The latest Movies That Matter looks at Seaspiracy, the Netflix documentary that discusses the impact of commercial fishing on our planet. Watch the trailer here.

Amongst those who are diet-conscious for environmental reasons, often I have heard that meat has been eradicated from their diets – especially beef with its whopping carbon footprint – whereas fish remains.

Apparently fish doesn’t have as high a carbon footprint. Apparently a lot of fish is sustainable, evidenced by the ‘sustainable seafood’ label. Apparently, meat isn’t needed, that it actually may be bad for you; fish, however, is necessary for a healthy diet. I’ve even heard that fish aren’t as sentient as land animals – what with the famous 3-second memory of a goldfish – which means we can eat them, right?

Is this all true? Is the story so simple? British documentary-maker Ali Tabrizi investigates in Seaspiracy, a 2021 Netflix feature documentary initially financed by Dale Vince and produced by the same team that made 2014’s Cowspiracy.

As a child, Tabrizi loved wildlife, especially dolphins and whales. Like his hero Jacques Cousteau, he wished to document them in film but could not after finding widespread wildlife damage including the massive depletion of sealife. “If dolphins and whales die,’ says Tabrizi, “the oceans die. If the ocean dies, so do we.” So, he sets off to find out what exactly is happening, discovering that “our oceans have turned into a massive, plastic soup.” That plastics are damaging the oceans is widely known, in part due to Wetherspoons’ famous ban on plastic straws, but mainly due to environmental groups such as the Marine Stewardship Council and Plastic Pollution Coalition who have spread the message vociferously.

(Matthew Gollop/ Pixabay)

But the outcome of Tabrizi’s investigation reveals this intense focus on plastic is a huge distraction, with potentially sinister motives. He compares it to trying to reduce deforestation by banning toothpicks. It’s only tackling a tiny part of the problem!

The fishing industry is the largest contributor to ocean damage. 46% of waste in our seas is fishing gear, especially ghost nets which are sometimes so colossal in size they could swallow up 13 cathedrals! Tabrizi, bewildered, repeatedly asks why environmental groups have not focused on this. We see here a welcome appearance from George Monbiot who asks the same.

It is here that Seaspiracy veers slightly into conspiratorial territory, which is not to say that it’s content is untrue, but that it is predicated on weak evidence and dubious links. Many of those featured in the documentary – both organisations and individuals – have criticised it for its numerous inaccuracies. The Marine Stewardship Council and Plastic Pollution Coalition have both claimed their comments were cleverly edited to make them look bad.

Moreover, is the eradication of seafood consumption – Seaspiracy’s central message – really the solution? Isn’t it far too simplistic? It is definitely aimed at those of us in Western nations who consume well over our fair share, and that I have no problem with. But when the documentary itself highlights the plight of Somalian fishermen, starved of the food source that has sustained their people for centuries, more nuanced solutions are definitely required. Governments must legislate better and avoid the menacing influence of the fishing lobby – as should those organisations mentioned above.

The huge issue of slavery at sea, which was also featured in 2019’s Buoyancy – for me the most harrowing and affecting part of the film – should be debated across legislatures worldwide. It’s not an issue for Thailand and China alone; all nations consume slave-caught fish and all nations are complicit.

For all its faults, we can sometimes forget what documentaries like Seaspiracy are for. Tabrizi, and other socially conscious filmmakers like him i.e., Ken Loach, are not poets nor are they jazz musicians. They are far from aesthetes – they do not make films for the art of it. To discuss the merits of their films as ‘cinematic works’ would be doing them a major disservice. Their aim is to raise awareness, encourage legislation, and in Tabrizi’s specific case – reduce global fish consumption.

Has he succeeded? That’s up to you and me.