Ali Tabrizi’s 2021 Netflix documentary Seaspiracy casts a wide net with its broad coverage of marine environmental issues around the globe. From plastic pollution, to whaling and commercial fishing, to the role that nongovernmental organizations play in the protection of sea spaces—the film tackles the ambitious task of identifying the human-induced challenges facing Earth’s largest biome, the ocean. As a geography scholar/educator, I am reluctant to critique a young documentarian whose stated, earnest goal is to “embark on a film about just how incredible the oceans are.” In academic institutions we regularly encourage engagement among next generation scholars and activists, and Tabrizi is committed to unpacking some of the ocean’s most pressing environment threats in this ninety-minute film. Much like its predecessor, Cowspiracy –which explores the impact of agriculture on the environment—the “conspiracy” in Seaspiracy angles to expose the deceptive processes that undermine oceanic systems and ultimately work to do these spaces harm.
“Popular and scholarly criticisms of Seaspiracy are right to take aim at several of the film’s imprecise, hyperbolic claims about fishing, some of which are either distorted or not supported by sound marine science.”
Popular and scholarly criticisms of Seaspiracy are right to take aim at several of the film’s imprecise, hyperbolic claims about fishing, some of which are either distorted or not supported by sound marine science. Midway through the documentary Tabrizi explains how, based on current trends, the oceans will be fished out by 2048, a claim that has been broadly disputed by various scholars. This does not suggest that our oceans are free from peril, rather that we must lean on researchers to best clarify or debunk Seaspiracy’s cinematic assertions. Similarly, science communicators have questioned the journalistic ethics of Tabrizi’s team given the way in which staff of established organizations like the Plastic Collective are cornered into impromptu interviews that are then taken out of context. Most of us who work in maritime communities, or alongside environmental non-governments know well that environmental efficacy and action is not a zero-sum game, nor can environmental successes be measured in binary terms.
In one memorable clip, Tabrizi interviews staff members of the Plastics Collective about commercial fishing on the high seas. Through selective editing this scene works to undermine the validity of the group’s extraordinary accomplishments. In contrast, Sea Shepherd Society’s Paul Watson’s rehearsed reflections are infused neatly into the documentary. He is not subject to the same interrogation techniques employed for those who did not fit squarely with the film’s narrative. These parts of the film are steeped in irony given the way in which some interviewees serve as a kind of human bycatch, trapped in a fishing net like other incidental take.
Seaspiracy, Piracy, and Food Insecurity
That said, there are several things that Seaspiracy gets right. Tabrizi, for instance, provides a glimpse into West African fisheries by portraying how commercial fleets—many of them pirate vessels—illegally troll the Eastern Atlantic and hoover away one of the region’s primary protein sources. In one scene Tabrizi films a fisherman standing in a small pirogue signaling to a larger industrial vessel that he is hungry (placing his hand to mouth), a clip that effectively illustrates how piracy exacerbates existing food insecurity in the region. But while audiences are bolstered by this footnote on West African fisheries, this segment represents a missed opportunity to amplify the work of small scale fisherfolk around the world who are “getting it right.” The image of the hungry, impoverished fisherman deploys age-old tropes about Africa, the “warring, marginalized, unfixable continent” (Moorman 2014).
I work in West Africa, a resource rich region that boasts a set of diverse fishing grounds that not only form the mainstay of local economies, but also contribute to the region’s long standing cultural identity. In Senegal and The Gambia, for instance, tens of thousands of hand carved wooden pirogues ply these coastal waters in pursuit of dorade, thiouf, and capitaine, and they do so at an artisanal (or human scale) with a reverence for the sea that is rooted in faith-based traditions (Islam, Christian, African religions) and community-based models of resource extraction. Trolling the coastal waters of Senegal, you’ll find that plastics pollution and climate change (along with commercial fishing) remain very real threats to both the inshore environment and the livelihoods of marine-dependent communities. But Seaspiracy, whether intentionally or otherwise, tosses a red herring into its discourse on ocean conservation by suggesting that plastics are not as devastating as we’d once thought. Cultural geography tells us otherwise; that is, local threats to the oceanic realm can be multi-causal and are linked spatially to larger political economic systems unfolding at the global scale.
Seaspiracy in the Faroe Islands
One of the final scenes of Seaspiracy—in which Tabrizi and his partner Lucy visit the Faroe Islands—gives viewers a chance to better understand artisanal whaling, specifically, and sustainability, more generally, through a glimpse into the lives of one of the most maligned maritime groups in the world. Every year for a thousand years the Faroe Islanders have engaged in “the Grind,” a harvest in which residents of the North Atlantic archipelago of 48,000 corral, corner, and slaughter by hand hundreds of pilot whales for local consumption.
“I finally understood sustainability. It means that something could go on and on forever, regardless how much suffering it causes. In the end, the Grind was about as sustainable as you can get.”Ali Tabrizi
For outsiders not familiar with the environmental constraints of the North Atlantic the Grind is devastating to witness, and Tabrizi’s recorded emotional response after witnessing the bloodied waters makes the cinematic experience a visceral one for audiences. I held my breath as I waited for the Faroese hunters to once again be depicted as villains in a mainstream documentary. But Tabrizi surprises us by not only including a thoughtful interview with Faroese whaler Jens Morten Rasmussen, but by remarking: “I finally understood sustainability. It means that something could go on and on forever, regardless how much suffering it causes. In the end, the Grind was about as sustainable as you can get.”
I’d be remiss if I did not share that I am an environmental and cultural geographer who for twenty years has studied small scale fishing and whaling communities around the globe. Over time I’ve observed that whether it is Makah whalers in the US Pacific Northwest or Faroese in the North Atlantic, critics tend to focus more on the kill than the culture of these seafaring groups, many of whom live at the margins of the planet. But it would be a mistake to divorce marine livelihood practices from the perceptions and worldviews of these culture groups that work and dwell near or around water. The Faroe Islands is also home to the largest concentration of migratory birds in the world, a site where cormorants, puffins, and shearwaters regularly wheel above in the fabled cliffs of Vestmanna.
Like the Grind, the Faroese ritually harvest some of these puffins in a tradition known as the fleygastong, a practice which has been condemned by many members of the environmental community. Yet while the Grind and Fleygastong are visible and sometimes brutal processes, the practices are inextricably rooted in specific cultural traditions dating back generations in North Atlantic history. I’ve worked with both Faroese and Makah in the field and have come to appreciate their reverence for the natural world and their direct, tangible connection to it. This represents a sharp contrast to my own backyard, where the local slaughterhouse—one of the largest facilities of its kind in the world— “processes” nearly 3,000 cattle per day in a predominantly windowless building. Thanks to the staff at the local plant, I’m able to regularly ferry students to the facility so they can better understand industrial food production as well the laborers who toil there, but this is not a typical experience.
Reimagining the Fishing Industry
“The documentary left me craving more nuance and a desire to reimagine the fishing industry through the lens of different geographic scales. Any subject as vast as the ocean requires a finer resolution for not only understanding the science, but culture, too.”
Nearly fifteen years ago, Richard Louv wrote that the greatest steps we can make to support nature and the outdoors is to reconnect young people to this realm so that they can better appreciate the environment and learn to advocate on behalf of it. Yet much of what we glean about marine fisheries today is derived from secondhand experiences such as films, lectures, and social media. While this provides a gateway for knowledge, there is ample evidence from the field of marine neuroscience that more visceral experiences in, around, on, and under water are equally critical for human and planetary health. Given its audience Netflix has a broad global reach with films such as Seaspiracy, one that allows us to continue an important conversation about the ocean. But the documentary left me craving more nuance and a desire to reimagine the fishing industry through the lens of different geographic scales. Any subject as vast as the ocean requires a finer resolution for not only understanding the science, but culture, too.