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Boycotting seafood will not save the seas

Published on
April 19, 2021

The Netflix documentary Seaspiracy ranks in the top 10 most watched films on the streaming platform. Its message is clear, to save the seas we have the stop eating fish. In reality the answer isn’t so simple. Professor Simon Bush, chairholder of the Environmental Policy group, and colleagues respond critically in this opinion piece published on the NRC Climateblog on April 16th, 2021.

Boycotting seafood will not save the seas

The Netflix documentary Seaspiracy ranks in the top 10 most watched films on the streaming platform. Its message is clear, to save the seas we have the stop eating fish. In reality the answer isn’t so simple.

The film has led to an explosion of debate around the world. Politicians, sports stars, and a wide range of celebrities, have expressed shock over what they’ve watched, followed by pledges to no longer buy and consume seafood. But at the same time academics and NGOs alike have expressed their own shock at the film’s use of dated science, misleading statements, unethical interviews and flat-out inaccuracies. Seaspiracy has reduced an important area of public debate to be fought on emotion, not fact.

So what did the film get right?

It raises awareness on overfishing and fishing practices such as shark finning. Yes, there have been serious human rights abuses in the fishing industry. Yes, there is competition between industrial and small scale fishing fleets for some fish stocks. Yes, some aquaculture production has led to substantial environmental impacts. Yes, unsustainable fisheries are being subsidised by public money. And yes, a large volume of plastic, including fishing gear, is making its way into the oceans.

Food security

The problem is that the film misleads viewers on the current status and magnitude of nearly all of these concerns. It’s ‘solution’, to boycott fish, is also oblivious to the critical role fishing plays in supporting food and livelihood security around the world.

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Fish stocks are not going to collapse by 2048. The authors of this claim published in 2006 faced significant critique have since contributed analysis showing that this figure is indeed not realistic. Their later work shows that the number of well-managed fish stocks around the world, rules that avoid overfishing, are in fact increasing.

It is not true that a third of fish entering the US, and by extension other major importers like the Netherlands, is illegal. Concerns that the volumes of illegal fish were so high also comes from a study that was also subject to intense scrutiny and shown to be a gross over estimation.

Human rights abuses in the seafood industry are real, but not universal. Human rights organisations recognise that Thailand has made considerable, if not complete progress, in ridding the industry of abuses, including far reaching regulatory reform. The EU and US have also used their trade position to put in far reaching transparency measures to overcome these abuses – abroad and in their own fishing fleets. Halting the industry, instead of guaranteeing improved working conditions, would have a huge negative impact on the livelihoods of millions of people.

Seafood is a fundamental source of protein and nutrition for more than 3.3 billion people around the world.

Fishing rights

Sustainability is always open to debate, but there are clear working definitions developed and used by fisheries scientists – it in fact defines their job. Of real concern is the politics of allocating fishing rights and setting catch levels higher than science recommends – a process that has considerable oversight by NGOs, including some of those involved in the film like Oceana.

Seafood is not full of pollutants. Some large top predators have been associated with mercury and some farmed fish poses a concern for antibiotic use. But absolute statements that fish is not healthy is misleading. Seafood is recognised as a healthy dietary choice, including in the Netherlands. It is also one of the most heavily regulated and transparently monitored sectors in the food industry.

MSC quality mark

The Marine Stewardship Council does not receive direct payment from the fisheries certified against its standard. Consumers can be assured that the seafood they certify has undergone considerable scrutiny on where, how and under what rules the fish was caught. Certified fishers, including those from Iceland pointed to in the film, are held to account for poor performance through suspension or removal from the programme. The MSC’s label, like other reputable programmes for fisheries and aquaculture, remains one of the few ways consumers can make informed choices.

Aquaculture already delivers half of the seafood we eat and holds considerable potential to contribute more. The sector continues to address  a range of issues – including, as the film outlines, sea lice and antibiotic use in salmon and mangrove deforestation in shrimp. But reducing aquaculture to industrial shrimp and salmon, representing around 5% of global production, ignores the 425 species grown throughout the world, and that some species, like mussels grown in the Netherlands, can have a net positive impact on the environment.

Putting aside the economic and environmental cost of land-based foods (including vegetables), boycotting fish is a conceivable choice when living in a country with real dietary choices like the Netherlands. But seafood (including freshwater species) are a fundamental source of protein and nutrition for more than 3.3 billion people around the world. For many of the poorest it is their only source of essential nutrients. Veganism, as proposed in Seaspiracy, is a choice for some people, but by no means for everyone. To advocate otherwise is a privileged position that ignores the real challenges of ensuring a sustainable food system we can all depend on.