Photo by Michelle Mendieta Mean

Whilst Karl Marx noted our alienation from labour, it is clear that we are becoming increasingly alienated from what we consume, with devastating consequences.

I’m sure many of you will have watched the Netflix documentary Seaspiracy, directed by the filmmaker Ali Tabrizi. If you haven’t, watch it now. Come back to this later. It exposes the destructive nature of the industrial fishing industry, from whaling and shark finning, to salmon and shrimp farming.

Even more worryingly, it highlights the extent to which these issues have not only not been underdiscussed, but actively swept under the carpet by some of the leading environmental groups around the world.

In fact, the only environmental groups that come out of the documentary with credibility are Sea Shepherd – the UK-based direct-action marine conservation charity – and Greenpeace, which has a 50-year history of taking action against destructive whaling and fishing, up to its present-day ‘boulder barriers’ dropped in the English Channel against bottom trawlers.

At the heart of the problem emphasised by Tabrizi is a complete lack of accountability or connection between the consumer at one end – buying fish at a supermarket or eating shark-fin soup as a symbol of wealth – and the producer at the other, i.e., the mammoth fishing boats, or industrial killing factories as George Monbiot calls them.

As Monbiot says, the notion of small red fishing boats going out to sea with small nets and bringing in their day’s catch to sell at the market is just a total fallacy, at least for the overwhelming majority of the fish we eat.

I say we, but I haven’t eaten fish since I became a vegetarian in the Summer of 2018. In fact, the last piece of fish I ate was down in Key West, Florida. I can’t remember what fish it was, but the shack-type place we ate at served whole grilled fish that had been caught that afternoon by l pole-and-line fishing. In that sense, I went out on a high!

Fishing this way has many benefits: it doesn’t come with the bycatch of trawlers, it mitigates against overfishing, and for the people catching the fish, it brings them directly into contact with their labour, rather than the detached process of industrial fishing, lowering down cavernous nets which scrape against the ocean floor causing devastation to the habitats which support the whole marine food chain.

Enough of the self-validation, for what is the worth of one person not eating fish if they do not encourage others to do the same? Not eating fish is a start, yet of course this should not be over-emphasised in terms of impact. Focusing on individual actions, blaming or shaming individuals for eating certain things is definitely not the road I want to go down in this column, as it is counterproductive and distracts us from the bigger picture. Our focus should be on pressuring governments to end subsidies, or attach conditions to subsidies, handed out to the fishing industry, and campaigning for a comprehensive global treaty which effectively protects the world’s oceans, ensuring that vital marine habitats are properly protected from fishing.

Furthermore, we must support organisations who are campaigning against industrial fishing, such as Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace. You can give one-time donations or regular direct-debits to both of these organisations, and I would strongly encourage you to do so, if of course you are in a position to be able to afford this.

Returning to Seaspiracy, and some of the shocking things that it brings up, what was equally shocking to me was that I had little idea of the sheer scale of the destruction of industrial fishing.

Just a few facts from the documentary:

  • 90% of the world’s large fish have been wiped out by fishing.
  • 300,000 dolphins, whales and porpoises are killed in fishing nets each year, along with 30,000 sharks per HOUR.
  • 3.9 billion acres of seafloor is destroyed every year by trawling, in comparison with 25 million acres of deforested land per year.

Alongside the tens of billions of dollars in fishing subsidies worldwide, in particular from wealthy countries such as the USA, Japan, and the EU, it is these same governments that, aided by the media, focus so much of our attention on plastic straws or debating whether plastic bags should cost 5p, that we are oblivious to the much greater issue of overfishing.

Discourse and narrative are at the centre of this: as Monbiot asks, why do we call marine life seafood?

Marine life is not simply for our consumption and plunder, the sea is not our food no more than rivers are our drink. Yes, we rely fundamentally on the natural world to sustain our existence, but its purpose is not to sustain our existence.

Nature is the source of all life, not the resource for just ours, and until we fundamentally reorient society’s mindset away from the latter statement, and conclusively towards the former, we will continue to tilt our imbalanced relationship with the planet past an irreversible tipping point.

Seaspiracy has opened our eyes to an issue we should have been focusing on from the start. I mean, it makes perfect sense doesn’t it? If 80% of all life on Earth is in the oceans, and if oceans play a “central role in regulating the Earth’s climate,” (IUCN), then first and foremost, action to tackle the climate and ecological crises must start at sea.

As a society, we are alienated from the natural world that sustains us, inhabitants of a home that is being threatened like never before. Our knowledge of, and complicity in, this destruction is being always blinded from us by those very same corporations, industries and governments who divert our attention to “micro-consumerist bullshit” as Monbiot succinctly puts it.

Yet this need not, should not, and cannot continue, and it is up to every one of us to change, both individually, and, more importantly, to work together to achieve systemic change at a societal level.

ACTION: This starts with what we do today. If you haven’t watched Seaspiracy, then do. If you don’t have Netflix, find someone who does. Visit Seaspiracy’s website to educate yourself, and find out how to support organisations working to protect the oceans. Stop eating fish. Lastly, watch this video by George Monbiot for Double Down News about consumerism – it is enlightening!

Pura vida,

Max.

Max Spokes

Max (he/him) was formerly Environment News Editor and Climate Columnist at The Blue. He is in his final year studying History and Politics at Balliol.