I’m not a scientist, so I can’t speak with any particular authority to the veracity of Ali Tabrizi’s claims in Seaspiracy. On the other hand, Tabrizi’s response to any fact-checking has been to claim that his team are also ‘not scientists’ and they made a Netflix documentary about marine conservation and the fishing industry. Unlike Tabrizi, I can only speak to my feelings as I sat down to watch a film I wanted to like. While visual media is vitally important to marine conservation – especially because marine ecosystems are inaccessible to most of us – it was frustrating to see such a huge variety of ecosystems bundled together under ‘the sea’. Along with that go the different contexts of people who rely on fishing to make a living.

It was frustrating, also, to see Tabrizi go in for the same old scapegoats. A decent chunk of the film focuses on fishing practises in the Asia-Pacific: initially the infamous Taiji dolphin drive hunt, but also shark finning and the prevalence of Chinese industrial fishing fleets around the world. None of these are good, but equally none of them are the comfortable targets Tabrizi makes of them. Shark finning, for example, isn’t the first or only example of gratuitous marine violence. For centuries, European and then American whaling ships hunted sperm whales for coronation oil and candle wax, and ambergris for perfumes.

“There is a conspiracy here: that the West has a clean marine record and the blame for environmental catastrophe falls solely at the feet of China and Japan.”

It’s even true that Japan (the pantomime villain of Western marine conservation) was introduced to large scale whaling by General Douglas MacArthur after the U.S. drove millions living in Japan to the brink of starvation after World War II. Whale meat was introduced to school meals and became part of everyday life in an unprecedented way. There is a conspiracy here and it is exactly the narrative that Tabrizi perpetuates; that the West has a clean marine record and the blame for environmental catastrophe falls solely at the feet of China and Japan.

Perhaps that is the most frustrating takeaway of all – that there are plenty of shocking, infuriating, galvanizing stories of corruption which continue to harm our seas much closer to home. But watching Seaspiracy, it feels like Tabrizi wilfully sidesteps most of them for the sake of the vaguely paranoid idea that scientists and campaigners (many of whom have committed their lives to Tabrizi’s project of the last year or two) are dolphin killers in disguise.

Imagine a Seaspiracy which, instead of doorstepping charities and NGOs, asked politicians like Michael Gove why Marine Protected Areas promised under his tenure as Environment Secretary are repeatedly and brutally overfished. It seems to me the real conspiracy is the willingness of politicians to treat marine ecosystems as tokens to meet inflated promises, without any willingness to invest in enforcing regulation. The same impulse which spurred Gove down to Dover for a photo-op with campaigner Lewis Pugh also refreshes the terminology of protected area policy without any demonstrable interest in actually protecting the sea – the latest are Highly Protected Marine Areas, but I am not holding my breath.

Much of Tabrisi’s approach is borrowed from the Michael Moore school of political documentaries, but without any of the understanding of why Moore’s approach is so effective. Trying to unpick Trump’s election in Fahrenheit 11/9, he zooms in on the Flint water crisis – when the corrupt State Governor diverted clean water to a General Motors factory and exposed the people of Flint to toxic levels of lead poisoning in their drinking water. So Moore doorstepped Governor Snyder to water his garden mansion with a power hose of poisonous water. It’s a great moment because it’s entertaining. Moore knows Snyder will never meet with him, so he fights despair with levity and commits a small piece of poetic justice to film.

Walking into the front offices of charities unannounced with a hidden camera and then feigning disappointment when executives couldn’t make time for an interview seems deliberately childish by comparison. The only time Tabrizi met with a politician proper (Karmenu Vella, the European Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries) produced the single limpest interview of the entire film. Much more revealing was a news broadcast snippet with an MP. This is in keeping with a film in which all of the best soundbites come from outside parties like George Monbiot and Sylvia Earle, and Tabrizi’s foremost contribution seems to be shots of himself scrolling through Wikipedia articles in the dead of night.

“Tabrizi’s foremost contribution seems to be shots of himself scrolling through Wikipedia articles in the dead of night.”

So, it’s frustrating but not altogether surprising to see Tabrizi’s petition (launched on the back of the documentary) to prohibiting commercial fishing in 30 percent of national waters. Professor John Humphreys, Chair of the UK’s Southern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (IFCA), has written extensively and from first-hand experience about protected area policies and their application in marine ecosystems. In Humphrey’s article this January, the story is clear: ‘drawing lines in the sea’, by whatever name, is still ‘one step forward, four steps back’. What’s more, percentage targets for marine conservation will always be ‘a gift to member states inclined to game the system and grandstand on the results.’

The very nature of marine ecosystems means that pollutants and fish populations travel between arbitrary ‘areas’ and ‘zones’. A great deal of such pollution enters the UK’s inshore waters from land as runoff from industrial farming or sewage overflow – making the idea that those same waters are ‘protected’ from much risible. Conservationists closer to the problem than Tabrizi have long been arguing for conservation targets based on ‘direct biodiversity measures’, not political map-making. Because cutting the sea up into wildlife parks and protected spaces isn’t as effective as it is neat. In that sense the petition suits Seaspiracy because, by committing to token targets over biodiversity, there isn’t much practical interest in protecting the sea between them.

I haven’t eaten fish since watching the documentary and before I’ve even lapsed in an inevitable moment of fishfinger weakness, I already have a bad taste in my mouth. Because more than anything, it’s frustrating to watch when the core message of Seaspiracy – that to save our oceans we all have to eat less fish – is on the money. But by selling the sea short with overstated facts and contrived intrigue, the power and truth of that very simple message is weakened – so that the top Google results for Seaspiracy are fact checks and retractions which dilute the story we should be talking about: how to hold politicians to account when it comes to protecting our oceans.

Find out more about Fishing and Marine Protected Areas

For a history of whaling (including East Asia in the 20th century) – Chapter 12 of Leviathan, or the Whale, ‘A Cold War for the Whale’ by Philip Hoare

A further article by Norimitsu Onishi on Japan’s ‘complex’ relationship with whaling – https://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/13/world/asia/13iht-whale.4896081.html

Association of Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities (IFCA) website - http://www.association-ifca.org.uk/

Michael Gove calling for 30% of international oceans to be ‘protected’ by 2030: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/gove-calls-for-30-per-cent-of-worlds-oceans-to-be-protected-by-2030

MPA Reality Check: an interactive database of how much fishing actually takes place in ‘protected’ areas of UK inshore water. Put together by Jean-Luc Solandt and a team of scientists from the Marine Conservation Society UK (one of the many charities Tabrizi doesn’t have much time for in Seaspiracy) – https://map.mpa-reality-check.org/

Professor John Humphrey’s short article on Marine Protected Areas: https://www.mba.ac.uk/sites/default/files/guba/mpas_one_step_forward_four_steps_back.pdf