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Review: Seaspiracy (2021)

Seaspiracy (2021)

Directed by: Ali Tabrizi

Premise: A documentary about the harm that human beings are inflicting on the oceans. The film alleges that commercial fishing is wiping out ocean ecosystems and polluting the sea and that ecological organizations are mostly feckless.

What Works: Seaspiracy is slickly produced. The filmmakers intend to reach a mainstream audience and so they invest in emotional appeals. Seaspiracy is crafted to play like a thriller. The picture moves along at a brisk pace and it uses intense music, vivid images, and dramatic narration to guide viewers where the filmmakers want us to go. Scenes of whaling have a visceral impact and those images effectively stir our outrage. Seaspiracy paints a dire picture of ocean ecology and pleads for consumers to stop eating seafood. Whatever the other problems of this documentary, Seaspiracy effectively leads viewers to that conclusion.

What Doesn’t: Seaspiracy’s reliance on emotional appeals is a red flag and since it was released on Netflix, Seaspiracy has incited a growing number of critiques from oceanographers and marine biologists. In an article published in Vox, marine biologist Daniel Pauly accused Seaspiracy of distorting the facts to fit its narrative. Pauly takes particular issue with the documentary’s claim that global fish stocks are poised to collapse within the next thirty years, a claim that is based on outdated information originally presented in a paper that the BBC reports was suspect even when it was first published. Fisheries expert Ray Hilborn also spoke out against Seaspiracy on this point, saying “The idea that the oceans are being emptied of fish is simply false.” Marine biologist Jean Utzurrum published a critique of Seaspiracy that pointed to the way the documentary oversimplifies complex issues, namely the different types and magnitudes of fishing (industrial, commercial, small-scale, artisanal) and types of fisheries (tuna, shrimp, salmon, etc.) and the variety of fishing techniques (trawls, longlines, gillnets, pots, etc.). Seaspiracy possesses no nuance and its analysis of the problem is superficial. The filmmakers attempt to cover for their lack of factual authority with emotional appeals and they present a solution that has been derided for its shortsightedness. Conservationist and filmmaker Kaelyn Maehara wrote, “We cannot make blanket statements that all people must stop eating fish without understanding the reality of that statement and the vulnerable communities it affects the most.” Maehara also points to the way Seaspiracy’s depiction of the Asian fishing industry reinforces racist stereotypes. The preponderance of expert testimonies against this film is damning and Seaspiracy is ultimately counterproductive because its distorted portrait of ocean ecology distracts from the real problems and undermines the case for conservation. 

DVD extras: Currently available on Netflix.

Bottom Line: Seaspiracy shows some filmmaking talent on the part of its director and producers but the film’s portrait of threats to the ocean and proposed solutions are superficial and wrong. This documentary does a disservice to its audience and to its cause.

Episode: #848 (April 18, 2021)