July 26, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Ariana Loehr dives into Netflix’s latest documentary, factoring in critique from the marine biologist community

Ariana Loehr
16th April 2021

Since Netflix released ‘Seaspiracy’ on the 24th of March, the realm of marine biology Instagram has been in a frenzy. This scientific sphere has primarily been focused on exposing inaccurate statistics taken from discredited papers, and calling out the lack of diversity in interviewees and messaging. But despite these downfalls, ‘Seaspiracy’ should still be considered a win for marine biologists. In just a few weeks it has managed to raise marine issues to millions of non-scientists and at time of writing a few weeks after release, is trending fifth on Netflix in the UK.

In this documentary, British filmmaker and activist Ali Tabrizi works to uncover major problems concerning our oceans. We follow his thought process as he moves through the marine advocacy trends that have been thrown at us on YouTube from watching a plastic straw being removed from a sea turtle’s nose to the 2009 documentary ‘The Cove’, where Hayden Panettiere visits Japan to learn about the dolphin hunt. Both of these stories are comfortable – we feel like we can do something about them by avoiding single use plastics and eating dolphin safe seafood. However, Ali pushes further to unpack how these viral videos and movements are just a drop in the ocean when it comes to protecting marine environments. As the film progresses, he uncovers layers upon layers of issues.  

The documentary quickly pivots to highlight all that is wrong with the commercial fishing industry, and there is a lot. From plastics, to bycatch and slavery, he barely has time to skim the surface of each topic. In the end there is no magical solution to this tangle of complex problems. His only real suggestion for audiences was to stop eating seafood altogether. It was difficult to figure out if this was Ali’s objective in the production of this documentary, and if it was then he’s unlikely to achieve this goal.  

If broad exposure to the corruption in the commercial fishing industry was the intention, then Ali managed to hit a home run. Many of the topics are all too familiar to those like myself who have worked in marine biology and left me nodding along throughout the film and it is great to see non-biologists talking about marine policy and having thoughtful debates of what a sustainable fishing industry might look like. Realistically, most viewers will not give up eating fish altogether, so some alternatives would have been helpful, but by leaving the film open-ended, audiences can discuss these issues and make informed choices for themselves.

The elephant in the room with this film is the alarming statistics. Some of these statistics are so drastic that they seem unreal and that is because they are. But none of us at I,Science are here to fact check this film (if you’re interested, check out this page). When watching this film with my non-ecologist housemates, one of them gasped at the empty oceans by 2048 proclamation (a stat that has been continually debated the past 15 years). Later my housemate mentioned that he didn’t think that this fact was true, and even went so far as to say about the entire film, “well, I think most of it is true”. But what exactly is planting these seeds of doubt? Unfortunately, by stating only the most drastic statistics, Ali has given himself too much room to be wrong.

The title of the documentary itself implies a conspiracy, where it is difficult to determine truth from fiction and Ali’s casual approach to researching the topic of ocean exploitation makes him both relatable and unreliable. While his thought process may be familiar to the film’s audience members, it makes him come across as inexperienced. The fact that he nearly exclusively interviews Sea Shepherd advocates, that are widely considered on the verge of being an eco-terrorist group, doesn’t help. Sylvia Earle, while possibly the most famous marine biologist to date, is also known for her extreme viewpoints. What we all need to understand about this film is that Ali is not a scientist, just a passionate advocate for the oceans. If we take this approach to viewing the film, we can leave with a bit more empathy for him, and understand that we all need to do our own research to cover more sides of this story.

It’s perfectly reasonable for marine biologists to be upset about this film. In addition to the issue of statistics and interview subjects, NGO’s are painted as part of the cover up, rather than looking for solutions, and the word ‘sustainable’ is often vilified as impossible. Equally, not all non-vegan practices are unethical, and the Seaspiracy Instagram page found itself taking down a petition against Canadian seal fishing because it didn’t consider the necessity of the practice for Indigenous communities. However, Ali’s goal to inform well-off Western audiences is justified, and it doesn’t detract from the truth that there are atrocities happening at sea. 

It would be great to see individuals from all age groups and sectors continue the discussions that this movie has started. This is an incredibly complex problem, so we will need to help in seeking more complex and practical solutions. Cutting down on fish bought at fast food restaurants or chain supermarkets is a good place to start, as is limiting single use plastics. From there we need to find sustainable options for our cat food, engineer safer non-plastic fishing nets and continue developing laws to help police our oceans. The list goes on and on. For now though, go watch ‘Seaspiracy’ and learn more from those who have dedicated their lives to protecting our seas by joining the exciting conversations of marine biology instagram.

Seaspiracy is available to stream on Netflix here:
https://www.netflix.com/title/81014008

For more resources on marine ecosystems, check out the following marine biologists on Instagram: Ocean Conservancy, Asha De Vos, Christina Mittermier, Rafid Shidqi