Bluewashing, empty oceans by 2048 and slavery: What I learned about the fishing industry from Seaspiracy

Or "the final straw that broke this pescatarian-who-never-ate-tuna's back"

This article contains information (and spoilers) from the Netflix documentary ‘Seaspiracy‘. You may wish to watch the documentary before reading the below. In fact, we highly recommend it.

Before sitting down to watch Seaspiracy, the latest controversial documentary to hit the gallery on Netflix, my fiancé and I had a conversation. We already knew, before even watching the film, that the time had come to stop eating fish.

This was a thought that had been playing on my mind, since I stopped eating meat about four years ago. That was an easy change to make – I never really liked meat that much.

So, I labelled myself ‘pescatarian’, with all the good-intentions that I could find sustainably-sourced seafood both at my local supermarkets and restaurants. That being pescatarian rather than vegetarian or vegan provided more options when eating in a restaurant, while at the same time I was still doing my bit towards reducing my carbon footprint by not eating meat.

A pescatarian … who never ate tuna

I can’t remember the last time I bought a can of tuna. I think it was when I was in university and my staple diet was baked potatoes with tuna and sweetcorn. I won’t give away my age, but let’s just say, university was quite a long time ago.

What’s this got to do with Seaspiracy, you ask? You see, the main reason I stopped eating tuna was because I never trusted the ‘Dolphin Safe’ logo (how do they know no dolphins have been harmed in the making of this can of tuna?). Yet, I still bought and ate fresh fish and seafood – because I thought it was good for me and because I liked how it tasted – without questioning whether the industry as a whole was a responsible one.

And then, I watched Seaspiracy

Ripping off those blinkers in one 90 minute session, here’s just some of what I learned from watching Seaspiracy (spoiler alert).

‘Sustainability stamps’ can be bought

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is a recognisable ‘stamp of approval’ on fish and seafood. On its website, it describes itself as “an international non-profit organisation” that recognises and rewards “efforts to protect oceans and safeguard seafood supplies for the future”. Its listing on Google includes the words “Sustainable Fishing” in its headline.

The Marine Stewardship Council's listing on Google, which includes the words "Sustainable Fishing" in the headline

Yet, as we learned from Seaspiracy, there is no definition of ‘sustainability’ for fishing. There is very little stewardship of the companies that proudly display the MSC logo on their products, or of the 4.6 million commercial fishing vessels at sea around the world. 

I’ve worked for accreditation programs in the past. I’ve seen the hoops that responsible businesses have to jump through to get accredited. The amount of paperwork, site visits, evidence and reviews that are involved to prove that your business lives up to the values communicated by the accreditation or license you are applying for. How can a business be accredited, when its practices are not able to be physically seen or assessed?

According to Seaspiracy – money talks. 80.5 percent of MSC’s income is derived from licensing seafood, which is concerning at best. And it’s the same with ‘Dolphin Safe Tuna” – no one can know if anything is “dolphin safe”. The observers that do get onboard fishing vessels can be bribed, so there is no one to credibly witness if a fishery is truly “dolphin-safe”. 

A dead turtle entangled in fishing nets
A dead turtle entangled in fishing nets. Image: Getty

There is no such thing as ‘sustainable fishing’

By its very definition, the word ‘sustainable’ means able to be maintained at a certain rate or level indefinitely. As we know – infinite growth on a planet with finite resources is not sustainable. Resources, such as fossil fuels, will eventually run out. But fish reproduce, so surely they wouldn’t ‘run out’.

That would be true if we lived in the Paleolithic Era and every human on the planet hunted, foraged or caught their own food, giving it time to regrow, replenish and reproduce. The problem now is the oceans are overfished. Humans are taking fish out of the sea in such large quantities at such a rate that soon, there won’t be enough fish in the sea for anyone to catch.

Overfishing is already causing conflicts, corruption and animal slaughter – in some areas, dolphins are killed for ‘pest control’ as the local fisheries believe they are competing with them and use them as scapegoats for overfishing. While all around the world, fisheries illegally enter foreign waters, mostly at night, to haul in fish. In fact as we learned in the documentary, one in three fishes imported into the US has been caught, and therefore sold, illegally. 

“There is no such thing as a sustainable fishery – it’s just a marketing phrase.”

  • Captain Paul Watson, Founder of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

Marine life is vital for the survival of the planet and of humanity

The oceans and the life within them play a huge role in carbon capture and therefore in preventing global heating. The ocean is, in fact, the biggest carbon sink on the planet – 93 percent of all the world’s carbon dioxide is stored in the ocean, thanks to marine vegetation. Fish are even vital to keep coral reefs alive, as corals thrive on nutrients from fish excretion, which means it is fishing that has become the major threat to coral reefs around the world. 

As Sir David Attenborough has already taught us, the consequences of species loss has a massive ripple effect. When you look at biodiversity, ecosystems, food chains – everything is interconnected.

When you remove one part of the marine ecosystem – for example, when one species becomes extinct – that has a massive effect on every other species in the system. As Gary Stokes, Co-founder of Oceans Asia, explained in Seaspiracy, sharks are key to survival of the oceans, and their populations are crashing.

Since 1970, populations of Thresher shark have decreased by 80%, and Bull sharks and Smooth Hammerheads by 86 percent. The ripple effect of this dramatic loss is that seabirds have also declined by about 70 percent. This is because predatory fish, like sharks, drive the little fish to the surface of the ocean, where seabirds are able to dive in and feed on them. With less sharks in the oceans, less fish are driven up for the birds to eat and survive – and there you have your broken cog in the machine.

Sharks are as important as whales and dolphins for ocean sustainability alive and are at risk of extinction for the first time because of humans. To put it into perspective, sharks kill about 10 people per year, whereas people kill up to 30,000 sharks per hour, and half of those are killed as by-catch (‘accidentally’ caught in fishing nets). 

What’s more, the huge loss of fish in the oceans puts humans, as fish eaters, in direct competition with sharks, whales, dolphins and seabirds. We are stealing from the middle of their natural food chain.

“People shouldn’t be afraid of having sharks in the ocean. They should be afraid of not having sharks in the ocean.”

  • Paul De Gelder, navy diver, shark attack survivor, author and motivational speakerf

The nets that catch the fish on our plates are death traps for all marine life

Turns out, plastic straws aren’t the biggest threat to sea-life. Here are some hard facts I learned from Seaspiracy:

  • 46 percent of plastic in the oceans is discarded fishing nets.
  • 250,000 sea turtles are captured every year by fishing nets.
  • Six of the seven species of sea turtle are endangered because of fishing.
  • 10,000 common dolphins are killed in the Bay of Biscay every year due to harmful fishing activities.
  • Every single day, the fishing industry uses enough fishing line to wrap around the Earth 500 times.

And then there is trawling. Trawling is a method of fishing that involves pulling a fishing net through the water along the bottom of the ocean, behind one or more boats. Bottom trawling wipes out 3.9 billion acres every year within the ocean. That’s the equivalent to losing 4,316 soccer fields every minute. Remember how important the ocean is to carbon capture? Commercial fishing is essentially ‘deforesting’ our oceans. But it’s worse, because it’s invisible to life on land. As Seaspiracy put it “out of sight, out of mind”.

“If current fishing trends continue, we will see empty oceans by 2048.”

  • Seaspiracy

Fish is not actually that great for us

Remember those important Omega 3 fatty acids? Turns out, fish don’t make those, they are made by algae. In fact, the only thing that fish are full of these days is mercury, dioxins, toxic heavy metal, industrial pollutants, oh and micro-plastics. Hmm… yum yum indeed.

Fish are friends, not food

Fish and crustaceans have complex social lives and are far more like humans than perhaps originally thought. They have the similar senses when it comes to vision, hearing, taste and touch. Studies have found fish show curiosity, concern and fear. Fish feel pain.

A Big Friendly Grouper Fish
A Big Friendly Grouper Fish. Image: Getty Images

Most of us don’t depend on fish to survive, but the people who do depend on it are losing it to commercial fisheries

Like me, perhaps you are privileged to live in a part of the world where, currently, we have access to fresh groceries at the local shop or supermarket. Even during times of quarantine, I was able to order a delivery of fresh fruit and vegetables at the touch of the button. Around the world, there are small communities that have relied on fishing locally using traditional methods to survive for thousands of years. These communities are now being driven to starvation and poverty, because of commercial fishing in their waters.

Most of us don’t know where our fish comes from or who/what was impacted in its catch

If I want to eat fish, I get it from a fishmonger, a supermarket, a restaurant. I don’t catch it myself. I don’t know where it’s come from, how it was caught, how many fishing nets were discarded in the sea for it to get to my plate, or who was sacrificed or tortured to catch it.

I learned from Seaspiracy that much of the seafood we consume today is a result of slavery. Because there are so many fishing boats out there, competition is fierce, so fishing has to be achieved as cheaply as possible. This leads to slavery, to cutting corners, to dangerous criminal activity and risk-taking, all happening hundreds of nautical miles out to sea, where there are no witnesses. Seaspiracy provides an astonishing comparison: 4,500 American soldiers died during the five years of the Iraq War. During that same period, 360,000 fishery workers died at sea.

Farmed salmon isn’t pink

Is controlling the fishing industry by establishing more fish farms the answer? The documentary visited a salmon farm in West Scotland, and witnessed fish infested with sea lice, many dying from pollution and disease before even being caught for human consumption. The salmon that do make it to your local supermarket has probably had dye added to it, to give it that fresh-looking pink colour. Farmed salmon is, in fact, a rather unpalatable grey.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, farmed fish are fed on heavily processed fish food, which requires a massive amount of – yep, you’ve guessed it – fish to produce. Which is pretty grim, when you consider 50 percent of the world’s seafood comes from farms.

So, what can we do to protect marine life from commercial fishing?

Possibly one of the scariest messages to come out of the Seaspiracy documentary was the involvement and/or inaction by governments around the world. For example:

  • Five percent of oceans are classed as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), but 90 percent of these MPAs still allow commercial fishing.
  • We sustain fisheries without our consent via tax. Fishing subsidies (tax payer money given to industry to keep the price of a product artificially low) are estimated to be as high as $35 billion worldwide, of which $20 billion directly contributes to overfishing. These subsidies are now the cause of food insecurity in many developing countries where local businesses just can’t compete.

The fishing industry remains unregulated, and governments are not prepared to take action to change this. So, what can we, as individuals and as a community, do to incite change?

“The single best thing we can do to protect the ocean and marine life, is to not eat it.”

A simple ‘supply and demand’ idea. If enough people in the wealthiest countries in the world all stopped eating fish and seafood, there would be no demand for it. Where there is no demand, there is no money. And when there is a financial impact, suddenly businesses, industries and governments seem to find their listening devices start working again.

Always understand where your food comes from, and teach the next generation the same

I’m annoyed with myself for this one. One of the reasons I stopped eating meat was because I knew I couldn’t kill a cow or a chicken, and because I couldn’t always afford to buy organic meat from my local farmer, I couldn’t trust where that was coming from either or how it was reared, fed, killed or transported. Why was it any different for fish?

It wasn’t. That’s the thing. I was just living in blissful ignorance.

Having an understanding of how our food got from where it began its life to being on our plate can help to guide our consumption choices. And this understanding can lead to a greater appreciation of what we consume – like when you learn to grow a tomato as a child, the fruit that you pick from the vine that you have grown tastes that much sweeter.

“If you want to address climate change, the first thing you do is protect the ocean. The solution to that is very simple – leave it alone.”

  • Captain Paul Watson, Founder of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

Write to your local MP / representative and tell them how you’d like to be represented

Don’t be fooled into thinking your voice doesn’t count – one hand-crafted letter from one constituent is important (they want your vote), a handful shows there is an issue they need to address and more than a dozen will show them that urgent action is needed.

Tell them what you are concerned about, what has moved you to write, include facts about the issue (you can take some from this article), ask them to represent you and be part of the solution by taking action, then tell them what action you want them to take. Always end by thanking them for their time.

Write to them and tell them you want to see Marine Protected Areas that ban commercial fishing. Write to them and tell them you are concerned about the lack of regulation on the fishing industry and its impact on the environment. Write to them and tell them your fears that by 2048, there will be no fish left in the sea. Ask them what your government is doing to address SDG 14 and to subsidise renewable energy.

You can also call your MP, arrange to meet with them, or organise a petition for greater impact.

Boycott marine entertainment and sea-life parks

In Seaspiracy, we saw 700 whales and dolphins herded into a cove for slaughter in Taiji, with the Marine Park entertainment industry given as the primary funder for dolphin catches like this. While acknowledging that the documentary also said boycotting marine parks won’t stop these practises from happening, this is not the only reason to avoid parks that keep marine mammals as entertainers.

Marine mammals should be living freely in our seas and oceans. They should not be kept in tiny tanks, which impact their physical and mental health, and be trained to perform for the amusement of humans.

That’s it. That’s the whole reason.

Swap your fish oil for algae oil, and swap your scampi for seafood made from sea plants

All the taste and nutritional benefits, none of the PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyls), mercury, heavy metals, antibiotics or micro-plastics. Now, that’s a no-brainer!

Sign petitions

Like this one from the Australian Marine Conservation Society, asking the government to to stop illegal fishing in NSW marine parks.

“No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.”

  • Dr. Sylvia Earl

10 more positive actions you can take to help protect our seas and oceans

  1. Campaign against offshore oil, gas, fracking.
  2. Switch to a renewable energy provider to do your bit to reduce the impacts of ocean acidification and heating (even 5% renewable is a start).
  3. Strike for the ocean.
  4. Support electric transportation where and when you can.
  5. Pick up plastic wherever and whenever you see it and dispose of it properly. Remember – the ocean is downhill to everything.
  6. Support ghost net retrieval projects and businesses (e.g. recycled ghost net plastics) that put value and incentive on retrieving this material from the ocean.
  7. Only put organic matter down the loo and natural products down the drain. That means no baby wipes, no tampons and no cigarettes.
  8. Follow @weareearthco on Instagram for daily positive news and positive ways to help the planet.
  9. Support organisations like Sea Shepherd.
  10. Never stop learning and asking questions.

The final meat-free, fish-free, plastic-free straw

After I had that conversation with my fiancé, warning him we were going to watch Seaspiracy that evening and would therefore probably want to give up fish that night, my fiancé – the man who would have always chosen fish over meat on any day of the week, and who was convinced he wouldn’t ever be able to give up fish and seafood – came home with a plant-based fry-up for dinner and hasn’t touched fish since.

We are, indeed, all capable of change.

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Charli Ferrand

Charli wrote her first novel at the tender age of 9, then dabbled in the idea of becoming a professional ballerina for a few years, before returning to her love of writing, acquiring a BA (Hons) in Journalism, Film & Broadcast from Cardiff University in the UK. A three-month holiday in Australia turned into a 11 year residency, during which Charli cemented her career in PR & Marketing Communications working with some of the biggest brands in the world. She also gained her citizenship, discovered her passion for sustainability and eventually ended up coming full circle, combining her professional skills with her love of the planet and oceans into her role as Editor-in-Chief of Earth Collective. A trained journalist, experienced communications professional and qualified Mental Health First Aider, Charli has her finger on the pulse of the latest political and environmental developments around the world. You can find her writing about current affairs, political activism and mental health.

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