‘We know seafood is a healthy and sustainable choice’: Industry reacts to ‘extreme’ and ‘misleading’ Netflix documentary

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags Seafood Fishing Sustainability

The seafood industry has hit back at a controversial film about the impact of commercial fishing.

‘Seaspiracy’, made with the backing of Hollywood star and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio, has been trending on the streaming service since its release on March 24.

The film puts into question the idea of sustainable fishing, claiming the likes of Dolphin Safe and Marine Stewardship Council labels may not provide adequate assurances for consumers.

It further claims seafood is tainted with slave labour and human rights abuses and is causing irrevocable harm to ocean life. Among its claims are that Bluefin tuna have become critically endangered because of overfishing; farmed salmon are raised in lice-plagued waters and the fish are “swimming in circles in their own filth”; and that the oceans will be empty of fish in 27 years, and become a barren ocean wasteland – leading to our own extinction.

But seafood organisations say the film contains misleading claims and erroneous statistics and merely highlights the known problems in the fishing industry.

MSC certification: too easy and not credible?

On the film’s claim that ‘MSC certification is too easy and not credible’, the independent not-for-profit that was set up by WWF and Unilever over 20 years ago to address concerns about overfishing, said the certification process is transparent and independently carried out by assessment bodies.

“There are more than 400 MSC certified fisheries around the world,”​ it said. “Only fisheries that meet the rigorous requirements of our Standard get certified. Contrary to what the film-makers say, certification is not an easy process, and some fisheries spend many years improving their practices in order to reach our standard. In fact, our analysis shows that the vast majority of fisheries that carry out pre-assessments against our criteria, do not meet these and need to make significant improvements to gain certification.”

No such thing as sustainable fishing?

On the film’s ‘there is no such thing as sustainable fishing’ claim, the MSC said fish stocks “can recover and replenish if they are managed carefully for the long-term”. ​Examples of stocks that have come back from the brink include the Patagonian toothfish in the Southern Oceans and Namibian hake. It added that “fish stocks that are well-managed and sustainable are also more productive in the long-term, meaning there is more seafood for our growing global population, which is set to reach 10 billion by 2050”.

On the accusation MSC certified fisheries have unacceptable levels of bycatch, it said there are numerous positive examples of MSC certified fisheries introducing innovations to protect marine life, such as modifying gear type to decrease turtle bycatch or adding LED lights to increase the selectivity of catch. Among some notable achievements by MSC certified fisheries, it said, is a rock lobster fishery in Australia that reduced its bycatch of sea lions and a hake fishery in South Africa that reduced its bycatch of albatross by 99%.

The MSC added: “While we disagree with much of what the Seaspiracy documentary-makers say, one thing we do agree with is that there is a crisis of overfishing in our oceans. However, millions around the world rely on seafood for their protein needs. With the global population set to reach 10 billion by 2050, the need to harness our natural resources more responsibly is more urgent than ever. Sustainable fishing has a vital role to play in securing those resources.”

‘Films like this are designed to shock’

The film “paints a challenging and, at times, extreme picture of an industry that is vital to feeding a growing global population,”​ said Aoife Martin, Operations Director at Seafish, which supports the UK seafood sector.

“It would be easy to think that these practices are the norm and to tar the whole industry with the same brush. But films like this are designed to shock and it doesn’t always suit to highlight the good work that is happening in the UK and beyond to ensure our fisheries are managed sustainably.

“We also know the global seafood industry isn’t perfect and nobody could condone the horrendous activities highlighted in Seaspiracy. Fortunately, these activities are rare in the UK and there are plenty of reasons to have confidence in the industry that produces the seafood we eat.”

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation in 2020, 78.7% of wild caught seafood comes from sustainably managed fisheries, she pointed out, while seafood is the only animal protein we are encouraged to eat more of by Public Health England and the World Health Organisation.

She pointed to the Seafood Ethics Action Alliance​ -- established by seafood processing and retail businesses to share information on emerging global issues and to agree best practice solutions so that the welfare of fishing industry workers is protected – and the Global Ghost Gear Initiative​ as an example of the industry actively tackling its contribution to marine plastic pollution.

“We know that not every fishery is sustainably managed but time and time again we see the seafood industry, environmental groups and scientists working together to drive improvements in fisheries management through a global network of Fisheries Improvement Projects (FIPs).”

She added: “There is more to be done though and the seafood industry and research community are working together to better understand the carbon footprint of seafood, and to find ways to reduce it. We expect this to become a priority for the seafood industry and for consumers over the coming years.”

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