There can be no doubt that the methods employed in capital-intensive fishing have massive negative impacts on life in the ocean and for our climate, especially at the scale of super trawlers, some of which measure 80-120 meters long and are capable of capturing 200 tons of fish in one night – equivalent to the total amount that passes through the fish auction in France’s largest fishing harbor.6 As Seaspiracy shows, there are also very real and alarming cases of exploitation of migrant workers, and slave labor, not only on Asian trawlers, but also in Europe,7 which urgently need to be exposed and brought to a halt.8 As if that wasn’t enough though, really addressing the crisis facing the oceans is about confronting much more than “just” capital-intensive fishing.
Despite the considerable economic power and interests involved in capital-intensive fisheries, within the larger so-called “ocean economy”, the fisheries sector is actually a fairly marginal force, and increasingly so. According to the OECD, the shipping, offshore oil and gas extraction, port activities, maritime and coastal tourism industries all constitute much more powerful forces in shaping our relationship with the oceans and ocean resources. And in the midst of the current climate, energy and oceanic crises, transnational corporations in these sectors are positioning themselves as providers of ‘solutions’ to these converging crises. Especially in the past decade, as the OECD puts it, “for many, the ocean is the new economic frontier. It holds the promise of immense resource wealth and great potential for boosting economic growth, employment and innovation.”9 The “many” in this case are the transnational corporations that are already active in these different sectors. In a recent analysis of the 100 largest transnational corporations in the ocean economy, Mitsubishi Corporation, which is villified in Seaspiracy is only positioned in 79th place.10 Nine of the top ten companies are in offshore oil and gas (and A.P. Møller-Maersk, although categorized under shipping, arguably straddles the two).
It’s no surprise then that these corporations – along with those in emerging industries such as offshore wind and incipient ones such as deep-sea mining – are all jostling to get their share of the oceans. They are literally competing over space and resources in what is evocatively promoted as “blue growth” in this so-called new economic frontier.11 Activities in each of these sectors come with their own social and environmental implications – none of which are marginal and should be the subject of just as much debate as that currently raging over the fisheries industry. But as yet discussion of these questions has been limited to exclusive gatherings such as the Our Ocean Conferences or the World Ocean Summits, where CEOs gather with heads of state and many of the Environmental NGOs (yes, including those criticized in Seaspiracy for their silence on the fishing industry) to deliberate on control and use of 70% of our planet. These gatherings bypass existing democratic UN-processes (well, at least democratic in theory) and their exclusive nature has been criticized by fisher movements and their allies.12
Finally, the documentary sounds the alarm about widespread pollution in the oceans. Indeed this point is fundamental, however narrowly construed by taking such sharp aim at the fishing sector. First, the failure to actually interview fishers – especially small-scale and artisanal ones – logically means the film fails to acknowledge existing efforts by fishers and scientists to minimize and recycle plastics, and to develop biodegradable nets and gear to curb the accumulation of plastics in the ocean. Second, the fishing nets that get lost at sea are no doubt a concern, but this framing of ocean pollution as primarily plastic again misses the big picture. In reality if we zoom out to examine the entire blue (and green) economy we find a whole host of other concerns: run off from industrial agriculture and livestock production13 and other chemicals that leach into waterways from industrial production and extractive industries14, oil spills, greenhouse gas emissions from shipping, and noise pollution that cargo ships, off-shore mining and construction generate, all with significant impacts on fish populations.15 These realities point to a need to do less criminalizing of some monolithic notion of “commercial fishers” and much more nuanced critical analysis and resistance to policy frameworks and the models of production on land and at sea that generate profits at the expense of the natural environment.