Controversy over Netflix film 'Seaspiracy', explained

A brilliant exposé, vegan propanganda, or both?

Zhangxin Zheng | April 07, 2021, 11:56 AM

Follow us on Telegram for the latest updates:

"Seaspiracy", the latest original Netflix film on the commercial fishing industry, has sparked much online discussion.

It is produced by Kip Anderson, who previously produced a pro-vegan film, "Cowspiracy".

For those who have not watched the film, it is directed by 27-year-old British filmmaker Ali Tabrizi, who also appears as the protagonist in it.

Tabrizi and his wife sought to expose the environmental impacts of commercial fisheries out of his love for the ocean.

His interest in marine conservation originated from his love for dolphins and whales that he met at marine parks or aquariums.


Interestingly, the film has garnered huge amounts of interest, with a fair share of praise and criticism from environmentalists.

Among the top 10 popular shows on Netflix, both globally and in Singapore, the 90-minute film is one of the most watched shows on Netflix now -- quite a feat for any environmental-themed content.

The Guardian columnist George Monbiot, who's known for his environmental activism, lauded it as "a brilliant exposé" while a review of "Seaspiracy" in the New York Times called the documentary "a cheap imitation of hard-hitting investigative journalism".

A significant backlash towards "Seaspiracy" came from marine scientists and non-profit organisations -- those who have been working seriously on issues related to marine life on the ground.

So what's everyone talking about?

What can you learn from the film?

For many environmentalists or viewers who appreciate "Seaspiracy", the film has made an otherwise complex and dry issue easy for the layman to understand.

In fact, you probably won't get bored throughout the entire 90-minute show.

That's made possible by the eye-grabbing presentation of data, scenes of the couple risking their lives to capture rare footage, coupled with intense music and raw emotions of interviewees that add to the drama.

With much of the public attention on plastic pollution, the film has been lauded for raising awareness on issues that have been overshadowed, such as how abandoned fishing nets and gear harm marine creatures.

The film also educates viewers on the importance of blue carbon.

Oceans and mangroves absorb and store significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, and this means that keeping the marine environment and ecosystem healthy is important to saving humanity from climate change.

It also shows how tuna and sharks are being harvested at an alarming rate and unsustainable scale, and highlights how other fish can also be killed as "by catch" through destructive fishing methods like bottom trawling.

Dolphins are treated as pests and killed by fishermen as shown in a bloody and chaotic scene at Taiji in Japan.

The film also showed the acts of corruption and bribery, as well as slavery in the fishing industry, which challenges the effectiveness of sustainable labels and whether sustainable fishing is really possible.

What are the main criticisms?

"Seaspiracy" has, however, received backlash for factual inaccuracies and misrepresentation in order to make a persuasive case to appeal to viewers not to eat fish.

Factual inaccuracies

Marine scientists have called out the use of exaggerated and outdated data in the film.

For example, the film said that the ocean will be empty of fish by 2048 based on a research from 2006.

However, this prediction was already proven to be wrong in 2009.

The film claimed 46 per cent of ocean plastics consists of fishing nets without providing sufficient context, and therefore, misleads people into thinking that these fishing nets come from commercial fishing.

However, the founder of the Ocean Cleanup project, Boyan Slat, who's a co-author of that study, came forward to clarify that most of the fishing nets found in the oceans originated from rivers.

Marine biologist Bryce Steward also questioned a contradicting scene showing an abundant of marine life off the west coast of Africa when that part of the film supposedly highlights how commercial fishing is so destructive that it threatens the livelihoods of the locals.


For those who have watched the show, it's quite distinct who are the "good guys" and "bad guys", according to the soundbites selected from various interviews.

On one hand, you have non-profit group Sea Shepherd being profiled as one that would go all out to protect marine life and oceans, including sinking commercial fishing ships.

On the other hand, the credibility of two non-profit organisations, Plastic Pollution Coalition and Marine Steward Council (MSC), have taken a great hit from "Seaspiracy" as the film portrayed their spokespersons in a negative light.

The film then proceeded to conclude that there is no such thing as sustainable fishing and sustainable labels, as the certifications endorsed by MSC are just a conspiracy to make money to sustain the organisation.

The two organisations have since come forward to issue statements to address the "false claims" made by "Seaspiracy".

You can read them here and here.

Another interviewee, environmental scientist Christina Hicks, has also expressed her discomfort with the film.

To sum things up, what is concerning to marine scientists and community is how the film has done a "disservice to a number of organisations that are doing critical work to protect oceans and marine life".

Stop eating fish?

While "Seaspiracy" has its merits, it appears pretty one-sided in showing only the dark side of commercial fishing industry.

The film did not acknowledge the presence of effective fisheries management and ecological recovery achieved in real life.

The film culminates to a call to action at the end and that is calling upon the audience to stop eating fish entirely.

This is another point of contention.

Notably, world renowned marine scientist and fisheries expert Ray Hilborn dismissed the show as a "propaganda film made by vegan activists" and said it "contains more lies than a Donald Trump press conference".

Hilborn said in a video response to "Seaspiracy" that the film's call to action neglected the fact that many of the poorest people in the world depend on fisheries for food security and employment.

The Global Aquaculture Alliance echoed how the end of fishing will displace millions of people from employment and food source:

“Simply ending aquaculture and fishing, as the people behind Seaspiracy advocate for in the documentary, will do nothing but abandon the approximately 250 million people employed by the industry and rob billions of people of a healthful source of protein.”

Hilborn also challenged the call to action by arguing that fisheries management is "one of the most environment-friendly forms of food production" as it can be sustained in a natural ecosystem unlike any form of food production on land:

"Any move away from the ocean to land based food, whether animal or vegetable, will require more intensive agriculture which generally comes from clearing more land."

Top image via Seaspiracy/Instagram