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Episode 53


Discussion with Rosie and Cristina about the 2021 documentary Seaspiracy. We discuss its successes and failings as a piece of science communication or environmental education, including the pitfalls of using the conspiracy framing. We also share a few ideas for how teachers might make use of the film and approach the various issues it raises.

  • You may want to watch the film first and think about:

    • Whose views are being represented? Whose are being left out?
    • How does it compare with other ocean documentaries?
  • Guests on the show:

The good

  • Brings a range of ocean conservation issues to a wider audience

    • Plastic pollution and ghost fishing gear
    • Bycatch
    • Requirement for more robust monitoring
    • Ethics of hunting whales and dolphins or keeping them captive
    • Need for regulation and enforcement of sustainable fishing practices
  • Great visualizations of the scale of the problems and to illustrate ecological concepts

    • Food chains/Trophic dynamics
    • Size of trawler nets
  • Ecological issues are uncovered along an easy to follow narrative arc which carries the viewer along for the ride.

  • Good reminder that there are always going to be many people who will be encountering issues for the first time.

    • Not everyone has the time or interest to follow specific discussions, like the origins of marine plastic pollution, or to look into the history of those discussions.

The Bad

Conspiracy framing

“Why am I only hearing about this now?" / “Why is nobody talking about this?”

People in marine conservation are talking about issues like discarded fishing gear and have been for years. As an example, the United Nations Environment Programme published a report in 2009 about discarded fishing gear, and international organizations have been taking action on waste dumping in the oceans since the 1970s. That said, the intended target audience for the film may have been those who haven’t heard about the issue before and the many people who don’t follow marine conservation research.

Asking these questions within a conspiracy framing is a problem because it implies there is an active attempt to cover up the issue. This is inaccurate and has the effect of undermining the organizations which have been working to take action on these issues.

“Everyone only talks about plastic straws?" / “Why are they avoiding talking about fishing?”

Again, within the conspiracy framing, these questions imply that there is an active effort to cover up or avoid the issue. If asked outside of a conspiracy framework, these questions become more productive. Public conversation moved on to single-use plastics after the success of programmes like Blue Planet, and viral videos/photos of plastics injuring or being eaten by marine life. Organizations hope to publicize their work by latching onto these active public conversations. This is a product and a pitfall of relying on social media for news and information. The way we use social media tends to create echo chambers where we only hear about a limited range of issues because of our own interests and tendency to follow those with similar views.

Organizations might also have different communications strategies for public, government and business. Public information campaigns tend to focus on how individuals can take action. Fishing gear is not really and issue the public can take direct action on. It requires regulation and/or changes in company behaviours. Single use plastics are much closer to the consumer, so individual action is more feasible, and has proved successful. Bans on plastic straws and bags have led to dramatic declines in their use.

“Follow the money” - not as useful as it sounds

Receiving money from the industry being monitored tells you there is the potential for a problem, it does not indicate there is a problem. Well-run NGOs and charities handle funding in ways which maintain independence of the monitoring organization, so it is possible to do. Implying there is a problem with independence because of funding, without showing that it is actually problematic, has the impact of undermining organizations which have been successfully working on the issues.

Losing sight of the forest / trees for the other

The film does a poor job of linking together large and small scales, global and local issues. In the case of plastic pollution, the film chooses to focus on the metric organizations are not using for ‘gotcha’ soundbites. When it was clear that the organizations were talking about microplastics, the film could have taken the route of: discarded fishing equipment is killing wildlife and gradually breaking down into microplastics, the impact of which we are still only learning about. This would have linked large and small scales, and the discussion could have moved on to tackling the issue at every level rather than criticizing organizations for not tackling the specific problem the film maker chose to focus on.

Another nuance is the difference between commercial/industrial fishing, and small-scale fishing. At one point George Monbiot says that our image of fishing as a fisherman on a little boat bobbing along in the water is wrong. His point is that the vast majority of the fish caught are caught by huge industrial fishing ships. This is true, that most fish are caught by these large ships. But the majority of fishers would be considered small scale fishers; they are the small crew of people on a boat bobbing along in the water.(MSC: Large vs small scale fishing)

Social / Environmental Justice

Related to the previous point is that the film does not handle the differential impact of choices well. Most people involved in fishing operate on relatively small scales, meaning that the majority of fishers globally are not engaged the hugely damaging practices highlighted in the film. Additionally, the majority of small-scale fishing catches are directly eaten by humans. Large-scale fishery catches often go towards other uses, such as animal feed, or low-cost canned products.

The film presents a single solution to the problems it highlights, removing fish from our diets. However, not everyone has the ability or willingness to adopt one-size-fits-all solutions. Furthermore, the likely consequence of everyone ceasing to eat fish would be that many small-scale fishers would suffer because most of their catch is sold directly for human consumption. By contrast, large-scale fishing companies already have other markets for their product, for instance as agricultural fertilizers or pet foods.

On the consumer side, many communities depend on fish as an inexpensive or even staple food. For some people cutting out fish means not eating salmon, cod, and tiger prawns. Potentially, as depicted in Seaspiracy , switching to more expensive, plant-based alternatives. For others it means not having tinned tuna or fish fingers and instead eating something else which will be at the same price point. This is a much more limited range of options.

The perfect being the enemy of the good

Throughout the documentary the film maker criticizes organizations for confronting what he argues are smaller issues (single use plastics and microplastics), or for not providing 100% guarantees (dolphin safe labelling). Unfortunately there is little discussion of the progress which has been made on these issues, and no discussion of steps which could be taken to improve the situation.

It is also problematic because the distrust in regulatory bodies and conservation charities pushes viewers to disengage from those processes. Viewers who might no longer trust sustainability labels may revert to purchasing cheaper and, probably, less sustainable options.

You don’t have to do just one thing

The end focus on one solution misses out on an opportunity inform viewers of all the actions they could take which can help. A list or hierarchy of options so that viewers could see actions which tackle problems from many angles. The film could also have encouraged viewers to speak with their elected representatives about their concerns. Letting governments and regulatory bodies know that there is support for stronger regulation and enforcement, or pushing for support for fishing communities to transition away from those industries.

Making use of Seaspiracy

Compare documentary styles

  • Compare language use, information provided, messages, narratives
  • Blue Planet 2 vs Seaspiracy
    • BP2: Talks about problems, causes, solutions, work still to be done
    • Ssp: problems, fear, revulsion, presents single solution
    • Compare cultural perspectives on the dolphin hunt in Taiji, Japan
      • A Whale of a Tale, 2018
      • Behind the Cove, 2015
      • The Cove, 2009

Fact-checking exercise

Media literacy exercise

  • What is this trying to make me feel and why?

Power/Western colonialism

  • Whose views are being represented? Whose are being left out?
  • Whose voices to you get to hear? Who gets a film maker’s voiceover summary?
  • How is power and privilege being exercised?

Check your own biases and assumptions

  • How do you feel about the issues raised?
  • Do you agree with points because you know they are supported by evidence or because they feel plausible?
  • Could you be mistaken in your views on the film’s accuracy?

Outline a better documentary

  • Students could think of what they would do to improve the documentary

    • Do they want more emotional resonance? Less?
    • What other information would they include?
    • Who else would they want to speak to?
  • Compare improved documentary outlines and discuss differences in approach

    • Important to be able to express your opinions and the basis for your opinions
    • Important to be able to listen to other people’s opinions and be able to see where they are coming from. This exercise is not about arriving at a right/wrong answer or reaching consensus, it is about constructive feedback and empathy.

More responses to Seaspiracy

Big Fish tries to sink Seaspiracy - Comment piece by the editor from The Ecologist

Let’s talk about Seaspiracy - Into the Wild Podcast

Seaspiracy harms more than it educates - Hakai magazine: Costal science and societies

The Seaspiracy Controversy: Should we stop eating fish? - Today in Focus podcast from The Guardian

Further reading about topics discussed

Faroe Island Whaling, a 1,000-Year Tradition, Comes Under Renewed Fire - National Geographic

Interview about being a fisheries monitor and sustainability - Francisco Blaha: Fisheries consultant

Overfishing destroying livelihoods - United Nations Africa Renewal

Social indicators for Costal Communities - National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

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