OP-ED: Seaspiracy or Conspiracy? Truth and Hyperbole Behind the Controversial New Netflix Exposé on Fishing

Ali and Lucy Tabrizi’s documentary ‘Seaspiracy’ has caused a social media storm with accusations of inaccuracy and fisheries scientists accusing it of being “full of doom and gloom narrative” featuring “anti-fishing advocates”1. Judging by its ratings on Netflix, the film has certainly captured the public imagination, but is it misleading them to make bad diet and lifestyle choices? With the excitement Seaspiracy has caused, I sat down with anticipation – and a little trepidation – to see what it reveals and whether it fitted with my conceptions on what is going on in the ocean.

Seaspiracy is a personal story. Ali’s obsession with the ocean, like my own, was partially stimulated by the films of Jacques Cousteau, David Attenborough and others. Following the shocking revelations in the media and scientific literature on ocean plastic pollution, he became an activist campaigning to reduce single-use plastics. From there, he became engaged in fisheries sustainability, including overfishing, fisheries bycatch and hunting of whales. The film centers on overfishing and illegal fishing activities, focusing on bycatch, particularly cetaceans and sharks. Statistics are hurled at the viewer, along with graphics and neat animations, to highlight the scale of global fish catches and the destruction of ocean life by global fishing fleets.

Some of the numbers flashed across the screen are outdated. For example, the film states that commercial stocks will be destroyed by 20482, which comes from a 2006 study. The film also reveals that 40% of fish catches are bycatch, which is based on a study more than a decade old. This bycatch figure is notoriously difficult to estimate3 and is further complicated by operational changes in the fishing industry: fish that were discarded as worthless bycatch in the past are now retained and sold because of the depletion of more valuable species, and other socioeconomic factors. However, there is no doubt that a substantial proportion of global fish stocks are overfished – in fact, somewhere between a third to two-thirds of monitored stocks, depending on the studies you take as most credible4.

Furthermore, the statistics on bycatch are truly horrific. Seaspiracy points out that some 10,000 dolphins a year are killed in fisheries off the French Atlantic coast, a figure I find wholly consistent with recent peer-reviewed scientific papers5. The annual mortality of sea mammals (whales, dolphins, seals, manatees and dugongs) has been estimated to be as high as 650,000 a year6. In 2011, fisheries using baited lines of hooks (longlines) were reported to potentially kill more than 320,000 albatrosses, petrels, shearwaters and other seabirds7. Just this year, a paper in the prestigious journal Nature reports that in the early 2000s, between 63-273 million sharks were caught in fisheries globally, sending populations spiraling into decline8 as a result. Since 1970, the abundance of oceanic sharks and rays has declined by 71% and three-quarters of these species are now threatened with extinction. Seaspiracy’s figures on the slaughter of sharks seem to be, if anything, conservative.

Crime in fisheries is now a well-recognized issue amongst international law enforcement agencies9. Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing counts for about a fifth of the global marine fish catch10. Issues of slavery, violence and murder, sexual exploitation, and the smuggling of people, drugs and arms are all associated with illegal or poorly regulated fishing. Seaspiracy highlights this with a focus on Africa and Thailand. There is no doubt that IUU fishing impacts poor coastal fishing communities, particularly in Africa, and is associated with hideous human rights abuses. What Seaspiracy implies is that some States are actively covering up these activities or ignoring them. Government collusion in the deliberate destruction of fish stocks globally is rife, particularly in the High Seas, the water beyond national jurisdiction. Witness the recent headlines regarding large Chinese fishing fleets taking squid outside the Galapagos Islands or off Argentina or in the Indian Ocean11. In 2015, a Thai fishing fleet targeted the Saya de Malha Bank, a unique marine ecosystem in the Indian Ocean between the Seychelles and Mauritius, collapsing the target fish stock in two years12 and doing untold damage to a submarine plateau harboring rich seagrass beds, corals, sponges and other marine life. These poorly regulated fisheries are going on now, not ten, twenty or thirty years ago.

Given government failures in managing fisheries, private initiatives were developed to certify sustainable fisheries. The largest of these ecolabelling schemes, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), is severely criticized in Seaspiracy for certifying fisheries with high bycatch of other marine life. A representative from the Earth Island Institute’s Dolphin-Friendly Tuna label is forced to admit that there is little credible evidence that certified tuna are indeed “dolphin friendly”. Given the proliferation of different eco-labelling schemes, this is a very worrying message that leaves the public very confused. The MSC has now certified fisheries representing 12% of the global catch13. Unilever set up the scheme, as reported by Tabrizi, and WWF, which was not mentioned. While the MSC has led to improvements in fisheries’ sustainability overall, there are still weaknesses, particularly in its assessment of environmental impacts of fishing such as bycatch and habitat destruction14. This is a weakness shared by other certification schemes and reflects a lack of clear policy by governments on sustainability standards with respect to such impacts, as well as the technical difficulties in assessing them. Clearly, there is an urgent need for improvement in this respect.

Another eco-labelling study found that the Dolphin-Friendly Tuna label scheme lacks transparency in how certification is awarded or how compliance with the label conditions are monitored15. It seems Tabrizi’s “gotcha” moment, in this case, is justified. As to the other, frankly embarrassing interviews with non-governmental organizations, it is imperative that such bodies ensure they have a broad and accurate knowledge of ocean issues that go beyond their areas of expertise. Campaigns must be consistent with current knowledge, and communications to civil society must be clear and unambiguous.

The overall conclusion of Seaspiracy is that we should stop eating fish, not just because of destructive fishing but because they are contaminated with pollutants such as mercury and do us harm. Here is one aspect of the documentary that was a distortion of the truth. Heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants accumulate up the marine food chain, so large predatory fish such as tuna, swordfish and sharks, and mammals like whales do concentrate potentially harmful levels of pollutants. However, eating smaller fish, particularly species which prey on plankton, poses little risk16 and is indeed critical in the diets of people from some developing countries and island states to provide protein and nutrients for healthy lives17. From the perspective of citizens of wealthy countries, we have the luxury of being able to select whether or not we eat fish; others do not.

To sum up, Seaspiracy is a hard watch, showing the brutality of how we treat the other sentient beings of our planet. It contains errors and sometimes presents only part of the story to suit the narrative or just confusing incomplete information. At its core, however, it reveals the shocking truth that unsustainable fishing is destroying the biodiversity of the ocean, with clear knowledge of the authorities in charge of fisheries management and with dire consequences for humankind. This is the real conspiracy.

If you are interested in exploring these topics further, I recommend the following:

Industrial Fishing
End of the Line by Charles Clover Book and Film
The Unnatural History of the Sea by Callum Roberts
Ocean of Life by Callum Roberts
Four Fish by Paul Greenberg

Destructive Fishing and Hunting
The Deep: The Hidden Wonders of Our Oceans and How We Can Protect Them by Alex Rogers

Enslaved Fishermen
Ghost Fleet

Crime in International Waters
The Outlaw Ocean by Ian Urbina

Whale Hunting
Stacey Dooley Investigates The Whale Hunters
The Cove
Black Fish
Leviathan or, The Whale by Philip Hoare


You can read the MSC’s response to Seaspiracy here.


  1. https://tinyletter.com/SustainableFisheriesUW/letters/a-library-of-resources-to-combat-ocean-misinformation
  2. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/314/5800/787/tab-pdf
  3. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308597X09000050
  4. For example: http://www.fao.org/documents/card/en/c/ca9229en/ and https://www.pnas.org/content/113/18/5125?source=post_elevate_sequence_page
  5. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/aqc.3212 and https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2351989419303671
  6. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0967064517300644
  7. https://www.int-res.com/abstracts/esr/v14/n2/p91-106
  8. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-03173-9?fbclid=IwAR38qUnFZxDeFHrg_TtJfPkeiMvCqVAWGBejD8bRtON0Lr9LTFLAwgIqPkk
  9. For example: https://oceanpanel.org/sites/default/files/2020-08/Organised%20Crime%20in%20the%20Fisheries%20Sector%20Full%20Paper%20Final.pdf
  10. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0004570
  11. For example: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/sep/17/chinese-fishing-armada-plundered-waters-around-galapagos-data-shows and https://www.maritime-executive.com/article/report-china-s-squid-fishing-fleet-has-discovered-the-indian-ocean and https://www.maritime-executive.com/editorials/south-america-plans-regional-response-to-china-s-squid-fleet
  12. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0967064519301407
  13. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1086026619831449
  14. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/jfb.13928 and https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308597X20302736 and https://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/csp2.3
  15. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652614001930
  16. For example: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10408398.2012.742985
  17. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/public-health-nutrition/article/potential-role-of-small-fish-species-in-improving-micronutrient-deficiencies-in-developing-countries-building-evidence/C49790032DD4E921C33CD145402B7C3A

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