Cultures Film & TV

Netflix’s Seaspiracy – a Controversial Cry for Help

Illustration by Ben Beechener

Opening up Netflix one lazy Sunday afternoon, I scrolled through the Top 10 trending list and came across a striking title: Seaspiracy. Netflix described the film as “controversial, provocative, investigative”, so I naturally decided to watch it. I haven’t eaten the same since. Neither have other viewers I know of. 

Unlike other flash in the pan Netflix sensations, Seaspiracy seems to have had a long-lasting effect on its audience. I used to eat fish daily, but this past week I haven’t entertained the idea of eating any. The film’s persuasive power is undeniable. 

Presented by Ali Tabrizi, 27, Seaspiracy sets out to expose the underbelly of the fishing industry: pollution of the oceans. According to the documentary, fishing has reached an intensity to which it will destroy the seas by 2048. Seaspiracy argues that fishing trading can even lead to mafia-style crime and deaths. A small, but important, part of the documentary which I particularly admired was the quantity of facts cited throughout, grounding the content in reality rather than conspiracy theory, which the title teased.

There is a fast-paced, exciting narrative, similar to that of a thriller movie. Ali Tabrizi is transformed into a protagonist instead of a presenter, taking the audience along as he delves deeper into the fish market. Clearly, the production team have altered the reality of the investigations to make it appear this way, but it nevertheless makes for an engaging discussion – if it were a Netflix limited series instead of a film, I doubt audiences would resist being able to watch it in one sitting.

Seaspiracy illustrates two scales of responsibility: the individual and large companies. Tabrizi implores individuals not to trust food labels, claiming they are difficult to assess and warning of potential assessor bribery. It has made me more wary about trusting labels, especially those which promise to be ‘safe’ for bycatch such as dolphins, unnecessarily killed in large fishing nets. An acknowledgment that not every label is disingenuous would have been better than the ‘trust nobody’ approach, but the warnings doubtless make viewers look at labels the way they look at nutrition labels, which they may have not given a second glance previously.

George Monbiot, alumnus of Brasenose College, discussed what stayed with me most vividly after the documentary ended: that 46% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is composed of fishing nets. Too often do we hear on the news of plastic bags and straws (i.e. actions of individuals) destroying the environment, and yet Seaspiracy is a welcome change in this narrative, calling both individuals and businesses to account rather than just one group. However, in doing so, Seaspiracy has received many complaints from small, local fishing companies, who were given no distinction from large companies. I feel that the film would have greatly benefitted from a debate section, instead of a series of one-on-one interviews. Such a manner would, I am sure, have anticipated and prevented the onslaught of backlash for various matters presented. 

Further to the documentary’s downfall, there seems to be a pronounced Western bias throughout. It opens with a focus on Japan, then transitions to Hong Kong, and the viewer is left with predominantly ‘Eastern’ problems being exposed. Scotland’s salmon industry, which Seaspiracy claims dyes grey salmon pink, is examined, but then attention quickly returns to ‘Eastern’ fishing, namely Thailand, which is presented as having inhumane working conditions. Whilst these issues should be addressed, surely there are more Western wrongdoings than the disproportionate few included?

Hope is the ruling emotion in the closing minutes, giving the audience a well-deserved uplift from the heavy and dark scenes which dominate Seaspiracy. “I realised 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,” Tabrizi concludes. However, a flaw to this which cannot be overlooked was spoken of only around half an hour prior. Professor Christina Hicks claims that taxpayers pay the fishing industries around US $35,000,000,000 in subsidies worldwide, which is enough money to solve world hunger. Therefore, dietary changes are somewhat futile, as the problematic businesses are paid via taxes anyway. This point should have marked a change in the themes discussed, logically followed by Tabrizi then exploring this and offering some sort of solution to the apparent futility of diet changes. Hicks’ claim is not addressed again, easily undermining the entire documentary for someone less willing to accept its presentations.
Although there are issues with the portrayal of its ideas, Seaspiracy generally makes for a thought-provoking watch. It is commendable to see an investigation into the unspoken damages done to our oceans and expose less well-known responsible parties. The fact that the film has reached such a large, mainstream audience is testament to its overall success in making people rethink the way they contribute to environmental damage.

To learn more about the environmental issues raised in this article, read Max Spokes’ column: Seaspiracy Lays Bare Our Societal Detachment from the Natural World