Seapiracy – How can we make a difference?

Seaspiracy has been a huge success on Netflix. George Monbiot from the Guardian has rightly pointed out that that previous documentaries concerning the crisis in our oceans, such as the BBC’s Blue Planet 2, have neglected to mention the greatest cause of their ecological destruction: the fishing industry.

This observation highlights how media influences are perception of environmental harm. Without being made aware of an environmental problem, how can it be an issue? Just think about all those environmental issues out there, just waiting to be made public….

The Seapiracy documentary does get some things wrong. It cites an outdated paper about the likely date of the global collapse of fisheries. Two of its figures about bycatch and one figure about the number of illegally caught fish in US water are incorrect. Furthermore, it confuses carbon stored by lifeforms with carbon stored in seawater – the film really needed a better environmental scientist consultant! However, the bulk of the film exposes some shocking truths concerning the industrial fishing industry – and it is important to focus on these issues. Media outlets will focus on the faults to discredit the documentary’s narrative.

As the environmental harm of the fishing industry has now been made public, it can constitute as an environmental issue. The power relations in the film document the how powerful corporate interests have withheld their industries fauts from mainstream discourse for so long. Furthermore, the public is made reassured by corporate backed ‘assurance labels’ on their tinned food explaining how their tuna is ‘dolphin friendly’ or ‘fished responsibly’. These assurance labels may have started with good intentions, but over time they have become increasingly part of the mainstream food system and are now practically meaningless.

So how do we make a difference?

The film promotes a bottom-up approach, to stop eating fish altogether – even fish from aquaculture has disastrous environmental impacts, as the film points out. This approach depends on the consumer taking action with his/her shopping habits as an individual, incorporating the values of a ‘sustainability citizen’. This approach, in theory, would be successful. However, it relies on a tremendous proportion of the population incorporating these environmentally sustainable values and acting on these values, it is not practical or feasible.

For example, how many of us consider ourselves to be environmentally aware, and yet sometimes do not act on these values? This value-action gap can be for many reasons. Firstly, habits are hard to break, especially if eating fish is part of your culture – fish and chips (British culture). Secondly, powerful marketing techniques can bypass the value process to convince you to eat fish. This is clearly observed in the fast-food industry. We know that burgers from McDonalds or chicken from KFC are unhealthy, yet many of us ignore these warnings and keep going back for more.

Indeed, it could be argued that the bottom-up approach for change is convenient for powerful food corporations that do not want to change, like the fishing industry. The bottom-up approach puts all the pressure on the individual to change their eating habits, whilst ignoring external influences on food choice. This pressure on the individual can lead to fatalism towards environmental issues. We have already been told not to eat beef, what is next? Soon the better question for the individual will be “so what can I actually eat?” This approach is essentially a cop-out for government policy makers who do not want to interfere with the market.

A more effective approach would be policy regulation from the top-down. A top-down approach would include strict regulation on the fishing industry, with governments striving for global cooperation with a focus on ‘sharing’ rather than a policy of ‘securing’. A top-down approach would fine those organisations that break the rules, even shut them down. For example, the assurance label organisations are not even following their own standards, a top-down approach would dismantle these unethical organisations. Consequently, this approach would ease pressure on the individual and be more collective in its strategy. If we are going to solve any of the environmental issues we face today, we need to move away from individual market-based approaches and towards collective action.

Environmental issues are often controversial and are difficult to resolve. For many people, the way are oceans are getting fished is not an issue, and potentially will not be for some time. When you next go shopping and are facing a choice of whether to buy that tin of tuna, by not buying it you would be making a difference. However, this difference needs to be seen through the perspective of time and space against risks and uncertainties and how these are influenced by values, power and agency. Consequently, I would conclude by saying that individual action is necessary but not sufficient in making a difference on this issue.

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