In my world of people who write things about the marine environment, the Netflix shockdoc Seaspiracy has certainly provided lots to write about. While I don’t feel the need to add many more keystrokes on the film itself, it’s the reaction to the film, rather than the film itself, that I’d really like to comment on.
A short review: it's not good
I’m pretty surprised by the film's popularity. As someone actively working on marine issues, it wasn’t my first time hearing the issues raised or even hearing most of the statistics cited, but I found it extremely difficult to keep up with the breakneck speed of information. I expected that general audiences would be completely overwhelmed by all the scene changes and jumpy infographics, but alas, the people of IMDB have spoken with an impressive score of 8.2. I’m surprised, but not bothered.
I also found the ‘backpacker on a gap year discovering the world’ approach to narration a bit cringey. While I’m a fan of the recent trend to integrate the first person perspective into scientific communication as it’s more straightforward and honest, the film’s narration struck me as a step too far. We really don’t need to have the camera rolling during your first Google search of a topic. Again, surprised by the popularity, but not bothered.
What did bother me was the film’s portrayal of a naive truth seeker as a technique to discover shocking information in seemingly ‘real time’. For those familiar with the marine issues raised, there was far too much intentionality behind the selection of information and even its chronology.
So no, I didn't find it a very enjoyable documentary despite the budget and impressive access. But to be completely honest, I'm taking no comfort from the reaction to the film either.
Angry reactions from the community
As fisheries are a bit of an obscure sector, the newfound attention Seaspiracy has brought to the topic has provoked hundreds of responses from people who write things about the marine environment. The reaction hasn't been pleasant, but it is understandable. I reckon a big problem here is that not only does Seaspiracy claim that several fisheries known to be the worst in the world are not sustainable, the film then makes the stronger claim that sustainable fisheries do not exist, and even further, that they cannot exist. That’s quite the claim! I think we can all empathise with the annoyance of people working in and supporting sustainable fisheries who are made to feel completely invisible by this logic.
In response, people who write things about the marine environment have gone after the film with 'takedowns' calling for more nuance and accusing the film of misinformation, lies, and vegan propaganda. Various spats have broken out on Twitter with Seaspiracy factchecks, factcheck factchecks, factchecks of the factcheck factchecks, and possibly another iteration or two by the time I publish this blog. It’s difficult to keep up, but my summary thus far is that there are few, if any, outright lies in the film, rather that the film invariably selects the most extreme fishery or estimate in its narrative. The chances of this being a coincidence over the course of the entire film are incalculably slim.
Nuancing the nuance surrounding the film
Presenting the strongest case for or against an issue is not my favourite epistemological approach, but I do recognise that it is a form. It’s the main approach used in courthouses the world over. It’s also a pretty common approach in documentaries that people who write about the marine environment often praise, like Blackfish and The Cove. Regardless, even if we don’t accept the validity of such an approach, we should should at the very least recognise that narrative bias and outright lies are two distinct accusations and should be responded to differently.
Now I get that the reaction to one extreme case is to make the strongest case in the opposite direction — that’s exactly how the court system works — but what bothers me and prompted me to write a blog is that people who write things about the marine environment seem to be unaware that they are responding to the problems of Seaspiracy exactly the same manner. There’s a lack of self-awareness here. Calling the film lies is an extreme response that can only be backed up — like the generalisations made in the film — in part. As is so often the case, those who seek to do battle become the thing they are fighting against. Just as the film’s use of the most extreme fisheries and statistics could not be pure coincidence, a factcheck that selects the most egregious cases is being equally selective.
We should also recognise that it goes by completely unremarked on when fishing organisations, governments, and non-governmental organisations promote fisheries with images of fish carefully presented on dinner plates rather than the trail of harm that Seapiracy covers. The narrative selection with Seaspiracy is only more noticeable because it is counter to the dominant narrative. If Seaspiracy is ‘vegan propaganda’, then what should we call the hundreds of videos that promote seafood consumption?
There’s a second, much more important point I'd like to make here about proportional outrage. Some of the information cited in the film is annoying. The world would better place if we moved on from the ‘empty oceans by 2048’ projection. But how can the feeling of annoyance compare to the outrage, shame, and activism we should feel from all the issues raised in the film from slavery to shark finning. Even if a statistic of dolphin bycatch is overstated, why does that provoke more outrage than dolphin bycatch itself? Or rates of slavery versus slavery itself?
Yes, let’s be vigilant about how information is used, but it’s seriously concerning if these errors provoke a bigger reaction than the harms documented. Of course if people were already writing and campaigning about all the harms raised in the film, then fair enough, you get a pass, but call me a sceptic. Sadly, I’m scrolling Twitter enough to have a pretty good sense of what angers people.
A question some people have raised is whether the film, despite all its faults, still makes a positive contribution because it promotes lower seafood consumption. That strikes me as a pretty low bar and I think we can demand a little bit better from our documentaries than “doesn’t obviously make the world a worse place”. But I will say this: I do think the world would be a better place if we collectively ate less fish and I do think it’s interesting that there is a resistance to say so. Kudos Seaspiracy for that, but that's a topic for another blog. Maybe next week.