How Do We Perceive Environmental Information — The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Seaspiracy

In the past week, social media have exploded with all kinds of information on the recent Netflix documentary Seaspiracy. Written and directed by British documentarist Ali Tabrizi, who had previously investigated the environmental benefits of a meatless diet in a 2014 documentary Vegan, its fish counterpart Seaspiracy calls to attention the daunting impact of commercial fishing. Since its release on the 24th of March, the 90-minute documentary has sparked a wave of reactions from environmental scientists, NGOs, activists as well as the general public.

Instagram influencers and public figures have swiftly shared their pledges to stop eating fish after seeing the supposedly eye-opening documentary, whilst on the other hand, scientist raised a warning finger about the accuracy of some of the Seaspiracy claims. Besides opening a controversial topic of unsustainable fishing, Seaspiracy also raises another issue — how do we humans react to the sea (yes, pun intended) of climate change-related topics. In the age of (dis)information, what is the good, the bad and the ugly of Seaspiracy?

The Good

Frankly speaking, there have not been many attempts to detail the downside of commercial fishing in a comprehensive and layman-friendly way before Seaspiracy, which has naturally caused a halo effect after its release. In the documentary, Tabrizi travels to several locations around the world to show the consequences of overfishing and ghost nets. He rejects the idea of sustainable fishing amidst misleading claims and unreliable sustainable labels by marine conservation organisations. Seaspiracy also features the infamous Taiji dolphin drive hunt, accounts of modern slavery in Thailand and large evidence of wasteful bycatch occurring at the global waters. Many unethical practices have been discussed for years, however, remain to be unenforceable at the distant seas.

In reality, the impact of humans on marine life is not something new. The oceans that account for 96.5% of all water on Earth, act as an absorber of CO2 and take up the extra CO2 from the atmosphere, which we humans emit as a result of our activities. The more carbon dioxide we emit, the more of it needs to be absorbed by the ocean. As the ocean’s average pH is now around 8.1, which is alkaline, with more CO2 the pH further decreases and the ocean becomes more acidic. Increasing ocean acidification results in fewer carbonate ions available for calcifying organisms to build and maintain their shells and skeletons, ultimately causing them to dissolve.

With the year 2020 being the warmest year in history, increasing ocean temperature amidst the overall global warming represents a real threat to marine ecosystems, leading to coral bleaching and loss of breeding grounds for fishes and mammals. Additionally, due to melting icebergs, global sea levels are rising and are putting the survival of small island nations at risk. Not to forget that 8.3 million tons of plastics are discarded in the sea yearly, of which 236,000 tons are microplastics that animals mistake for food.[1]

The problem of overfishing is manifold, as Seaspiracy rightly points out. Overfishing causes the fish being too depleted to recover and is often carried out in a way that also hauls in massive amounts of unwanted marine creatures, which are then discarded and killed. As a result of prolonged and widespread overfishing, nearly a third of the world’s assessed fisheries are now endangered. Seaspiracy even claims that 10000 dolphins are killed per year as bycatch on the west coast of France alone.

Source: North Africa Post

The Bad

The most popular documentaries are those, which manage to spark emotions, reveal novel information, and change the spectator’s opinion on a long-term accepted norm. Seaspiracy, together with similar documentaries such as Cowspiracy, What the Health? or Vegan, therefore, present hard pills to swallow — they challenge the viability of an industry that has been running for centuries. Seaspiracy attempts to do that also with commercial fishing, however, by very questionable means. Regardless of one’s taste, it is full of movie cliches, leading questions and digging for conspiracies.

Seaspiracy is produced in a way akin to investigative journalism — a form of journalism where reporters investigate a single topic of interest and often spend months researching and preparing an article on it. But even then, investigative journalists have to remain objective and avoid cognitive biases — mental shortcuts the human brain produces to expedite information processing to make sense of what it is seeing. Unfortunately, Seaspiracy feeds on a confirmation bias — it tends to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs, often leading to statistical errors.

In simpler terms, it seems like the conclusion of Seaspiracy was decided a way before the start of the shooting. Several experts that participated in the document have already complained that their interviews were taken out of context and the documentary cherry-picks their answers. Confirmation bias also affects the choice of information that is presented — for example, the documentary says that 46 per cent of plastic in the ocean is from fishing nets, which according to Seaspiracy represents the real threat to oceans. In reality, it misreads the information from a 2018 paper that said at least 46 per cent of plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a garbage patch, the central North Pacific, was composed of fishing nets. One could argue that given Tabrizi’s previous work, it makes sense he wants to make his case on the dangers of overfishing, however, misrepresentation of data does not do it justice. Surprisingly, little attention is given to sustainable fishing methods — admittingly, the document shows the scary examples of old-fashioned fish farms, full of filth and diseases, but omitting the technological progress done in recent years is too suggestive.

Lastly, it is almost impossible to ignore the racist undertone of Seaspiracy — the document creates a stereotypical narrative of Asians being the mysterious bad guys; black people, the victims of slavery and the white people having the burden of being their only saviours. The lack of participation of other ethnic groups in the documentary is appalling.

All in all, Fabrizi dubious rhetorical style used in Seaspiracy hijacks the actual point of the movie — the need to protect marine ecosystems.

The Ugly

Generally, the problem with environmental issues is that they are served seldom, only one at a time — we only get a piece of information, on which we quickly dwell as a comprehensive environmental education explaining the climate change in detail is lacking in most of the world’s curricula. Similarly, as the topic of commercial fishing is rarely discussed, our brains are happy to accept a quick fix and move on. Without reliable information on climate issues, people cannot challenge the claims presented — it is even harder when it is a documentary by Netflix, a popular streaming service. The documentary opens the far most urgent topic of today, climate change, but its call for action — do not eat fish — leaves us with a plethora of unanswered questions. Although a well-balanced plant-based diet has been proven to be a healthy and viable alternative for humans, one may wonder — is not eating fish really going to break it?

If everyone stopped eating fish, we could save the endangered species and stop the unethical practices of overfishing but in all fairness, such transition is unrealistic, does not solve the plastics problem and hardly addresses the 480 billion tons of CO2 released to the atmosphere just by 20 world’s corporations since 1965.[2] In addition, the loss of jobs resulting from a global halt on fishing would have to be addressed by timely actions, as the fishing industry employs 35 million people around the globe.

Indeed, the fishing industry must change. We must stop the unethical practices resulting in millions of deaths of unique species every year to protect our natural systems. We must adapt our diets to avoid overconsumption and support local sustainable fisheries. We must change our habits and pressure governments and corporations to reduce the tons of CO2 emitted every year. Fabrizi goes for an emotional ending, claiming that no one can do everything, but everyone can do something — but if we hope that a white rich lady from the developed world will save us by stop eating fish after seeing Seaspiracy and posting about it on Instagram, we got it all wrong.

[1] https://www.condorferries.co.uk/marine-ocean-pollution-statistics-facts

[2 ]https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/09/revealed-20-firms-third-carbon-emissions

Environment, international relations, finance and pizza. “Not all who wander are lost, but I usually am”