Review: Seaspiracy 2021 By Ali Tabrizi
Netflix’s Seaspiracy is a new activist documentary in which U.K. filmmaker Ali Tabrizi seeks to rip the lid off the ethical and legal corruption of the commercial fishing industry. To be fair, that’s not where he started — he began pulling threads on plastic pollution in the oceans and whale hunting in Japan, and, as the title implies, ended up in deeper, murkier waters than he expected. The film is from the same producer as Cowspiracy, which was rightfully criticized for being squidgy with the facts, so let’s see if Seaspiracy is a more convincing argument for ecological responsibility.
The Gist: Tabrizi sits on his parents’ lap at Sea World, watching dolphins and orcas do tricks. His fascination with these creatures began when he was very young, further inspired by the likes of animal-activist filmmakers Sylvia Earle, Jacques Cousteau and David Attenborough. It continued into his adulthood, when his romanticized notions of marine wildlife turned to harsh reality, prompting him to donate to and sign petitions for environmentalist organizations, hoping to combat pollution, whaling and other ocean-conservationist causes. We see him call a restaurant, asking if they use environmentally unfriendly plastic straws; they hang up on him.
But straws, he’d eventually learn, are like combating deforestation by banning toothpicks. As he investigates the proliferation of plastic in the oceans, he learns that the majority of the pollution is from fishing nets and other industry waste. The eco-orgs he was contributing to were making headline after headline in their campaign against straws, which comprise 0.03 percent of the pollution, but hardly ever mention commercial fishing. Hmm. He then prepares to visit Taiji, Japan, the notorious place where dolphins are routinely slaughtered — and where, he’s warned by one of the film’s many activist interviewees, he’ll be tailed by police and spied on in his hotel room because the government bends over backwards to keep a lid on this practice. OK. But then he’s pulled over by Taiji cops for no apparent reason. He sneaks to the slaughter cove and gets his disturbing footage, and his Japan “holiday” reveals exactly what dolphin hunters are doing there — eliminating a perceived competitive threat to the fishing industry.
With two flashing neon arrows pointing to commercial fishing, Tabrizi changes his tack a bit and follows the story where it leads him. He learns about all kinds of disconcerting stuff: Illegal fishing of endangered species like bluefin tuna. The mass slaughter of increasingly rare sharks for the “mafia-esque” shark fin soup racket. How the “dolphin safe” logo on tuna cans is a load of bullcrap. How the fishing industry is subsidized by many world governments, despite a gross lack of regulation and oversight. How overfishing is more devastating to the environment than deforestation. How the word “sustainable” is just empty-air marketing buzz. How the fishing industry in Thailand is subsidized by unpaid slave labor. Are you upset yet?
Tabrizi pieces together a mostly effective — and sometimes thoroughly disturbing — mosaic portrait of an industry left to its own unscrupulous devices. He sometimes murks the waters with first-person stunt-doc stuff, e.g., near-misses with authorities who are trumped up as part of a massive coverup, getting kicked out of the Marine Stewardship Council when the company sloughs off his interview requests, etc. The film sometimes exhibits the qualities of sensationalist journalism: He joins a group called Sea Shepherd, a kind of militarized version of Greenpeace, on a nighttime raid of illegal fishing boats; he dons hidden cameras as he “infiltrates” a fishing industry-only convention; he pins down spokespeople for the Plastic Pollution Coalition for making contradictory statements; he flat-out mimics The Cove by hiding behind rocks and hedges to film dolphin killers at work in Taiji.
But one could make the argument that such an approach might not be outside the realm of reason. To the film’s benefit, Tabrizi’s factual sources give the film a necessary credible foundation. He even lands an interview with his idol Earle, whose depth of knowledge lends great credence to Tabrizi’s basic argument: The best way to contribute to global sustainability is to simply not eat seafood.
The core problem documentarians like Tabrizi face is one of entertainment. Following heavily armed men as they apprehend a trawler full of lawbreakers certainly combats the blah talking-head format of too many nonfiction films, but the facts of the case are ultimately far more convincing. There’s also the problem of throwing around the word “conspiracy,” a term currently more heavily loaded than baked potatoes at a chain steakhouse. Like it or not, it undermines Fabrizi’s film with wackjob tonal implications. Is the depiction of the fishing industry any more of a global conspiracy than, say, the fossil fuel industry? Both are centuries-old trades deeply ingrained in global commerce, which makes their brutal impacts on the environment difficult to turn around. One ugly industry is just more “popular” than the other ugly industry. Sure, some of the fishing industry’s troublesome ethical quandaries occur in the shadows, but to call its corrupt elements conspiratorial is almost pointlessly sensational, and a hurdle we have to jump to get to the heart of Tabrizi’s passionate, well-meaning and ultimately convincing assertions.