Vegans Vs Evil
I've written about the thorny science of veganism before. To summarise (because who's got time to read two blogs?) on environmental grounds, the more people who go vegan the better. Going vegan is one of the most eco-friendly things you can do and probably has more impact on your carbon footprint than switching to an electric car.
On health grounds however things are complicated. Going vegan has health benefits for certain people but it can have health risks for others. For instance, while red and processed meat have been shown to contribute to heart disease and cancer, veganism has been shown to contribute to strokes and bone-density diseases.
This means for some people, going vegan is a tricky decision with no comfortable answer. Many animals seem to experience suffering in a similar way to humans, which means we have to chose between the health of ourseves/our children and that of the animal. It's as if evolution has presented us with a diabolical trolley problem with our own life on one track and the life of an animal on the other.
Is prioritising your health over the health of another creature a selfish act, and if so, is it immoral? Are the cruel dice of Darwinism something we have to accept and not be ashamed of? Does being self-aware mean we have a right to be self-ish? I don't think any of these questions are easy and anyone who claims to have a simple answer has missed something.
Seaspiracy is a fast-paced documentary on Netflix which highlights major problems with the global fishing industry. Although why they didn't go with ConspiraSEA as a title is beyond my understanding.
There's a number of points the movie makes, but its core message is that the way we treat the oceans is causing irreparable damage that will deform the aquatic ecosystem. It's full of interviews with important-sounding sciencey people and scary-sounding statistics which, if correct, argue a powerful case in favour of limiting consumption of seafood. But how watertight is Seaspiracy? The answer, as you've probably guessed, is about as tangled as the fishing nets the movie repeatedly shows.
Seaspiracy is produced by Kip Andersen, the activist who brought us Cowspiracy and What The Health? both passionately pro-vegan documentaries claiming to expose myriad problems underscoring the meat and livestock industries. Andersen is also the founder of AUM Films, a company which, according to their website, aims to "effectively and efficiently represent a harmonious voice for all life on this planet". In other words, he sounds like a nice guy!
We have to be objective though. Andersen is a film-producer with an agenda, not an environmental scientist, nor a marine biologist. As the owner of a vegan media company, it's not a stretch to imagine he might occasionally veer off the rails of solid science to promote veganism. And, I'm sorry to say, as with his other two films, Seaspiracy is somewhat guilty.
Most of the scientific stuff is discussed in the first half of the film, while the second half is about the politics and alleged human rights abuses of fish industry. I can't comment too much on those because it's not my area of expertise, but I can do my best to have a look at how good Seaspiracy's science is. So let's take a look at the big claims and try to figure out which ones get the David Attenborough Seal of Approval.
THE BIG SCIENTIFIC CLAIMS
If The Ocean Dies, We Die - 100% True
Phytoplankton are tiny plants found in the surface oceans and they have the most important job in the world...they make our freaking oxygen. Although trees shoulder some of the burden, 50-85% (depending on how you measure it) of our breathable air comes from phytoplankton. If they were to go extinct, so would everything else...apart from a few rubbish bacteria and fungi.
Overfishing Whales Will Kill The Phytoplankton - Painfully Wrong
In the opening minutes of the movie, narrator/director Ali Tabrizi explains that whales and dolphins fertilise phytoplankton with their...ahem...leavings...and thus if their numbers decrease, so does the phytoplankton. This is the first major point he makes and everything else seems to stem from this initial concern.
He is, at least, honest and says this is just opinion, rather than solid science: "the way I see it...if the whales die, the ocean dies and if the ocean dies...we die." He doesn't back this chain of reasoning with data from a scientist, but it would have been a good idea to talk to one because, as a result, the first big statement of the film (4 minutes in) is mangled to the point of being backwards.
While whale and dolphin excretions can have a fertilising effect on phytoplankton it's a tiny one at best. Phytoplankton have been around much longer than whales have and they've been doing just fine without them; whales developed around 50 million years ago, whereas phytoplankton have been here for 500 million. In fact, the phytoplankton are what made the oxygen which allowed whales to evolve in the first place! The relationship between whales and phytoplankton is like the one between cows and grass. Remove the animal and there would be a tiny decrease in fertilisation, but the animals need the plants...not the other way round. Killing off cows doesn't lead to a grass shortage.
This is a massive own-goal for Seaspiracy, not just because "plants go at the bottom of a food chain" is BASIC year-seven biology, but because there is a correlation between phytoplankton and fish numbers - fish eat phytoplankton! One might argue, therefore, (using Tabrizi's logical steps) that overfishing would be a good idea. Less fish = more phytoplankton = better for the climate.
The problem of decreasing phytoplankton is grave but it's to do with CO2 in the air, not a shortage of whale poop. More CO2 in the atmosphere causes oceans to become acidic (CO2 dissolves in water to make carbonic acid) which kills phytoplankton. The other problem is that warmer water is less conducive to phytoplankton growth, so its a double whammy of bad. Seaspiracy is correct that the sea dying would be the end of humanity, but the phytoplankton point is nothing to do with overfishing and it's very misleading to conflate the two.
Straws Only Make Up 0.03% of Ocean Plastic - True
The film makes a big point of how getting rid of plastic straws doesn't do much for the environment. The number quoted is that a mere 0.03% of plastic waste in the ocean is down to straws. They've gotten this number (0.025% in the original study) from Professor J. Jambeck who has stated this is not a misrepresentation of her findings. In other words, abandoning single-use plastic straws does little to stem the tide of ocean plastic.
The Fishing Industry Is The Leading Cause of Plastic Pollution - Not True, But...
At about 33 minutes in, Tabrizi implies a conspiracy between plastic pollution advocacy groups and fishing corporations. As he's talking about this alleged conspiracy, he claims the fishing industry is "the leading cause of plastic pollution in many parts of the world". This isn't remotely correct, but what he's addressing is important and I'm willing to grant him some leeway here. I think he's just exaggerating on something he's passionate about - I've definitely been guilty of that myself.
The actual densest collection of fishing-industry plastic is to be found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, astonishingly made from 46% fishing-nets (2018 study by J. Reisser). In the rest of the ocean fishing plastic accounts for 20% (2016 study by L. Fok). Now obviously that's not great. The ideal amount of plastic discarded by the fishing industry should be 0%. But it's wrong to claim it's the main contributor. Most of the plastic in the ocean comes from single-use plastics on land which ends up in the sea.
Tabrizi is correct in stating that a huge amount of plastic in the ocean is a result of the fishing industry not regulating its own waste and if they did a better job, it would make a sizeable impact. The main trick to removing plastic in the ocean, however, is to recycle the plastics we use on land and find alternatives to single-use materials e.g. biodegradables or repeate-use plastics. The "majority" claim isn't verifiable but the spirit of what he's saying rings true.
Overfishing Leads To Species Decline, Including the Fish Themselves - 100% True
The documentary gets a lot right about the problems of bycatch and overfishing - essentially, in the process of fishing animals you want, you end up trapping other animals you don't. Combined with the fact there is next to no practical regulation of fishing in the world's oceans, any way you slice this problem, it comes back the same - the amount of fishing we're doing is leading to major decresases in fish populations at a klaxon-alarming pace. Put simply: we're depleting a lot of our fish reserves. This is a known problem...and something Attenborough's been saying for years.
90% of Coral Reefs Dead By 2050 - Almost Certainly True
In 2011 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued a report called Reefs at Risk Revisited, in which they calculated that by 2050, 90% of coral reefs on Earth would be under threat. Furthermore, the report concluded the primary driving force behind this was overfishing. The problem is made worse by climate change and ocean acidity, but overfishing is mainly what's killing the coral reefs.
Empty Oceans By 2048 - Almost Certainly Not True
This is one of the more dramatic moments in the movie, about 39 minutes in, where we are told "if current fishing trends continue, we will see virtually empty oceans by the year 2048". This number seems to be coming from a single study by Professor Boris Worm (genuine name) in 2006. A study which was largely discredited at the time and even Professor Worm himself (no seriously, that's his name) has recanted. The numbers no longer match his original prediction.
"Dolphin Safe" Isn't What You Think - 100% True
The "Dolphin safe" label strictly refers to the 1997 International Dolphin Conservation Program Act, which bans deliberate fishing in known dolphin-populated waters, NOT "no dolphins were harmed in the making of this tin". If dolphins are caught and killed during the fishing, but it wasn't a deliberate thing, the tin still gets to display the "dolphin safe" logo. In 2014 a report from the National Resources Defense Council found that roughly 650,000 marine mammals including dolphins are caught in fisheries every year.
There Is A Ship Painted Like A Shark Which Terrorises Illegal Fishing Ships - Not Only True, But...
For some reason Seaspiracy doesn't mention the fact that this ship is called Sam Simon, named after the legendary co-creator of The Simpsons who actually bought the ship and founded the project because he was tired of illegal fishing operations. That's true! Seriously.
Fish Are Bad For You - Very False
I'm afraid this one doesn't hold up at all and it's where the documentary does its biggest scientific swerve. In the last five minutes of the film, Tabrizi realises the only solution to all these problems is to go vegan. It's a dramatic punchline and although we are lead to believe this wasn't a foregone conclusion, it feels very much as though this is where he's been directing us all along. The music becomes uplifting, messages of hope are finally given and he explains that eating fish isn't something you should be doing anyway and that a vegan-lifestyle will save the planet and your health.
There are a few scientists who give short interviews about the dangers of eating fish, but even if these scientists' statements are not taken out of context (I found it suspicious we only saw snippets of what they said), they are very much going against a well-established although inconvenient fact. Seafood is good for you.
The finding of pretty much every large-scale randomised, double-blind study into the effects of fish is that eating them carries a wealth of health benefits. For instance, a 2008 study by Erik Rimm of 40,000 people found that a fishy diet led to a 15% lower risk of heart disease. Similar results relating to strokes were found in 2012 by J.M. Gaziano looking at 176,000 people and in 2012 by O.H. Franco looking at 794,000 people. A study in 2014 by F. Caraci even found that having fish in your diet makes you less susceptible to depression and so on...
The evidence comes back time and time again (I've only listed a smattering of studies but it's very consistent). Eating fish is not only good for you, people who eat seafood are healthier than people who don't. And that's a bugger, because it means we're back to the same moral dilemma over veganism. Eating fish is very good for you and your children's health. Does that justify killing and eating them?
A Major Problem With Overfishing Which Isn't Mentioned
Fish supplies feed roughly 10% of Earth's population. That whopping find comes from a study by Christopher Golden in 2014 which calculated 845 million people get their Vitamin A, B12, zinc, iron and fatty acids from fish. In other words, if the fishing industry sinks, you're looking at serious malnutrition in countries like Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, the Maldives, Angola, Ghana and the country I grew up in: Nigeria.
Overfishing will seriously deplete our fish stocks and this is going to lead to major health problems for people who cannot get these nutrients anywhere else. You might have the option to go vegan, but there are many parts of the world where the people do not have this luxury and rely on fish supplies to stay healthy.
OK...it's no surprise this particular point isn't mentioned in Seaspiracy but it does muddy the waters over where the film's heart is. For the most part, it appears to be a film about the problems of overfishing and it does a very good job of arguing that point. But it misses one of the biggest reasons people might be invested in the debate...a lot of people need to eat fish to be healthy. The fact this issue isn't mentioned betrays, I think, what the film is really about...trying to get more people to go vegan.
So the movie is kind of dishonest in its intentions (bad)...but it's making you care about an important issue (good)...while conveniently avoiding things that undermine its agenda (bad)...but its agenda is something which actually would benefit the planet (good)...this is the kind of moral mess even Immanual Kant would struggle with.
Shooting Yourself In The Fin
A lot of the biggest and boldest claims in Seaspiracy turn out to be unsubstantiated when you look into them and that seriously harms a documentary which otherwise makes very good points. By overdoing it on several key issues, they reduce their credibility, meaning critics can focus on the factual errors and undermine the message, kind of like the people who read a carefully written essay you've done and disregard it because of a typo.
If they'd stuck to "just the facts ma'am" and made the documentary robust in its research (rather than gleaning a lot of their information from Wikipedia...a fact they happily draw attention to) nobody could challenge them. But instead they've mixed in major inaccuracies among otherwise important revelations. Such is the problem with docu-tainment.
The Moral Problem
But here's the thing...Seaspiracy seems to be working! A lot of people are now boycotting or reducing their fish consumption. Which is a good thing for the ocean. They might be doing it because the documentary has misled them, but if the overall effect is of benefit, doesn't that mean we can forgive Tabrizi and Andersen's dishonesty? This is perhaps one of the biggest ethical dilemmas of all time...do the ends justify the means?
One school of thought, utilitarianism, argues that as long as the overall outcome is positive it doesn't matter how you got there, the world is a better place for your actions. The other school of thought, deontology, argues that evil acts are evil regardless of consequence and if you made the world a better place by doing bad things, that's too much of a price to pay.
Where I stand on the science of Seaspiracy is simple: there's valid stuff here about overfishing, but it's mixed with the bycatch of misleading over-dramatisation and cherry-picking. Where I stand on the film's morality is more complex. Something about the morality of the film seems a bit...fishy.
Yeah. That's Right. I went there. Judge me. I've been in the Wall Street Journal.
I love science, let me tell you why.