The new documentary Seaspiracy has sparked a huge amount of debate about the impacts of fishing in our ocean. Many have called it out as alarmist, especially in its apparent conclusion that people should stop eating fish. As a charity that seeks to expose unacceptable fisheries but also promote sustainable seafood we don’t agree with every aspect of the film, but in its broad sweep of the issues, the documentary highlights some of the major sustainability problems that are sadly of concern right here in Scotland and the UK…
Once relegated as a niche environmental issue, Seaspiracy has catapulted the ecological decline of the world’s oceans to public prominence, beaming it to a mainstream Netflix audience that is increasingly sceptical of big business and hungry for consumer information.
Seaspiracy tries to cover a lot of ground and begins very much at entry level, assuming little knowledge of the main problems affecting our seas. Whilst perhaps frustrating for those working in this field, notably this is the starting point for a big proportion of the public. It charts director Ali Tabrizi’s personal quest for understanding the state of our seas, attempting to stitch together a wide range of issues, from overfishing and habitat damage to bycatch and plastic pollution, and highlights the murkier underbelly of the seafood industry – such as human slavery and shark finning. Each step on their journey takes the film-makers to different countries – the overall conclusion: industrial fishing is bad for marine life and it’s best not to eat fish.
For a sustainability charity like our own, the film asks some challenging questions. Are environmental organisations greenwashing? Is sustainable fishing possible? Should we stop eating fish altogether?
Open Seas was set up in 2015 to call out unsustainable fishing practices in Scottish and UK waters and promote sustainability for the common good. We are deeply concerned about the routine environmental damage being done within our marine environment (see below), but our hashtag #EatMoreSustainableFish is unashamedly of the view that we should be eating seafood that is sustainably produced – not no seafood at all. We see sustainability as a sliding scale, but whilst every fishery is “on the spectrum,” unfortunately illegal and unsustainable (or both) fishing is not a fringe issue here in Scotland. The fishing industry is of course not one single entity (something we explore in detail in our blogs) – there are different sectors, some small-scale, and just like there are different types of producer in every food system, some are more sustainable than others.
But as one of the biggest fishing nations in Europe, Scotland and the UK are not immune from the documentary’s criticism and we’re going to explain why.
The film review
First, let’s take a look at the film and its wider reception.
The film does a very laudable job of helping people see fish as wildlife instead of ‘stocks’ to be exploited, and exposes the commodification and damage to marine ecosystems that have become symptoms of industrialised fishing. Sylvia Earle, the David Attenborough for our seas, makes this point with unsettling clarity:
“Over the years I’ve seen changes and been a witness to perhaps the greatest era of discovery about the ocean but at the same time the greatest era of loss. Since the middle of the 20th century, humans have succeeded in extracting from the ocean immense quantities of wildlife.”
Despite this principled perspective, the documentary is dividing opinion and has been counter-critiqued from multiple angles, predictably by the seafood industry but also by some environmentalists and marine scientists who are frustrated by its failure to recognise some of the progress made in recent years. There have been numerous ‘fact-checker’ style articles that attempt to assess the statements and there’s a pretty useful Wikipedia page summarising some of this, with some robust commentary by Fauna and Flora International and New Economics Foundation and some right-of-reply responses from contributors such as Oceana. The makers of Seaspiracy have created a ‘Facts’ page where they attempt to provide references for each of the statements made in the documentary.
As many will know, we take a dim view of misrepresentation of facts and these should be called out. The worst in the documentary include the overall claim that sustainable fisheries do not exist and that the oceans could be devoid of fish by 2048.
The director has been accused of a lot of things other than getting facts wrong, such as white male privilege and taking a Western-centric view of fishing. However, we think some of these attacks are a bit unfair, and say more about the defensive positions of those critiquing the documentary than the motivations of the film-maker.
Some reactions have been particularly revealing: the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) initially challenged the messages of the film whilst only cursorily acknowledging the fundamental problems it exposes. The MSC’s press release notes that “more attention needs to be given to the crisis of overfishing” before embarking on a lengthy point by point rebuttal of several statements, some of which weren’t directly made in the documentary. The MSC have since taken a bit of stock and acknowledged that some of its “main charges do ring true at a global level” and urged respect when responding to the critiques in the film.
Seafish, the body tasked with promoting the seafood industry in the UK, has keen to portray the documentary as exposing a ‘foreign’ problem, optimistically listing “ten reasons to feel good about seafood in the UK.” Seafish describes the issues in the film as “horrendous”, but notes that “[f]ortunately, these activities are rare in the UK and there are plenty of reasons to have confidence in the industry that produces the seafood we eat”. That said, they are the same organisation who called the North Sea cod fishery “a great example of responsible fisheries management” in response to the fishery finally losing its MSC certification in 2019 for overfishing. Other Scottish fishing businesses have been concerned to hear “issues in our industry come to light” but go on to argue the issues raised in the film are not ones happening here in our waters – sadly many are.
And this is where we’d like to throw in our own perspective: many of these issues, illegal fishing, bycatch and greenwashing are sadly a feature within Scotland’s fisheries. There is an understandable sensitivity when criticising businesses and industry sectors operating in your own country and the politicians and civil servants who regulate them, but they need called out….
1. Bottom-trawling and dredging causes serious environmental damage… every day
Bottom towed fisheries, such as bottom trawling for fish like cod and Nephrops (aka scampi) or dredging for scallops cause serious damage to the seabed and marine ecosystems. Despite this their footprint has grown significantly over recent years. At the end of 2020, the Scottish Governments published its Marine Assessment which found this to be one of the most significant and widespread problems, and calculated it was causing high levels of disturbance across 95% of some areas.
The problem was to be addressed by the designation of Marine Protected Areas but, as noted in Seaspiracy, many of these areas are just ‘paper parks. The Scottish Government proclaims that 37% of our seas are protected, but these designations protect only 5% of coastal waters from bottom-trawling and scallop dredging.
Scottish Gov’s ‘Priority Marine Feature Review’ is in limbo, but in the meantime our seas continue to decline https://t.co/RPddPnnDbK
Just 5% of our inshore seas are protected from scallop dredging and bottom-trawling. When will this unsustainable regime be effectively reformed? pic.twitter.com/f3fkAbpQ5e
— Open Seas (@TheOpenSeas) May 19, 2021
The Government’s own studies show that MPAs have reduced the footprint of bottom-towed fisheries by only 1%. Some of the most important areas for biodiversity remain exposed to destructive and damaging fisheries. Everyone agrees that this is a problem, unsustainable and must be addressed, but nothing has been done to address it since Scottish Ministers first declared it an issue four years ago and promised to safeguard seabed habitats from dredging and bottom-trawling.
For decades now concerns have been raised about the escalating impacts of scallop dredging on our seabed, not just by environmental organisations, but also by other fishermen and marine businesses. We are therefore part of a coalition campaign to recover our coastal seas and are urging people to sign a petition for a just transition to sustainable fisheries.
2. Illegal fishing persists in Scotland’s seas and the tools to stop it are being delayed
Even the few areas where fisheries restrictions are in place (which protect just 5% of our inshore seabed) are being damaged by illegal fishing.
Incidents of suspected illegal fishing are difficult to investigate and prosecute due to Government’s limited resources and outdated vessel tracking systems. But unfortunately illegal and destructive fishing is happening. With the investigative efforts of supportive fishermen and members of local communities, we have helped to document at least eight examples of illegal dredging and trawling in Scotland’s coastal waters in just the past four years:
- Loch Alsh, Skye (October 2020)
- Summer Isles (July 2019)
- Sound of Jura (July 2019)
- Sound of Mull (January 2019)
- Garvellachs (December 2018)
- Gairloch (Nov 2018)
- Firth of Lorn (Feb 2018)
- Loch Carron (April 2017)
Illegal scallop dredging deprives other coastal businesses from making a more sustainable living from the seabed.
The Scottish Government promised to accelerate roll-out of remote electronic monitoring on scallop dredge fleet in 2019, but it's still delayed.
Radio report📻👇 pic.twitter.com/gDbqM4JuRg
— Open Seas (@TheOpenSeas) October 27, 2020
One of the simple measures to stop this is proper vessel tracking. Over six years ago, the Scottish Government promised the modernisation of inshore fisheries vessel monitoring and committed to achieving it by 2020. In December 2018 the Scottish Parliament even voted “for the use of robust vessel tracking and monitoring technology on all Scottish fishing vessels.” And yet this programme is in the process of being delayed and watered down. The Government is now implementing tracking on only some parts of the fleet – scallop dredge vessels and larger pelagic boats. At the time of writing this, around £2 million of public money has been sunk into fitting tracking devices to the 100 or so boats that do not have them and yet, at last count, only 30% of this already very small section of Scotland’s fishing fleet has been fitted with them. What is the Government doing with this public money? Why is the market not insisting on these measures? Why are the Regional Inshore Fisheries Groups (forums established to bring fishermen together) not driving this forward faster across the whole fleet?
3. Industry influence
For years, parts of the industry – and indeed some politicians – have been trying to downplay illegal fishing as just one or two “rogues”. The Scottish Whitefish Producers’ Association (SWFPA) – the largest fishing association in Europe – has tried to quash suggestions that ‘responsible’ parts of the industry are involved.
@SWFPA says that illegal scallop dredging is a problem entirely associated with a few rogue vessels. Any attempt to make it otherwise as suggested by @HughRaven is totally disingenuous and intentionally misleading for immoral and obvious reasons.
— SWFPA (@SWFPA) December 6, 2018
Yet recently one of its own members, prominent scallop dredge skipper John MacAlister, was convicted of a serious case of illegal fishing inside a protected area and a string of other fishing offences. Fined £187,000, this individual has been Chair of the SWFPA’s Scallop Committee, whose vessels are certified by the Responsible Fishing Scheme. Until recently he has publicly championed ‘vessel monitoring’ in the media as a means to tidy up the reputation of the industry, alongside former Fisheries Minister Fergus Ewing. At the time of publishing this blog, the Scottish Whitefish Producers’ Association had apparently refused to say whether John MacAlister remained a member of its Scallop Committee.
Like many policy areas, corporate influence plays a big role in the way that Government does fisheries management. Decisions are often made by groups of commercial stakeholders with little wider involvement, that are then rubber-stamped by consultation, in marked contrast to the open and transparent governance of other areas of public policy. Sometimes decisions made seem to ignore clear sustainability concerns. Recently, innovative proposals by an inshore fishing association were rejected without clear justification: in January the Scottish Government was found by judges to have acted unlawfully by refusing a trial ‘no-trawl’ zone in the Inner Sound near Skye by failing to apply their own criteria when assessing the proposal. The court ruling is worth a read.
The Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation have taken a legal action against the Scottish Government for rejecting a ‘trawl-free’ inshore fishing scheme in the Inner Sound, on the west coast. Check out @STVNews coverage of the issue https://t.co/DuforCJ967 pic.twitter.com/nnYBVbY0Dc
— Open Seas (@TheOpenSeas) January 8, 2021
It’s time decisions made about one of Scotland’s precious natural and public assets are made openly, fairly and according to due process in the public interest.
4. Bycatch is a big problem in Scotland’s fishing industry
Seaspiracy does do a good job of explaining the problem of bycatch – how some methods of fishing that catch fish indiscriminately in nets, is leading to mass declines of other species, such as whales, dolphins, sharks and other fish. Unfortunately, in Scotland some of our biggest fisheries have evolved with bycatch built into their business model.
Scotland is the largest producer of langoustine in the world, and yet this fishery has a major bycatch problem. Langoustine (or Nephrops) are a small prawn which lives on the seabed and the most are caught by bottom-trawling with nets that have small mesh size then shelled and turned into scampi. This ‘bycatches’ large volumes of marine life and other fish, often young fish.
While ‘stocks’ of langoustines are mostly managed inline with scientific advice (though overlook the advice about the geographic limits of each stock), the amount of fish caught and killed as bycatch is known not to be sustainable. Populations of fish such as cod and whiting, which were overfished in the 1980s are struggling to recover because fishing pressure is bycatching large volumes of juvenile fish from these species’ populations. In 2007, for every 100 tonnes of prawns landed in the Clyde, 24 tonnes of fish were being caught and thrown back dead. Scottish Government’s own figures estimated that 1,308 tonnes of unwanted cod, whiting and haddock would be caught from Scotland’s west coast inshore waters by the prawn trawl fleet, in the first three months of 2019.
This practice of ‘discarding’ was made illegal (phased in between 2015-2019), but whilst the industry has sought to achieve more ‘selectivity’ – bigger mesh sizes, avoidance plans, panels, so that fish can escape and survive the trawls – illegal discarding is an open secret. Scottish Government’s own research, presented to leading names in the fishing and seafood industries in April 2019 showed that once cameras or observers not on board boats, discarding was common. In 2018 the House of Lords found “no evidence that fishers have been complying with it.” The Head of Fishery for Scottish Government considered these claims “…there is one continuing challenging narrative that we are facing: that across a large number of stocks there is an assumption that the Top Ups provided to cover the discard column as we move to full implementation of the Landing Obligation have simply been taken as additional quota, with discarding continuing at normal and even increased levels… I personally think the challenge is probably fair, though happy to be advised otherwise.”
The Government’s own fishery managers concede that improved ‘selectivity’ in prawn trawling is “difficult to achieve” and our joint investigation into illegal discarding on the west coast indicates that illegal discarding is routine and official inquiries back this up. Illegal discarding, sadly rife in Scotland’s fisheries, is treated almost as taboo and for some fisheries too difficult to resolve. It’s time this changed.
5. In Scotland, the Marine Stewardship Council has certified a scallop fishery that dredges inside Marine Protected Areas
One of the most striking issues in Seaspiracy is the issue of greenwash – where glossy marketing disguises environmental harm within the supply chain. The stand-out example in the documentary is when representatives of an eco-label concede they have no way to actually prove that dolphins are not harmed in the ‘dolphin-friendly tuna’ products that they certify.
The organisation that operates the world’s largest certification scheme – the Marine Stewardship Council – also comes in for criticism as Professor Calum Roberts notes the disconnect between consumer expectations and certified fisheries. He explains that MSC has “certified fisheries that produce astonishing levels of bycatch and those are ignored because the level of kill is considered to be sustainable in itself. But this is not what the consumer is looking for: they want to know that no marine mammals have been killed, no seabirds slaughtered in order to put that fish on their plate. The label on the tin isn’t worth a damn in some cases”.
In Scotland, a number of fisheries are MSC-certified, most controversially from our perspective is the scallop dredge fishery in the coastal waters of Shetland which is certified as sustainable despite taking place inside Marine Protected Areas. The fishery is effectively privatised (criticised by some local fishermen as a ‘closed shop’), managed by the Shetland Shellfish Management Organisation – which controls access for a number of fishing companies and individuals to dredge for scallops (given the SSMO has not issued any dive licenses for scallops, it would currently be unlawful to hand-dive commercially for scallops in Shetland!).
The Shetland fishery is regularly held in high regard as an example of good scallop dredge management; it is certainly better than the rest of Scotland. However, we objected to this certification in 2017 due to our concerns about the impacts on these Marine Protected Areas and the wider marine habitats where dredging occurred, as well as incomplete vessel monitoring within a supposedly fully traceable fishery. Unfortunately after a lengthy hearing, our objection was rejected on the basis that the fishery has its own closed areas (which include places such as the map below, behind a storm beach or the other side of a road) and the fact that the vessels have tracking devices (which 40% do not, and whose data is entirely confidential, something MSC criteria apparently forbid..). We set out our concerns about this in detail at the time and many of which continue to this day.
The role of government
From our point of view, the Seaspiracy shines a very urgent spotlight on the overall environmental damage we are doing to our oceans. Our main criticism is that it puts a lot of emphasis on bad businesses, misleading labelling schemes and mis-targeted consumer campaigns (termed as MCBs – “micro-consumerist bollocks” by contributor George Monbiot) but fails to call out the failure or complicity of governments.
Ultimately this is one of the biggest problems; lax regulation, public subsidies and the reluctance of governments to effectively regulate unsustainable activity. Why are governments not standing up to corporate muscle? Are these businesses too big to fail? Is there cronyism where politics and industry converge? Do these businesses exploit their commercial might by sophisticated exercises in political lobbying? Open Seas believes there are two key routes to reform, one is consumer power, which is covered within the film, but another is political, where people actively engage their political representatives on these issues. Both doors need to be pushed.
One thing is for sure, Seaspiracy has done more to raise public awareness of the impacts of fishing on our ocean than anything to date. There have been a few leaps forward in the marine conservation cause (the End of the Line, Unnatural History of the Sea, ‘Fish Fight’), but none have made the quantum leap of awareness that we are seeing today. It’s central message – that our seas are in trouble and there are serious sustainability issues with seafood – has penetrated the mainstream consciousness and there is no turning back. Some of the simplified messages definitely need unpacking and rebutting, but publicity provides oxygen for reform – and the management of Scotland’s seas urgently need reform….