A Review of the Netflix Documentary “Seaspiracy” (Opinion)

By: Nora Germain

Over the weekend I stumbled on a new environmental documentary on Netflix that received quite a lot of buzz in the climate section of Twitter and other places on the internet. Impressively, it has held steady in the top 10 section of the streaming platform, which is no small feat for a documentary, especially of the environmental genre. The film is called “Seaspiracy” and it is a modern, urgent, stunning piece of art (and news, frankly) that takes us into the world of commercial fishing, the poaching of wildlife in our seas and a culture of blind consumerism. It was stunning.

This film is incredibly emotional, and at times feels dangerous not only for the filmmakers but for the viewer. Many documentaries throughout the decades have attempted to explain to casual viewers why the oceans are so vital for our planet’s overall health, why their heat and carbon-trapping powers are vital to our survival, and why we should all care about protecting our oceans’ wildlife. David Attenborough’s most recent film “A Life On Our Planet” touches on this as well (also available to stream on Netflix). 

However, “Seaspiracy” feels more urgent than most other films, and I think it’s because now in 2021, our exploitation and abuse of the oceans has risen to a level that can only be described as catastrophic, and in our current and escalating climate crisis, we desperately need healthy oceans more than ever before. Somehow the world keeps on turning, and people basically ignore what is happening to our oceans. If this continues, it will be at our own peril.

One thing that this film does incredibly well is explain both using statistics but also using visual storytelling — the almost incomprehensible scale and speed of the fishing industry today, and just how destructive it is. Because the ocean is so vast, deep and remote, regular people do not have a view into the obscene level of plunder and grotesque treatment of animals that occurs on a constant basis.

We often think of our planet as infinite, which it is not, and something crucial for the human race to realize immediately is that no ecosystem is too big to fail. With almost 8 billion people on Earth and the demands (both real and frivolous) for natural resources growing, it’s absolutely possible for humans to alter and ultimately destroy Earth’s landscapes, and in some cases we already have. 

The statistics regarding our oceans are revolting. We kill about 5 million fish per minute around the world, and the number of commercial fishing boats, according to the Smithsonian, has expanded to over 3.5 million today — but they are catching fewer and fewer fish because the stocks have plummeted. 46% of the plastic in the world’s Great Pacific Garbage Patch is fishing nets and related gear. No other item makes up such a large portion on its own. 

Furthermore, CNN, Seaspiracy and others have reported that major fish species (the ones we most easily recognize) have been fished to 90% depletion in many cases. That means that there is only 10% left of a vast majority of the ocean’s biggest fish and some marine mammals. This is a crisis, and it is a consequence of fishing and the way we do it. 

Commercial fishing rigs often use gigantic nets which are so big, they can fit up to a dozen jumbo jets inside. They could scoop up a skyscraper. They drag them across the sea floor all over the world and they destroy coral reefs and catch anything else in the path, including tons of innocent and unwanted whales, dolphins, turtles, sea birds and so forth. This is known as “by-catch.” It’s estimated that due to this wasteful, grotesque and blunt technique, 30,000 sharks are killed every hour. With over 3 million fishing boats in operation, and possibly more, that figure sadly makes sense. 

The film also touches on the lives of those who work in the industry, and the widespread reports of slavery and human trafficking in commercial fishing, as well as the abuse and frequent disappearances of people whose job it is to monitor and report on by-catch totals and other statistics for regulatory purposes. Because of the corruption and basic unwillingness for even the environmental groups to face what is happening to our oceans, the film concludes that there is no such thing as “dolphin-safe” tuna and there is no such thing as sustainable seafood whatsoever. 

The need to rewild and repair our oceans is probably the most urgent goal on the climate change list, second only to the world achieving renewable energy (and both can be done at the same time). Healthier oceans could help minimize extreme tropical storms, and will help to absorb more carbon and heat from the atmosphere which is sadly an inevitable task, at least in the short term. We must dramatically expand marine protected areas and make sure that they are not just protected in name only. 

A “no-take” or “no fish” zone over much of the world’s coastal areas would help dramatically to restore the fish populations, and then once they were healthy enough, some would travel to the other areas of the ocean where fishing is allowed. It’s counter intuitive perhaps, but greatly limiting the places where commercial fishing is allowed will guarantee that the world and all its people have enough fish to eat.

The film suggests that individuals reduce or stop eating seafood altogether, and that leaving the oceans alone (via no-take zones) are the fastest and most effective way to give the oceans a chance to heal and thrive once again, which will benefit us all. Furthermore, I think it’s obvious but also crucial that the laws about fishing are changed. The fishing industry is, much like the oil industry and others, propped up by billions of dollars in government subsidies. It’s become increasingly unprofitable to fish in this way because many of the fish are very close to extinction and there is less and less to take. Therefore, these subsidies must end and we must explore ways to employ skilled and hardworking people in other areas. 

The film also touches on farmed fish, which are also a titanic source of pollution. The fish are typically raised in conditions that make them chronically sick, as well. The “food” that comes from farmed locations is therefore both unhealthy and unsustainable, not to mention unethical. There are other ways for the vast majority of human beings to feed ourselves so we must face what is happening and change our diets immediately, even if in small or gradual ways at first. It may not be fair or fun, but this is the time we live in and this is an era, like all others, that requires some form of sacrifice. 

Perhaps the most emotional part of the film was the documentation of dolphin and whale slaughter events which are done for cultural reasons or sport, as well as for the benefit of theme parks who require new “entertainment” for their audiences. The most shocking thing I learned about these activities was that the dolphins were being slaughtered because the local fisherman saw them as competition for their dwindling business. These poor dolphins were being punished for humans overfishing and I felt it was so moving and important that the filmmakers pointed that out. 

We can absolutely change our relationship with our planet and with our oceans, but first we need to understand, as one society, what we have done to these ecosystems and to agree that we cannot do this anymore. We know how to save the oceans. We need to leave them alone and eat less fish. People like Boyan Slat and others are working hard on the plastic pollution issue, but I fear that without strong and lasting action on commercial fishing, the plastic will never be cleaned up. Enough fishing line and nets are “set” each day to wrap around the world 500 times. Much of that is wasted, broken, let go in tangles, lost on the ocean floor, or is just cast overboard. With that much plastic waste, it’s a miracle anything in the ocean still lives at all. 

I understand that many people will probably find this film uncomfortable, controversial, or maybe even traumatic. It’s not always in our nature as human beings to fully grasp the destructive power of our actions, nor is it common to come to terms with the finite nature of our planet and its oceans. I believe that once we can face these issues and feel the pain that we have caused that we can first imagine a better world, but then fight for it and see it to fruition. I also believe that repairing our connection with the oceans will help us repair our connection with ourselves and with one another.  While this film isn’t directly tied to blockchain, technology at large or coordination (although these issues are not necessarily separate either), I felt it was of utmost importance to share my review of it with the larger community and to encourage others to watch it. We only have one planet, and if we lose our oceans, saving the rest of it (and ourselves) will be a near impossible task. It was a courageous act to make this film, and my hope is that along with many other courageous acts, the world will not only understand but feel what is happening to our planet, and to respond accordingly.