Many of my vegan friends have been taking victory laps since the release of Seaspiracy, which has made it to the top 10 on Netflix in many countries around the world, so I thought I would at least inform them of how problematic it is so that they don’t go around parroting the lies of this erroneous movie (as others have pointed out, it shouldn’t be considered a documentary, as it’s pure propaganda). If the vegan movement wants to maintain the moral high ground, it can’t go around spreading wildly incorrect arguments that are made in bad faith. Not only does it undermine these vegans’ credibility, it can cause actual harm to other people and to our planet.
While Seaspiracy pretends to be a documentary on the environmental impacts of fishing, it is a movie made by vegan activists who believe that the killing of any animal is immoral, an argument which is not made explicitly in the film—its very basis is disingenuous. I think it’s fairly obvious as to why they chose this tactic: most people grasp that there is nothing fundamentally immoral about a predator killing a prey for food (which is why there are many pescatarians). Our entire food web is based on this type of relationship, without which we would lack much of the life in the animal kingdom. This is not murder. Murder is a human construct used to describe the killing of human beings by other human beings. It is illegal because there is no need to kill another human being (unless in self-defense or in times of war, when it can be legal)—our species, like many others, does not practice cannibalism (although I think few would fault someone dying of starvation for eating a corpse). Without this rule, human societies are horrible places to live. But to try and apply a Lockean framework of God-given human rights onto animals is a form of anthropomorphism that is just downright silly: the only way we could create such an ecosystem would be to slaughter most animal life on earth and then build some sort of giant zoo where we keep predator and prey separate and feed the meat-eaters synthetic food.
Sure, enslaving and torturing animals (as well as killing male chickens for not being able to produce eggs) could certainly be considered immoral, notwithstanding the devastating environmental impacts. I’m not going to attempt to justify animal agriculture on ethical grounds (although I’ve never had a vegan convince me that, for example, the cattle used for the production of free-range, grass-fed beef would have been better off never having lived), and I do eat meat—I’m a flexitarian who keeps my meat consumption low in order to reduce my ecological footprint, a decision that was made from the research I did after watching their other film, Cowspiracy. But, then again, I have money in my bank account that I’m saving for when things open up and I can go backpacking in Turkey or Cuba or somewhere, and I could save many lives by donating that money to food organizations in Africa. That decision is certainly more immoral in my book than eating eggs is. I’m not a saint.
One could argue that the death of the fish or shellfish by the process of fishing is more painful than being killed by an ocean predator, but that’s not going to be very convincing to most people, since this is just a matter of seconds in the entire life of an animal. Furthermore, many animals (including countless insects as well as larger mammals, such as rabbits) are killed by combines in the harvesting of crops. Vegans will say “well, that wasn’t on purpose,” but if we know that the animals are indeed killed in the production of this food, what difference does it make? Discards and bycatch aren’t “on purpose,” either. What if we calculated that this number of animals killed per unit of a certain plant-based food was greater than the number of discards from the harvesting of one unit of seafood (especially in the case of longline or trap fisheries, even if the bait used came from a net fishery)? My hunch is that the former would be greater than the latter. Wouldn’t that make seafood less immoral than the plant-based food in question? Now if one makes the argument that the lives of the insects and microbes killed by the combines are less valuable than the lives of the discards because they are less complex, then that poses the question of why we are even having this discussion in the first place.
But I’m not writing this to debate the ethics of eating plant-based foods versus eating seafood. I’m trying to point out that rather than trying to make the argument that eating seafood is immoral from an animal rights’ perspective, the filmmakers have taken a summary of the major environmental issues surrounding the seafood industry and exaggerated these issues to smear it as much as possible in hopes that people will eat less seafood and save the lives of a few marine animals at whatever the cost. And in getting the facts utterly wrong and not considering the consequences of their actions, the filmmakers are the ones lacking ethics in making these bad faith arguments.
I’m not going to list all of the falsehoods propagated by this wildly inaccurate film, its many colonialist and racist tropes, or the fact that some of the figures quoted in the film have been very angry with the editing and how their statements were misconstrued, as others have done so. But I would like to mention two of the most ridiculous arguments made. The first is this claim that the oceans will be ‘dead by 2048.’ This was based on a 2006 study that has since been debunked by the study’s very author. In using shocking arguments that no scientist believes but citing them as a “scientific study” in order to convince the public of their cause, the filmmakers are engaging in the type of misinformation that propelled Trump to the White House and convinces people to not wear masks in the middle of a pandemic. I’m certainly not trying to equate the filmmakers with the heinous individuals propagating those lies, but the tactics are similar, and we’re supposed to be better than that. Disinformation is not a tool that progressives, environmentalists, or animal rights’ advocates should add to their toolbox.
The other is what is perhaps the very thesis of this movie: the statement made time and again by the founder of Sea Shepherd, Paul Watson,that ‘there is no such thing as sustainable fishing.’ I want you to stop and re-read that phrase again in order to reflect upon its utter absurdity. Most obviously, one can argue that nothing in modern society is truly sustainable, including the vegetables harvested from your favorite local permaculture farm, but what is the point of telling people that they should not eat any form of food at all? Perhaps this is a part of the population reduction strategy that Watson believes in, but no one serious actually thinks that to be a viable solution. Furthermore, Neanderthals were fishing over 200,000 years ago. Is he seriously arguing that the fishing undertaken by the many indigenous communities throughout prehistory was unsustainable? I bet that there were small freshwater bodies of water that saw their fish stocks decline, and maybe that was “unsustainable,” but the numbers of prey always decline when a new predator is introduced.
Most importantly, as science and history have demonstrated, through sound fisheries management, fisheries can continue to supply humans with one of the healthiest sources of protein known to humans. There are very high-volume fisheries, such as the Alaska pollock fishery, that produce high yields year after year (and when the biomass declines, as it did in the early 2000’s, the TAC is adjusted and then the biomass later increases), and there are other fisheries that are severely overfished and then, through sound policy and management, recover (such as the US west coast groundfish fishery). If something continues to produce the same or greater yield year after year and has limited GHG emissions (as is the case for most wild-caught finfish), how does that not meet the bar for ‘sustainable food?’
But the problems with this movie go far beyond its faulty logic. It would be one thing if this were merely a piece of vegan propaganda that played loose and fast with the facts and preached to the already converted. But unfortunately, it potentially could have very negative impacts on both people and planet. First and most obvious, there is no discussion of the environmental impacts of animal agriculture, and of how much better for the environment seafood is compared to, say, red meat. This movie’s fans will argue that everyone already knows that, but do they? Sure, the vegans might. But the vast majority of people are unaware of the extent to which beef consumption is destroying our planet. If the end result of this movie is people giving up seafood and eating beef instead, it will result in an increase in GHG emissions, deforestation, water use, heart problems, etc. If the filmmakers were really environmentalists, they would have informed their viewers something to the effect of: “while seafood can be bad for the environment, it’s nowhere near as bad as beef, so while you should strive to be vegan, if you can’t handle it, at least eat fish instead of beef, and do so sparingly.” But we didn’t get such a message from the filmmakers, because they are far more concerned with “animal rights” than they are with saving our own species.
Second, this movie undermines the work of good people who earn less money than they would elsewhere in order to make seafood more sustainable and reduce the harm it causes to our planet. The filmmakers use “gotcha” journalism tactics not on industry (who seem to be the subject of little discussion in the movie besides the occasional fisherman—almost always a person of color—who is trying to make ends meet and follows orders to engage in IUU fishing), but on the non-profit organizations who have spent years actually working on these issues. Apparently, for the filmmakers, they are the problem, rather than the management of seafood harvesting companies, the governments who refuse to take action, or the capitalist system itself. But the manner in which they attacked these NGOs was also entirely unethical. They interviewed an NGO worker for two hours and then only used a six-second clip out of context to try and make this organization look bad—an organization that does the good, hard work of protecting our oceans. This organization’s crime? Like everyone else, it doesn’t have a perfect definition of the word ‘sustainability.’
Their attack on MSC was even more outrageous. We didn’t grant them an interview because we knew that it would be pointless: their position (that no form of seafood can be sustainable) is so extreme that there is no room for any sort of fruitful discussion, and we knew that they would unscrupulously take anything the poor staff member who volunteered for the interview completely out of context in order to make the MSC look bad. So they make a big scene and show up to our office with cameras, asking why we won’t interview them, and then the only point they make about us in the movie is that we ‘earn money off of the ecolabel, so it can’t be trusted.’ Tabrizi and his team were so lazy in their research that they didn’t even bother to try and pick out a couple of controversial fisheries that had been certified, which would have been a more effective sensationalist tactic, if unfair (fairness was clearly not a concern of theirs). He just described our funding model (but ignored the fact that we receive almost half of our income from grants), about which we are completely transparent, and then made a half-sentence statement without any supporting reasoning or facts. Most ecolabels fund themselves by charging a royalty for label use. While it is true that this possibly creates a conflict of interest in that the ecolabel has the incentive to lower the bar so that it can earn more money from more products (not always a bad thing, as broadening an organization’s reach increases its impact), it’s not necessarily so simple. If the MSC lowered its bar, it would lose its reputation as setting the gold standard for sustainable seafood ecolabels, and another one might take its place.
Furthermore, it’s one thing to suggest a conflict of interest, but in order to prove actual harm being done, a change resulting from that conflict of interest must be demonstrated. To give an extreme example, several prominent figures within the Biden administration have close financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry (e.g. Susan Rice, Director of the Domestic Policy Council of the United States, has $5 million in shares of Johnson & Johnson and up to $50k in shares of Pfizer). But this alone does not demonstrate harm: one would have to show that policies were adopted that benefitted the pharmaceutical industry at the expense of the American public in order to do so. And in this case, the Biden administration opposed a WTO TRIPS waiver on COVID vaccine patents for months, only to feebly support it in early May, and then opt for a strategy of buying a small number of vaccines from the vaccine makers themselves and distributing them to developing countries, an incredibly ineffective strategy which will result in millions of needless deaths and more variants that will take American lives and slow down the economy. In the case of MSC, our Fisheries Standard has only gotten more rigorous with time, and it is reviewed every five years with the input of stakeholders. In other words, our organization is well-run and has built firewalls around this process so that business logic does not even enter the equation, and the blue label means, now more than ever, that the seafood beneath it came from a sustainable, well-managed fishery.
If the result of Seaspiracy is that people no longer look for the Dolphin Safe or MSC labels when purchasing seafood, or that these organizations receive less grant funding and, thus, are less able to work towards their missions, the more sustainable harvesters (who spend money making improvements) will lose market share to their less scrupulous counterparts, and more harm to the planet will be caused. Indeed, we received so many death threats that we had to call the police and take our contact information off our website. This wastes time and resources that could be better spent elsewhere. And how ironic it is that animal rights advocates have no problem threatening the lives of humans!
I also find it fascinating that they did not even mention the Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Guide. Do the filmmakers seriously think that there is no difference between red-rated and green-rated seafood? And if there is a difference, why not at least tell the audience that if they will insist on eating seafood, they should at least purchase seafood that is green-rated or MSC certified? Doing so will save the lives of ETP (endangered, threatened, protected) species as well as reduce bycatch and discards of species with poor stock health that are more common in uncertified fisheries (and many red-rated fisheries have huge problems in this area), besides supporting better-managed fisheries with healthier stock populations. In fact, nowhere in the movie do they call for us to make the fishing industry more sustainable. Fishing is inherently unsustainable, in their view, and the only solution is to become a vegan.
Of course, this is a horribly—and I don’t use this word lightly—stupid theory of change. No country in the world has seen more than a small percentage of its population become vegan, not even in countries where vegetarianism is the norm—not even in India, for example, where most of its population believes that cows are sacred, beef is not served anywhere (not even at upscale hotels), and eating beef or slaughtering cattle is illegal in most states, have more than a small number of people given up dairy products (in my two years and four months living there, the only Indian vegan I meant had spent almost his entire life abroad, and, to my knowledge, there were only two small vegan cafes in the entire city of Mumbai). This is not to denigrate in any way the sacrifices that vegans around the world have made, but we must recognize that they will never comprise more than a small segment of the population. For the rest of us, the goal must be to make our food system more sustainable, whether that’s the production of fish, beef, or avocados.
The extreme views of these vegans became even more apparent when I listened to them speak in a panel discussion hosted by Mission Blue, an NGO created by Sylvia Earle, the famed oceanographer. The panelists were the Tabrizis, Sylvia Earle, and a policy analyst from Mission Blue. Our CEO, Rupert Howes, asked to participate but was declined. This could have been a great way for the two camps—the vegans and the people who work in sustainable seafood—to reach a better understanding, and for Rupert to be able to able to answer some of the criticisms leveled against MSC. The film already advanced the views of the filmmakers, so shouldn’t it be time for them to have a discussion with others?
I looked into Mission Blue, and from what I heard from Earle during the panel discussion, their views and theory of change seems to analogous to that of the vegans. They want to protect the oceans by extending the network of MPAs (marine protected areas) as much as possible, with the end goal of the MPAs covering the entire ocean. From their website, “Mission Blue is uniting a global coalition to inspire an upwelling of public awareness, access and support for a worldwide network of marine protected areas…large enough to restore the ocean, the blue heart of the planet.” Such a strategy is perfectly logical in the context of land conservation—the more hectares of the world’s most biodiverse areas that are protected, more ecosystem services are preserved. For example, vast amounts of carbon are stored in the Amazon rainforest, and less forest being cleared means less carbon emitted into the atmosphere.
Most of the life in the ocean, however, is much more mobile than trees are, so this approach of maximizing the amount of territory protected does not have the same effect. As Earle herself admitted during the discussion, MPAs in isolation are not very effective, as fishing effort is merely transferred elsewhere. What is needed, she claimed, is for the entire ocean to be protected. The theory of change is to keep expanding the network of MPAs until they cover the entire ocean. Not only is this goal impossible (very few people in the world want to terminate the fishing industry altogether) and undesirable (because of the wave of starvation and malnutrition it would induce in developing regions), achieving this goal only partially is useless because it doesn’t achieve its primary objective: protecting biodiversity. Of course, MPAs in ecologically sensitive areas or in the spawning grounds of certain species are extremely beneficial, but the notion that the more of the ocean that is covered under an MPA, the better (as is usual the case on land) is completely false. Like hoping that all or most of the world’s population becomes vegan, hoping that all of the countries of the world agree to place the entire ocean under one huge MPA is an unrealistic, ineffective theory of change.
I tried asking critical questions in the ‘Q&A’ chat in which we were supposed to direct them (such as what did they all think of the field of fisheries science, which certainly would not support the claim that there is ‘no such thing as sustainable fishing’?), but only questions that were supportive of the film were taken. The first comments in this chat were praiseworthy of the film, so I assumed that I was the only person in there actually asking questions, but after speaking with coworkers that attended the webinar, I discovered that the only questions the users could see, besides those initial laudatory comments, were their own. Only in the ‘Chat,’ in a separate window, could people see each others’ comments, and I didn’t know to post my questions in there as well. There wasn’t an anonymous feature in that chat, so I don’t know if I would have felt comfortable asking them anyway (after the death threats we received, I take these vegans seriously). No critical questions were taken until the very last one, when an Ethiopian person asked what could be done to get the local freshwater fishermen who depend on fish for their livelihoods to ‘change their mentality.’ I couldn’t tell if this was tongue-in-cheek or a serious question, and if it was the latter, it only illustrated the privileged attitudes behind the opinions expressed from the panel. And then the event ended, thirty minutes earlier than scheduled. The webinar was truly a missed opportunity: it seems that the panel was intended for the filmmakers to celebrate themselves and speak to fellow vegans rather than fostering discussion of different approaches to protecting our oceans.
Moreover, the outrageous claims made by the panelists perfectly demonstrated the flaws in their arguments by extending their logic to the most extreme position:they repeated several times that wildlife cannot be used by humans, that animals can’t be used to make products because they are wildlife. Sylvia Earle asked why we think of pandas differently than how we think of tuna. Apparently, a species being endangered and struggling to reproduce does not even grant it any different status from a species with a population of millions, because they all have God-given rights or souls or something like that and, thus, are all created equal, Homo sapiens being no exception. Aly Tabrizi took it even further and said that there is ‘no difference between buying a can of tuna and an animal tusk because they are both animal products…fishing is wildlife trade.’ In his eyes, the use of an animal is completely irrelevant: it shouldn’t be used, period, even if that is to help feed a hungry planet and save human lives, because doing so is a violation of vegan ethics. I wonder if he ever uses any modern medicine, because most of it was tested on animals.
Their lack of concern for humans was deeply troubling. The only discussion of what to do with all of the fishermen came during the answer for the last question—Sylvia Earle’s said that it is “silly” to think that these fishermen couldn’t do anything else besides fish because we humans are so “creative.” Unfortunately, our creativity has thus far been unable to solve the issue of unemployment that seems to be inherent to capitalism, so I’m not sure how they expect 260 million jobs, most of which are in developing regions, to materialize out of thin air. We live on a planet where 842 million people suffer from chronic hunger (with nearly five million children under the age of five dying of malnutrition-related causes annually) and over 9 million die of starvation each year. But seafood comprises 20% of the protein intake of 3.2 billion people. Abandoning this food source would result in death and illness to millions of people in order to save the lives of fish, a strategy that is horribly callous and unacceptable to anyone besides a few hardcore vegans. The thought of white crews on boats coming from developed regions and attempting to stop impoverished fishermen of color from trying to survive for the reason that ‘the lives of all animals are just as important as the lives of humans’ is luckily only science fiction representing the very worst impulses of the animal rights community. Of course, the filmmakers have said that it’s the consumers in the developed regions that need to abandon seafood, but since the developing regions’ fisheries tend to have much less healthy stocks, this is certainly not a serious solution to the problem of overfishing.
It makes one question the motivation of the filmmakers—is the goal to reduce the damage we are causing our planet? Or is it to adopt a lifestyle that we are supposed to feel good about? I just don’t know any more if vegans/animal rights activists are even on the same team as I am. Beef is destroying our planet, but vegans aren’t telling people: “whatever you do, eat as little beef as possible, and if you must, eat grass-fed beef. Otherwise, try to eat vegetables instead, or even sustainable seafood. If necessary, you can eat chicken or pork sometimes.” Instead, vegans tell people that they must join their group and eat this narrow range of foods that don’t (intentionally) kill any animals, and anyone that does not adopt this lifestyle choice is immoral. And despite the huge variance in the environmental impacts of plant-based foods, there is no discussion of how to eat more sustainably; it’s merely a dichotomy of ‘plant-based’ versus ‘animal product.’ Asparagus has a much higher carbon footprint than most finfish, and the impacts that the thirsty avocado’s cultivation has on other farms in the drought-stricken regions have been well-documented, besides its huge contribution to deforestation in the regions where it is most commonly grown. Even if the average vegan has a lower carbon footprint than that of the average pescatarian, veganism as the sole theory of change (the point of view of the filmmakers) is an incredibly ineffective way to make our food system more sustainable. If we want our civilization to survive into the next century and beyond, we need to make all forms of food production more sustainable, from beef to fish to rice to palm oil, and shaming a few people into a plant-based diet for the sake of animal rights is not a serious solution.