The recent release of the Netflix documentary “Seaspiracy” sparked a lot of attention, from the scientific community and the public at large. The presenter and filmmaker, Ali Tabrizi, travels from country to country to expose destructive fishing practices. According to him, fishing cannot be sustainable, and the only solution to protect marine animals is to eliminate seafood from our diets. Like many of my marine and fisheries scientist colleagues, this movie made me cringe. While it deals with a real issue – the impacts of fishing on the oceans – its constant use of fraudulent interview techniques, misleading claims and wrong statistics reveals a biased agenda.
One of the arguments raised in the film is the lack of sustainability in fisheries and aquaculture. Certainly, industrial fishing is a harmful activity that has substantial effects on both the targeted species and other organisms such as those living on and in the seafloor, seabirds or marine mammals. In that respect, the movie is doing a good job at showing the impacts fishing can have on marine ecosystems. However, that is not the case for all fishing activities, and some practices are more destructive than others.
In fisheries science, we have clear definitions of what sustainable fishing is: for instance, the Maximum Sustainable Yield sets the amount of fishing at which the fisheries production is the highest before reaching overexploitation. We have precise ways of measuring fishing quotas that do not compromise the future of the species as well as that of fishing activities. If a species is overfished, it should be supported by recovery measures, respecting the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act that has been in place in the U.S. since the late 70s. Intense fisheries management has proved effective at managing fish populations sustainably around the world. This is entirely ignored by the documentary, offering only the extreme viewpoint that there is no sustainability in fisheries or that all fish will disappear from the oceans in the next three decades. These are false facts, and, in the U.S., most marine populations are well managed nowadays, with only 16 percent of assessed fish stocks effectively overfished.
Where does that leave us, consumers, and what can we do to protect the oceans? One way to ensure that your consumption of seafood is not contributing to overfishing is to eat species that are caught locally, in the right season or fished sustainably (following for instance the Marine Stewardship Council label standards). By consuming species that are caught in foreign waters far away from the U.S., one could sustain a market that potentially does not catch species based on sustainable levels or ethical standards. Eating species caught in a different country/continent is ultimately using a lot of resources and transportation to bring the fish you like to your plate, and it fails to support local jobs and businesses.
Another point is that consumers particularly appreciate tuna, cod and salmon, which are carnivorous fish. Because there is such high demand for a handful of species, a part of the aquaculture has tried to meet this growing demand. Salmon production (as well as other crustaceans) requires wild-captured fish to feed them and therefore exploits wild resources for meeting the consumption market, although this is changing with the development of new aquaculture techniques. Shrimp aquaculture is particularly destructive and is often associated with the loss of essential coastal habitats such as mangroves and generates high greenhouse gas emissions. By switching which species we eat, we can reduce such impacts.
While I personally do not have any objection to the growing number of persons becoming vegan, there are other ways to reduce the impacts of our feeding habits on the environment. Becoming more familiar with what vegetables/fruits are local and seasonal is as important as adjusting our seafood consumption to certain species and areas. In a nutshell, you can be a responsible seafood consumer! And by doing so, your consumption will likely have less impact on the environment than meat consumption. Becoming vegan is an option for someone who has the choice and resources to do it. Many communities on the planet strongly rely on local (and sometimes less destructive) fishing and aquaculture activities, and seafood consumption provides nutritional benefits that could not be met otherwise.Instead of advocating for a widespread change to veganism, I would suggest paying more attention to our current habits and changing them to reduce our environmental impact, whether for seafood or other agricultural products. One of the most important threats to biodiversity in the oceans, along with fishing, is climate change. Maintaining and enhancing biodiversity in the oceans is essential for meeting nutritional benefits and this biodiversity is severely threatened by climate change. The most effective way to protect our oceans from climate change is to limit our carbon emissions. What can we do to reduce our carbon emissions? Eat sustainable, buy local, travel less and ask your government to take action.