May 2021: Better Late Than Never…Looking Back on Seaspiracy

Since its release on March 24th, the Netflix documentary Seaspiracy has been dividing opinions and sparking discussion on issues such as sustainable seafood and the plight of our ocean. 

It is clear that we need to change how we protect the ocean, and Seaspiracy has been igniting new conversations on how just how much the ocean is being mistreated. It’s also bringing to light certain fishing and aquaculture practices that need to end, introducing people to ocean issues and challenging them to think more about their seafood consumption. But Seaspiracy doesn’t even begin to cover the full extent of just how much the ocean is in trouble. Climate change, the potential extinction of coral reefs, mining the deep sea and ocean acidification – these are also wreaking havoc. 

But what disappointed me about Seaspiracy was the total exclusion of those who are working to change commercial fishing and aquaculture practices. Let’s start with aquaculture…

Farming Fish

Aquaculture has grown remarkably to become the world’s fastest-growing food producing sector. Offering direct employment to around 20.5 million people, it’s a vital industry that will not only increase the amount of food that can be produced, but also alleviate pressure on wild fish stocks. 

Since I started writing about this industry, I’ve been amazed by the efforts that are being made to address a host of issues such as waste from production systems and fishmeal alternatives. Here are just some examples of what’s going on:

→ Fishmeal alternatives – Seaspiracy talks about feeding wild fish to grow farmed fish and it’s clear that if aquaculture operations switch from forage fish such as anchovies or sardines to ingredients like insects, algae or yeast, it could considerably reduce pressure on wild forage fish stocks. To this end, Norwegian firm Metapod is developing technology to produce a highly digestible meal for salmon made from grasshoppers and crickets. Insects are a natural diet for salmon and trout in the wild and they can also grow on food waste. Protix is another firm that’s doing exactly the same with insects.

→ Recycling waste and tackling sea lice – Seaspiracy also chronicles sea lice infestations on salmon farms in Scotland and chemical/organic waste that’s being pumped into rivers and the ocean. It’s true that the intensification of aquaculture has led to increased fish waste from production systems and more sea lice but some companies are taking action to address this. Norwegian firm Bioretur provides treatment plants and services to convert fish sludge from land-based salmon farms into fertiliser by drying the sludge into a powder beforehand. Their fertiliser is also shipped to Vietnam, where farmers use it to produce various products such as coffee. Meanwhile, the salmon farming industry is continuously researching non-medicinal approaches to tackle sea lice and a host of efforts are being made here. Breeding salmon that are more resistant to sea lice also has potential, according to the University of Edinburgh.

→ Integrated multitrophic aquaculture or IMTA – This is the farming in proximity of species from different trophic levels to allow one species’ uneaten feed and waste, nutrients and by-products to be recaptured and converted into feed and energy for the other. In Asia, especially China, it’s been practised for centuries, for example in rice fields where the fields provide the environment and habitat for fish and other aquatic animals while the fish feed on invertebrates and other organic particles in the fields. Now, researchers in Ireland are working to determine whether IMTA could work on salmon farms by growing juvenile lobsters in cages attached to offshore pens. This would provide the lobsters with a source of food via waste from the farms, while the pens would shelter the lobsters from rough weather. 

Commercial Fishing

But Seaspiracy is ultimately about commercial fishing, and here also, the documentary touches on a number of issues including bycatch, the impacts of abandoned fishing gear, plastic pollution and labour abuses. The hard reality is that all these are happening. On top of this, the documentary then states that there is no such thing as a sustainable fishery. But these are in fact common. One paper published in early 2020 shows that on average, scientifically-assessed fish populations worldwide are healthy or improving. Fisheries are not perfect, and there is a crisis of overfishing in the oceans. But one definition of sustainable fishing is being able to catch the right amount of fish each year, and fortunately there is an entire branch of science, maths and computer models that are figuring out exactly what this amount is. 

Meanwhile, the documentary does not mention Total Allowable Catch (TAC) limits, which helps to ensure the long-term sustainability of fish stocks, and what is being done by commercial fishing to address problems such as plastic pollution or bycatch. While discussing the negative impact of discarded or abandoned fishing gear, Seaspiracy made no mention of Blue Ocean Gear, a US firm that I interviewed just before the documentary was released. They’re developing sensors that track lost fishing gear and prevent aquatic life from becoming entangled. Also worth mentioning are the Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI), which involves companies, NGOs, the fishing industry, academia and governments working together to tackle lost and abandoned fishing gear, and SafetyNet Technologies, which helps fishers catch the right fish using light emitting devices. 

Should We Be Eating Fish?

At the end of the documentary, Tabrizi concludes that “the single best thing I could do every single day to protect the ocean and the marine life I loved was to simply not eat them.” But should we stop eating fish? On the one hand, probably not. A 2021 FAO report cites the importance of seafood in ending hunger and addressing malnutrition. It also states that the global seafood industry plays a vital role in livelihoods by employing hundreds of millions of people worldwide. The Global Aquaculture Alliance whom I write for also released this statement after Seaspiracy came out: 

“Simply ending aquaculture and fishing will do nothing but abandon people employed by the industry and rob billions of people of a healthful source of protein. We need to remember that ALL food production can be damaging if done irresponsibly. Soy production can lead to the destruction of precious rainforests and loss of biodiversity, for example.”

But on the other hand, unlike poorer, less developed countries where seafood is vital as a source of protein and income, in the west this isn’t the case, and so whether or not you eat fish is really a question of personal choice, beliefs or reasons related to health. Rather than eliminate seafood entirely, we can push for accountability for sustainability measures and increased traceability of what we’re consuming. After all, being an active consumer, insisting on knowing where our food comes from, asking questions, participating and learning more about our food is extremely rewarding. We can also take the time to read up on aquaculture and commercial fisheries and learn more about different species and how they are farmed or captured. Collaboration, transparency and honesty will be key to tackling the issues raised in Seaspiracy. 

Despite the disappointing side of the documentary, it’s exciting to see the attention given to a very important topic – critical issues that are affecting the ocean. But we must remember that scientists, industry, companies and more have been working hard for many years to improve fisheries and aquaculture. This post hasn’t even begun to cover the many other subjects that Seaspiracy talks about, but I hope it will get us thinking and be an opportunity for healthy, open discussions on how we can protect the ocean and learn more about commercial fishing and aquaculture. 

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