Film & TV

Into the Deep with Seaspiracy

Ali Tabrizi in Seaspiracy. (Netflix/Trailer image via YouTube)
In his Netflix documentary, director Ali Tabrizi explores the dark world of industrial fishing.

As a general rule, I consider myself excused from viewing films like Seaspiracy, a top-trending Netflix documentary released last month, that detail the abuse of animals and the ransacking of nature. They’re distressing to watch, often infuriating, and if the call to action involves boycotting any such enterprise then I’m already with the program. Animal-use industries are always a horror show. On that point I need no further persuading, no further video evidence.

I made an exception for the documentary out of admiration for a filmmaker forthright enough to seek sympathy for fish and other aquatic creatures in this age of industrial fishing, and skillful enough to do it to such popular effect. In parts, Seaspiracy is every bit as gloomy as I expected. Picture the mindset of factory farming applied to marine life and you’ve got the general idea. But along with that come a message and spirit that many viewers have clearly found appealing. It takes some doing to get a broad audience to question near-universal practices, and director Ali Tabrizi, in collaboration his wife Lucy Tabrizi and producer Kip Anderson, seems to have hit on the right formula.

The effort succeeds on the strength of Ali Tabrizi’s guileless manner as our on-camera guide, taking viewers from place to place, interviewing assorted experts along the way, as he tries to better understand the impact of industrial fishing on the oceans — wondering, in the end, whether so destructive an enterprise can be justified at all. It’s a hazardous line of inquiry, as in his previous documentary, Cowspiracy, which challenged the need for industrial animal agriculture, and there was no way around indignant accusations of spreading “vegan propaganda.” Even so, Tabrizi, a Brit in his late twenties, presents his evidence with disarming simplicity, offering spare and unaffected commentary with none of the ideological cant that viewers wary of the genre might be waiting for.

The side story to the film is that, for all its drawing power, Tabrizi’s approach is disparaged almost as much by liberal environmentalists as by commercial fishing interests. These two supposed antagonists end up echoing each other with the same jargon, evasions of fact, and mantras of “sustainability.” Seaspiracy has not gone over well on the environmental left, for reasons that only add to the compelling case it makes.

The director’s first stop is a cove in Taiji, Japan, where (as viewers of director Louie Psihoyos’s sorrowful documentary, The Cove, will recall) local fisherman regularly trap and slaughter schools of dolphins, clubbing and knifing them in shallow waters and carrying off the babies for sale to marine parks. It’s a scene Tabrizi is able to film only from afar, since Taiji is a place of notorious cruelty and is guarded accordingly by Japanese authorities, who have their own ideas about how to treat “marine resources.”

Already, this runs Seaspiracy into trouble for what progressive critics, parroting the drivel of the dolphin-slayers themselves, variously call its “xenophobic undertones,” “villainizing of Asian people,” extolling of “white Western defenders of the oceans,” perpetuation of “the ‘White savior’ complex,” etc. In general, complains a writer on the site of the U.K.’s Fauna & Flora International, “the film is almost entirely tone deaf to the diverse value systems that exist around harvesting ocean life and is dominated by a western-centric and absolutist perspective.” Apparently no liberal review of the documentary has spared Tabrizi these scoldings for his presumption. Such an inexcusably “absolutist perspective”: Just who does this guy think he is, daring to pass judgment on people from other cultures who butcher marine mammals alive and steal their young?

The bloodbath at Taiji frames the larger picture of industrial fishing, because it is a consequence of the relentless, mindless exploitation of the oceans. Modern, high-tech fishing is an enterprise in which the routine, “accidental” death of unnumbered dolphins, whales, seals, sea turtles, sea birds, sharks, and other creatures counts as “sustainable” practice. Along with that “bycatch,” millions of other aquatic animals are left to die entangled in the plastic netting, hooked lines, and other equipment dumped or lost by fishing fleets. This “ghost gear,” we learn, comprises a vast share of the nightmarish, 620,000-square-mile “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” along with most of the rubbish on the ocean floor.

Global marine populations have declined by roughly half over the past two generations, the result of hyper-intensive fisheries and a general disregard of limits or scruple. Why, in Taiji, do those seafaring psychopaths stage their regular massacres? Because they’ve recklessly overfished, and they’d rather blame and kill the dolphins than impose any restraints on themselves. Here are creatures so bright and benevolent that in many recorded cases they have rescued human beings from drowning and sharks. And yet this deliberate mayhem, along with all those deaths brushed off as “bycatch,” are what they get in return.

The documentary also shows us Japanese whalers at work, hunting those creatures in violation of treaty obligations — as they’ve done for decades, in the manner of their equally willful counterparts in Norway and Iceland. Chinese fishermen make appearances, too, as they cut off sharks’ fins and throw the victims back in the ocean, their common practice, and when Chinese trawlers are filmed prowling about the coast of Liberia — one of their many regular runs beyond the boundaries of law. In Thailand, we discover, fishing fleets use forced labor; surreptitiously interviewed, one of the captives tells Tabrizi: “People don’t see how we catch seafood. They only care for consumption.”

There’s much more, and the drift of it is that everything gets more ruthless as fish populations diminish and extractive capacity expands, along with commercial demand and government subsidies that create the illusion of viability. The problem is summed up by one of the film’s most hideous sights: massive industrial trawlers that are essentially seaborne slaughterhouses. They process everything along the way, disgorging tons of blood as they crush or catch all in their path, on ocean floors and in the water, target and nontarget alike. All of this with little record-keeping or policing, although America is due credit for such serious measures as the 50-year-old Marine Mammal Protection Act affecting our own waters.

Against this backdrop, Tabrizi subjects environmental groups themselves to investigation, earning still more criticism for a breach of progressive form. Why, he asks, are these groups so preoccupied with fossil fuels and plastic straws while sparing the fishing industry — the leading cause of the most lethal plastic litter — from any public accounting? Though campaigns directed at any kind of plastic are useful and admirable, in every respect this industry does by far the worst harm to the oceans in both its direct and its collateral impact. In search of explanations, the director talks to spokesmen for prominent marine conservation groups, and to the European Union’s commissioner for fisheries and the environment, and to the organizations that confer sustainable-fishing and dolphin-friendly labels on seafood products. He is unable to find a single authority who can offer a precise standard for sustainable practice or acceptable bycatch, or who even appears to have given much thought to any of this.

It turns out that the “dolphin safe” labeling entity, though praiseworthy and better than nothing, doesn’t really guarantee that no dolphins have been killed. And that “sustainable” certification process? Overseen by the nonprofit Marine Stewardship Council — the MSC — it relies on payments by companies in exchange for the blue MSC imprimatur, thereby clouding the incentives and the credibility of the labels. When Tabrizi politely brings this up with the MSC, nervous reactions follow and he is shown the door. For some reason, he says, “the world’s largest sustainable-seafood organization doesn’t want to talk to me about sustainable seafood.” His best advice, in the way of policies for governments to consider, is a more rigorous enforcement of existing prohibitions on fishing practices and an end to subsidies for the industry.

Since aquaculture is held out as a more enlightened and sustainable alternative to industrial fishing, Tabrizi also tours a fish farm in Scotland. This vast facility is closed off from public view, so the director has to slip in at night to see how roughly half of all the world’s fish brought to market are produced. Salmon are packed together by the thousands in tank after tank of dirty, waste-filled water. They’re fed the remains of great masses of other fish killed for that purpose, and there’s a high attrition rate of death by anemia, lice infestation, and bacterial diseases. They don’t look like anything you’ve ever seen in a store; colorants are added to give the appearance of healthy fish. “It was sad to think,” he observes, “that this incredible species, which had evolved for millions of years to migrate across entire oceans and navigate upriver to reach the exact same spawning grounds they were born in, were now confined to swim in circles in their own filth.”

To the renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle, and to biologist Jonathan Balcombe, author of What a Fish Knows, goes the question of whether a fish can be miserable. They both explain that fish are complex, social, often long-lived creatures with acute sensory receptors, capable of experiencing fear and pain. What else would repel them from danger, and why do they respond to analgesics that dull pain? The idea of fish as feeling nothing that need concern us is a product of vague, unscientific, and awfully convenient thinking. “Anyone who says that has never really observed fish,” Earle tells us; it’s just a way of justifying “barbaric attitudes,” which is why she abstains from both fish and meat. With perfect timing, as this fear-and-pain discussion continues, we’re shown the back room of some market with a tank containing seven or eight large fish — groupers. For one of them, its turn has come and the creature is being chopped up on a block right next to the tank. The butcher doesn’t appear to notice, but had he looked up he would have seen the remaining fish hovering a few feet away, their eyes fixed on what was happening.

At each point in his journey, Tabrizi merely observes and wonders about things that would draw the attention of anyone who is neither indifferent nor desensitized to cruelty nor too attached to ocean fare to allow for objective judgment. All three of those traits are on display when he visits the Danish Faroe Islands to witness the “grind,” a local festivity in which herds of pilot whales that happen to be passing by are driven toward shore and hacked to death. The good people of Sea Shepherd have long tried to end this savage spectacle, but on the islands it’s not subject to rational or moral appeal — no “White saviors” of innocent creatures to be found among the Faroese — and it falls to Tabrizi to represent humanity with one gentle touch on the face of a young pilot whale slaughtered in the day’s fun. “In the chaos of everything that happened,” he reflects afterward, “I finally understood sustainability. It just meant that something could continue on forever regardless of how much suffering it caused.”

A moving sentiment, one of many he shares, but this is not exactly the language or preferred emphasis of many in his audience. His aversion to environmentalist platitudes helps explain why the film hasn’t played especially well in progressive circles — although, of course, many liberals, conservatives, and people of other persuasions will be fully attuned to Tabrizi’s central message that the abuse of other creatures is abhorrent. What I can’t figure out is why, in reviews of the film, the charges of “vegan propaganda” seem to come mostly from the left. A high tolerance for scoffing is part of the deal for anyone challenging the hidden practices that yield the animal products people like to eat. I draw the line, however, at wokester critics of Seaspiracy, who along with their multicultural-sensitivity stuff have directed a chorus of griping at its director over a call to action they didn’t want to hear.

Facing indefensible practices everywhere he looks — case after case of human beings doing harsh and unnatural things to other creatures for our own convenience — Tabrizi ventures to suggest that switching to plant-based alternatives might not be such a bad idea. It’s not going to solve everything, nor is it offered to the exclusion of other measures, but what’s the downside? As with animal agriculture, by patronizing commercial fishing we implicate ourselves in a problem we should be resisting. And what form of protest against unconscionable, scandalous industries could be more direct than to take personal responsibility and no longer buy their products? What more immediate opportunity to turn things, however slightly, in a better direction, and with luck prompt others to do the same?

Somehow, though, this kind of resistance just doesn’t do much for Seaspiracy’s woke detractors. The film is “simplistic,” we’re told; it ignores the broader “systemic issues” and “root causes” of our ocean crisis and the “major systematic overhauls” they require. With a vegan message, writes one fellow at the website Earther, the film urges “individual change, which is wholly inadequate,” when instead its rallying cry should have been to “blow up capitalism” and to “take down the fossil fuel industry.” As if anything ExxonMobil does could be more pertinent to ocean health than the outrages Tabrizi shows us, all of them arising from consumer demand for fish products. It turns out as well, according to a likeminded reviewer, that promoting plant-based alternatives to fish and meat is really just more “white privilege.”

What they’re trying to say is that they were hoping the documentary would deliver the usual sermonizing about climate change and uncaring corporations. Count them out when the questions of privilege and calls for radical rethinking acquire any actual meaning or personal application. Take down the oil companies! Environmental justice! “Systemic” change now! But add to the agenda just one modest alteration in their own behavior and suddenly, well, we’ve lost sight of the big picture and we’re carrying everything a bit too far.

Instead of the documentary they wanted, they got a brave and heartfelt venture in truth-telling, inviting all of us to decide for ourselves what’s worth keeping in the world it shows and what’s worth giving up. With or without the progressive stamp of approval, Seaspiracy is an inspiring effort, filled with compassion — a powerful, irrefutable piece of work.

Matthew Scully is the author of Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. A former literary editor of National Review and senior speechwriter to President George W. Bush, he lives in Paradise Valley, Ariz.

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