Maverick Life


Seaspiracy and the environmental impact of fishing

Seaspiracy and the environmental impact of fishing
Die snoek loop teen die Weskus en vissermanne van Lambertsbaai tot in St Helenabaai kry goeie vangste met van die skuite wat soveel as 800 snoeke aan wal bring. Die enigste probleem vir die vissermanne is dat die nasionale inperkings tot gevolg gehad het dat die aanvraag na snoek baie laer is as vorige jare. Snoek het vir tussen R130 tot R150 voor paasfees op die kaai verkoop maar die prys is nou onder R50 'n snoek in die hawe. foto: Jaco Marais

While the 2021 Netflix documentary ‘Seaspiracy’ spotlighted imperative discussions the world needs to be having around issues with the ocean, some experts say the film might have missed a more balanced, representative and empowering, solutions-based view.

If Ali Tabrizi’s documentary Seaspiracy, released in March, left you tutting at the fish section in the supermarket, ready to enlist in the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society or just plain paralysed with panic at the depth and vastness of the problems the world’s oceans are currently facing, you are not alone. 

Comments like: “watched it today and damn i’m never eating seafood again”, “@seaspiracy where do I sign up to be a sea shepherd???” and “That’s why I’m vegan. 😮” have flooded Seaspiracy’s Instagram page and are not uncommon sentiments in conversations with people who have come out the other side of the shocking account of the destructive environmental impacts of human activity on the oceans. 

Produced by the team behind the 2014 Netflix exposé on environmental impacts of agriculture and the meat industry, Cowspiracy, marine biologist and WWF’s environmental behaviour change practitioner and WWF-Sassi (Southern African Sustainable Seafood Institute) manager, Pavitray Pillay, who watched Seaspiracy in parts due to its intensity graphically and emotionally, commends Tabrizi’s exposé for bringing many of the alarming ocean issues to Netflix’s more than 200 million subscribers.

Seaspiracy highlights some real, valid issues that we have when it comes to the oceans: overfishing, illegal fishing, unregulated fishing, massive human rights infringements, issues around plastic in the oceans, issues around seafood fraud, issues around non-traceability; so from the point of bringing these problems to the fore the documentary starts off really solidly because those are issues we have been grappling with for many, many years,” says Pillay.

While Pillay appreciates that Seapiracy spotlighted imperative discussions the world needs to be having around issues with the ocean, she says the film missed a more balanced, representative and empowering, solutions-based view.

“The issues he highlighted are very complex and complicated issues that cannot be fixed with a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution like stopping the consumption of fish completely and ‘going vegan’, as he suggests. I think this was a very short-sighted approach and I think that is where I started not quite following the trajectory of the documentary and at the end, all I felt was very afraid of my actions,” comments Pillay.

She says the questionable claims, inaccuracies, miscommunication and misinterpretation of facts that Seaspiracy touted had sent science back to the trust-building drawing board. 

“We just started rebuilding the public’s trust in science with the advent of  Covid-19 because there was nowhere else for us to turn except to science when facing a pandemic of this magnitude which three generations haven’t faced before,” says Pillay. 

“And I believe this documentary has set the scientific community back because now we will have to reinforce that idea around ‘real facts’, ‘true facts’,” she adds. 

“I would have liked to have heard from the documentary that there is a way we can responsibly environmentally, socioeconomically, and safely interact with the oceans and farm fish species that will alleviate pressures on fishing, because then we ultimately do exactly what Tabrizi was advocating for, and that is giving those species time to recover in the oceans. And there are ways.”


Pitting overfishing as the mother of all other ocean issues, Tabrizi quotes a paper that at the time of its publication, in 2006, estimated that by 2048 the world’s exploited fish populations will be completely depleted and there will be nothing left.   

“That paper is a published, peer-reviewed paper, but it is very dated and we know for a fact that now the world’s fish populations are looking better. Yes, there are thousands of fish populations considered throughout the world as collapsed, but they are not gone and have the potential to recover and many actually have recovered,” says Pillay. 

An article published by BBC News on 9 April found that the lead author of the original study had expressed his doubt about “using its findings to come to conclusions today”. 

Pillay offers just a few examples where fish have recovered and replenished. “In order for a fish species to recover – which takes anywhere between five and 10 years – their habitats must be well managed, not degraded, there must be policy and regulations in place and those must be enforced and complied with, and in the last 15 years since the paper’s publication we have seen this. 

“Examples include the Patagonian toothfish in the southern oceans that have been brought back from the brink of collapse; closer to home, the Namibian hake has recovered after it had been exploited by foreign fleets; and on the south coast, the carpenter and Red Roman, after being better-managed, have also made a comeback from collapse.” 

Seafood is one of the most traded commodities in the world and many countries in the global south rely on this trade, with 820 million people deriving a livelihood from fisheries, aquaculture and tangential activities. 

Pillay says that the perspective Tabrizi uses to shape the documentary is a global north perspective lacking clear representation, and that Seaspiracy’s claim of sustainable fishing being non-existent is problematic for the millions of people who rely on the industry to live.

“Fisheries, by their nature, have an environmental impact, a social impact and they have an economic impact. If we had to all stop eating fish right now, it would have a massive social impact for developing countries in the global south because it is an issue of livelihoods and an issue of food security, especially in countries where unemployment rates are already so high like South Africa,” she notes, adding that a fishery and its practices is very case-specific and that one cannot make a fair judgment on all fisheries based on the state of one or two. 

“You cannot look at highly industrialised fisheries and not include small-scale fisheries or semi-commercial fisheries; it is not a ‘homogenous pot’ of fisheries. It is important to note that if you have 10 fishers, a fishery is not supporting 10 fishers, the reality, especially in South Africa, is that a fishery is supporting 10 households. One person is supporting three or four people in their immediate family and very often their extended family as well,” adds Pillay.

“It is harmful to not have laid out all the information, because now I have had consumers come to me and tell me they are going to give up fish and become a vegan and I have to explain that this is a very global north perspective. Going vegan is a very expensive exercise that realistically, at the moment, most South Africans don’t have access to. Try telling a South African from a low-income group they have to buy a vegan alternative over a can of pilchards of equivalent protein value.”  

The planet-based diet and why vegetarianism and veganism are not a one-size-fits-all solution

In fact, Pillay says that going vegetarian or vegan is not an all-encompassing solution and instead recommends the “planet-based diet”, especially considering there are an estimated one to two million people who rely on protein from the sea who do not have access to another source of protein. 

“Developing countries just simply cannot afford a vegetarian diet, let alone a vegan diet. Communities that are pledging to become vegetarian or vegan, are already in a comfortable space financially, socially and economically to make those decisions. They have the privilege of choice and accessibility.

“At WWF, we don’t push for any specific diet in terms of veganism or vegetarianism because that is a very personal choice – one that some people can afford and others cannot. We advocate for something which we refer to as a ‘planet-based diet’. This encompasses understanding your individual footprint, understanding that what you are eating is both ethically and responsibly sourced, and making sure your meal proportions are right in terms of volume and frequency.”

The planet-based diet website has a useful tool called the planet-based diet impact and action calculator.

Pillay also points out that if you do make the choice to become vegan or vegetarian, to hold those industries up to the same bar as the fishing industries. 

“Agriculture has a massive environmental footprint. There’s no hiding the issue. It is a thirsty process, it uses up a lot of land; coupled with irresponsible practices, bad management and exploitation, a lot of damage can be done, like soil degradation, soil erosion, and then you end up with plants that are not very nutritious,” she says.

Using avocados as an example, she suggests asking your plant-based plate the following questions: Was the avocado tree ethically and responsibly planted? Was it responsibly sourced? What are the issues around deforestation and the palm oil that is in your vegetarian product? Is it killing natural pollinators? Are they using too many chemical herbicides and pesticides? What are the environmental footprints?

“A handful of people deciding to cut fish out of their lifestyle is not going to change the issues around overfishing, pollution and human rights infringements. We need people to start acting against those issues. To start lobbying, to get proper management processes in place, supporting NGOs that are doing that, understanding solution-driven issues,” she emphasises, adding that it is possible to address these issues from an individual perspective by speaking out and voting with our wallets. 

“I always say to people that there are two things that you have that everybody wants: your voice and your wallet. 

“Particularly now you have a stronger voice because you have social media and you have your money. If we choose not to buy a product because the retailer cannot show you that the item was not locally, responsibly and ethically sourced, you can choose not to buy it,” she says.   

She offers a checklist to go through when buying fish from retailers and fish shops and restaurants: Is it ethical? Is it sustainable? Have the retailers made a commitment to source only sustainably-sourced seafood? What else are they doing around sustainability? What is the fishery doing about their bycatch issues? Is the government in enforcement?  

In addition, Pillay suggests lobbying the government and scrutinising all  the actors in the supply chain, which includes fishers, suppliers and retailers, governments and policy, and to question, if it is an issue of management, why the government is not doing anything about the issues at hand. If it is an issue of compliance, then question why the fishery is not complying. 

“Make a noise when there are issues around management. We can no longer afford to sit back with a ‘what will be, will be’ mentality. Be active, look for those environmental justice issues around management decisions and enforcements. If you’re a fisher, be a responsible fisher. If you’re a beachgoer or ocean-user in whatever capacity, make conscious, responsible decisions and be an advocate for conscious, responsible decisions. It is within your power to do so.”

Fish farms

In South Africa, there are fish farms producing both finned fish and crustaceans that are operating responsibly with a low carbon footprint and human infringement footprint. 

These include abalone (perlemoen) fishing on the south coast, which is currently green-listed on the Sassi list. The mussel and oyster farms in Saldanha Bay are also green-listed. Our abalone, mussels and oysters go all over the world, they service a global consumer base. 

“Aquaculture is a solution – it is not the solution – provided it is done responsibly. You can get aquaculture farms that destroy mangroves, which are important for fish nursery grounds, act as flood barriers, and act as carbon sinks. For example, when you clear out a mangrove forest to put in a prawn farm, that is irresponsible. Just like Amazon rainforest decimation for oil palm trees,” Pillay points out, explaining that to produce one farmed fish you need to catch between one and four wild fish to feed the farmed fish. 

“So, another question you need an answer to: What is the feed conversion? However, there have been strides made in this regard where they are making food pellets from seaweed. But you still have to ask those questions because not all aquaculture farms will be responsible,” says Pillay.

“In 2018, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization report basically said we have more fish than we have caught and a lot of that looked at how we are farming those fish. Any alleviation of fishing pressure on a species helps that species recover.

“Sassi and WWF would have serious issues if we didn’t think that these fish farms were being responsible, because we are supporting them by looking at their feeding ratio, their social and environmental impact, how much they are producing versus the natural environment and we still feel that they are sustainable and therefore get their green-listing.” DM/ML

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Pierre Malan says:

    Seaspiracy was very interesting to watch. he didn’t tell any lies, but he did select his truths very carefully in support of his vegan crusade.
    Fishing around the world is problematic, because it is a fact that most species are overfished. There are many contributing factors, of which industrial fishing is just one. Illegal fishing, known as IUU fishing, is a huge, worldwide organised crime. Most countries do not have the resources to effectively combat this criminal enterprise, and in some countries there is a lack of political will to even try.

    Politicians exploit fisheries for political gain, turning a blind eye to some kinds of illegal fishing, while publicly decrying others. This leads to some illegal fishermen (I was recently told by a police colonel that “poachers” is not an acceptable word) are allowed to practice their crime with impunity, with massive damage to the environment, the fish stocks and especially the livelihoods of honest, law abiding fishermen and women. Abalone is a case in point!

    The world’s marine living resources can be saved, but it requires a lot of work, and the political will to do it.

  • Wendy Dewberry says:

    I have not watched seaspiracy yet, but I do know that pressure on health of the oceans lies largely on corruption and greed and instututional protection of cartels. So to say there is a way will mean little unless the action is directed to the political rather than the science remedy.

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