Seaspiracy and Sustainability in the Global Fishing Industry

May 4 2021 - Calum Palmer, Researcher

The fishing industry has long been an integral part of global economic growth, with seafood providing an invaluable source of nutrition for developing and developed nations alike. However, the current climate crisis has highlighted extreme concerns around how the exploitative practices involved in intensive fishing are both causing and exacerbating the issues the planet is facing.

While there is a global call for the corporate world to adopt more sustainable methods and for consumers to think more consciously about the impact of their choices, the release of the documentary Seaspiracy has raised both eye-brows and further questions around the sustainability of the fishing industry and the validity of many associated certifications.

Seaspiracy is a new Netflix documentary, released in April 2021, which focuses on the health of our oceans and the life within them. Not only that, it emphasises the importance of the oceans for life on land and how humans depend on the ocean for survival for a multitude of reasons, including food, biodiversity, and carbon sequestering. The documentary has received a mixed response, but it has no doubt sparked public debate and corporate controversy, targeting the sustainability of industrial fishing and whether it can currently be considered sustainable. While some of the statistics Seaspiracy provides have been criticised for being outdated or exaggerated, the overall concept and message of the documentary is very clear: our oceans are in danger and it appears, without them, so are we.

It is estimated that almost 30% of fish stocks commercially fished are over-fished, and over 60% of fish stocks have been fully fished. While around 155 million tonnes of seafood are produced every year, equating to between 1-3 trillion individual fish, industrial fishing nets are often left behind in the wake. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area of 1.6 million square kilometres (three times the size of France) in the Pacific Ocean which is a result of accumulated human waste, is said to consist largely of fishing nets - around 46%. With the amount of available empirical data from scientific and non-governmental organisations, this clearly highlights one aspect of the unsustainability of current industrial fishing practices. So, is intensive fish farming the more sustainable option?

Salmon is the most farmed fish globally and salmon agriculture is the fastest growing food production system in the world, accounting for 70% of the market. Large schools of salmon, a migratory species of fish which would naturally traverse oceans and upstream rivers, are subject to a relatively small, confined, netted area of water. Any animal in very close proximity to other animals for prolonged periods of time increase the risk and spread of disease. For salmon, this includes sea lice, chlamydia, and other infectious diseases. Additionally, a concentrated population of animals means a concentrated level of animal waste. This waste pollutes the local waters and has a devastating impact on the surrounding ecosystems due to exposure to excessive quantities of chemicals, minerals, and fertilising materials. There is the added implication of the potential for genetically different and non-native species escaping the farms and compromising the wild environment.

Apart from the apparent animal welfare issues, human rights violations have also been presented as issues associated with seafood farming and fishing. Over the last decade, reports on the use of slavery in the seafood industry have been brought to media attention. Seaspiracy introduces the notion of 'blood shrimp', in reference to shrimp farming in Thailand, and also presents interviews with a number of people who were used as slave labour on commercial wild fishing boats, further extending the reach of modern slavery. Furthermore, there have been reports of modern slavery and labour abuses aboard American, British, Chinese, and Taiwanese vessels in recent years.

'Sustainability' has a different definition depending on who you ask. The issue with this is that there is no clear, concise, standardised definition that allows for easy indicators and measurements. As the documentary highlights, the fishing industry and the associated certification organisations, such as the MSC and Dolphin Safe, have created their own idea of sustainability which focuses on the level of acceptable bycatch. The documentary criticises the MSC for its certification criteria, assessment and oversight processes, and motives, considering 80% of its income is derived from its distribution of 'Blue Tick' certification labels. Renowned marine biologists Dr Sylvia Earle and Prof Callum Roberts explain in the documentary how the term 'sustainable' is so vague that even bycatch of seabirds, dolphins and seals can be considered sustainable.

As a company, Ethical Screening is working constantly to ensure that our Key Performance Indicators, screening criteria, and the company information that we collect, reflects best industry practices and helps us compare performance to the highest international standards. While Seaspiracy highlighted the inconsistencies within organisations, like the MSC, certification from such organisations is currently considered the best verifying tool for sustainability, particularly relating to bycatch. We will continue to monitor industry initiatives to allow for the best possible measuring.

Goal 14 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, Life Below Water, focuses on conserving and sustainably using the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development. To achieve this goal, serious decisions need to be made going forward to address the issues the fishing industry produces and exacerbates; and for the ethical investment community, a holistic and transparent approach to sustainability in the fishing industry is imperative in ensuring returns are not being made from the destruction of ocean habitats and vulnerable species.


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