farming.
“Sustainable” seafood, the Tabrizis learn, is a pernicious and damnable myth.
Finally, the Tabrizis realize, the only environmentally responsible dietary alternative for concerned residents of the industrialized world is to simply stop eating fish.
Along the way, the Tabrizis explore the use of slave labor by Southeast Asian fishing fleets, especially those operating out of Thailand, but the same practices are common among the fleets of many other nations, including Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
Poor and uneducated workers are easily exploited, wherever they are, while corrupt public officials and law enforcement personnel are relatively cheaply paid off.
This revelation, like so much else in Seaspiracy, should surprise no one who has been paying attention, yet will shock most viewers.
Human rights organizations extensively exposed high seas slavery time and again for years, until finally, in December 2014, the Swiss-based corporation Nestlé SA commissioned its own investigation of allegations of “brutal and largely unregulated working conditions” associated with the production of Nestlé brand shrimp, prawns, and Purina brand pet foods, summarized Martha Mendoza of Associated Press.
Slavery props up profits
Almost a year later, in November 2015, the Nestlé investigation confirmed practically all of even the most sensational charges.
Six years after that, exposés of slavery in the offshore fishing industry and even in onshore fish processing have become almost routine, punctuated by occasional releases of videotapes documenting the murders of dissident workers at sea.
The resort to slavery to protect profits extracted from exploiting a deteriorating and ever less productive resource has countless parallels, including in the practices of slavery and sharecropping in the U.S. South.
Abolitionist activism helped to end slavery on Southern cotton, tobacco, peanut, and hemp plantations. Yet, despite all the fervor of generations of abolitionists, and all the bloodshed of the U.S. Civil War, which finally brought the Proclamation of Emancipation, changing technology may have been as big a factor as any changes in the hearts, minds, & souls of most Americans.
Racism, unfortunately, persisted unabated after the Civil War and in our own times. And so did exploitative systems of producing cotton, tobacco, peanuts, and hemp.
The eventual arrival of synthetic fabrics, the decline of tobacco smoking, the transition of peanuts from cheap slave food to a popular mainstream dietary staple, and the replacement of hemp rope with nylon, however, has largely left the Old South economy, and the repression that maintained it, Gone With The Wind, and good riddance.
The Tabrizis finish with a quick, optimistic resumé of the progress made recently by the vegan food industry to develop plant-based alternatives to familiar seafood products that look, smell, and taste much the same.
This, together with the rising cost of catching ever fewer fish from the depleted seas, will likely accomplish more to sink the industrial fishing industry than all activist efforts combined; but effective activism can help to give the process a kickstart.