Yesterday, the sun was shining bright, and birds were chirping outside my window, and the buds were really starting to coming out on the trees. It was a stupidly perfect day really, and I had to go ruin it all by watching Seaspiracy.
The Netflix documentary has been among the streaming service’s most popular films since coming out in late March, and yet nearly every marine scientist I’ve seen talking about it has wanted to see the movie sunk into the Challenger Deep, never to be seen again due to rampant misinformation. I’ll leave much of the debunking of the bad science in the film to the subject matter experts. (That includes some of those quoted in the film, who have also said they were misrepresented.) What’s just as disturbing about Seaspiracy, though, is the facile way it frames up how to solve the problems facing the ocean and society in the privileged vegan bro savioriest way possible.
The premise of Seaspiracy is that Ali Tabrizi, its director and narrator, wanted to make a movie about the wonders of the ocean, but quickly got freaked out that humans’ actions were strangling the seas. It chronicles his transition from doing local beach cleanups to getting concerned about whaling and going to the infamous cove in Taiji, Japan, where dolphin slaughters take place on the regular. That sets off a round-the-world trip and interviews with nearly three dozen experts or people involved in the fishing industry.
Throughout the film, Tabrizi argues that the real issues affecting the ocean are not what the mainstream media would have you believe while simultaneously showing news clippings and studies covered in the news to try and make his points. Climate change gets shrugged off, and so does plastic pollution from land. Straws? Perish the thought! Instead, Tabrizi’s film takes issue with ghost fishing gear, a topic widely covered in the media including this very site, and slavery at sea, the subject of a major New York Times investigation in 2015. I understand not everyone is reading ocean news all day, every day, but the repackaging of it by Tabrizi and then yelling, “why is nobody covering this???” is a nice story that’s just completely false.
Misrepresenting journalism and academics isn’t the only issue, though. Throughout it all, Tabrizi plays up racial tropes. The bad guys are Asians, specifically Japanese whale and dolphin hunters and Chinese consumers of shark fin soup. The good guys — in this case, the experts he cites — are mostly white. Christina Hicks, one of the only people of colour in the film with a speaking role and a scientist at the Lancaster Environment Centre, tweeted it was “[u]nnerving to discover your cameo in a film slamming an industry you love & have committed your career to.” The voices of people who are actually on the front lines of fisheries are largely absent outside of his interviews with three men who were slaves aboard Thai fishing boats that take up a relatively small portion of the film.
There’s a scene off the coast of Liberia after Sea Shepherd activists and Liberian officials intercept an illegal Chinese fishing boat where Tabrizi and the crew also see Liberian men out in a canoe subsistence fishing far from shore. Yet the film goes no further than showing them as victims of commercial and illegal fishing rather than engaging them as subjects in the debate. (Obviously, this would be tough to facilitate on the high seas, but it’s a real missed opportunity that nothing could be arranged once all parties were back on land.)
What Tabrizi is documenting in his film is the failure of multiple systems, including the parts he glazes over. The oceans are in deep trouble. Climate change is causing the oceans to overheat and acidify. Just 88 companies are responsible for half of all ocean acidification. If climate change continues unchecked, the world’s leading scientists have warned, oceans face “unprecedented conditions” by the middle of this century. The fish Tabrizi says he wants to save won’t exist anymore if we ignore it.
At the same time, plastic pollution is spiraling out of control from fishing gear to failed recycling programs. Overfishing is also putting pressure on the high seas, and industrial fishing is responsible for everything from slavery and human rights abuses to dumping pollution. It is literally everything humans fucking do — or more accurately, what a few large corporations do thanks to decades of political entrenchment.
To address these problems will require major systemic overhauls of how we manage fisheries, more stringent conservation measures, and bringing fossil fuel companies to account. Seaspiracy’s answer, though, is much more basic: go vegan. The end of the film features a flurry of pro-vegan doctors with a past of somewhat questionable statements and views as well as a vegan seafood company all talking about the wonders of plant-based diets over shots of said vegan seafood.
And that, in a nutshell, is the issue with the entire film. The film is produced by the same guy behind Cowspiracy, another pro-vegan film that sidesteps other systemic issues and misrepresents science. That explains why the filmmakers didn’t opt for calling it Conspirasea, which was right there for the taking, and also why the only “systemic” solution on the table is individual change, which is wholly inadequate. It also gives no agency to those who depend on fisheries for subsistence or income.
Instead, it comes off as ‘I alone can fix this problem I have only recently learned about,’ and that solution is my preferred method Tabrizi has been proselytizing about, veganism, since at least 2015, according to archived videos, and directed a film called Vegan in 2018. In one of his archived videos, he says, “Auschwitz was basically designed off factory farming at the time. That’s how Hitler came up with a way to treat the Jews.” So when Tabrizi reaches that veganism is the only answer at the end of Seaspiracy, it’s important to keep that context in mind — whether the research for the film led him to that conclusion or vice versa.
Look, I would crush a vegan shrimp taco or faux fish and chips any day of the week. And if you want to after watching Seaspiracy, that’s great. Let’s have a picnic in the park and go back to brunch or whatever.
But if you want to actually fix the gratuitous human rights abuses in the fishing industry, the greenwashed labelling system for sustainable fish, and stop climate change, then going vegan ain’t it. Last time I checked, veganism doesn’t reduce plastic in the ocean. Nor does it end climate change or the dominance of the fossil fuel industry. I haven’t heard of it solving slavery either, but vegans, please sound off in the comments if you must.
The issue of presenting a relatively simple solution to the huge interlocking crises we face is hardly limited to Seaspiracy. It’s tough to come up with a simple line about how someone watching a film can take down the fossil fuel industry, blow up capitalism, or advocate for salmon farms that are actually sustainable. And it’s very easy to just go down the well-trod road of highlighting one solution that aligns with the filmmakers’ values.
I don’t doubt that the film is well-intentioned with its call to go vegan, either. There are ample reasons for most Americans to cut down their meat consumption, from the climate crisis to animal rights to health. The same is true for seafood, including the negative impacts on biodiversity and human rights. We do need impassioned defences of everything wondrous about our world before we lose it forever.
“No one can do everything, but everyone can do something,” oceanographer Sylvia Earle tells Tabrizi in the film’s final scene.
In the case of Seaspiracy, though, Tabrizi is only asking you to do one thing. And that one note is a pretty sour note in light of all the problems we need to address.