A controversial documentary on Netflix called Seaspiracy has been widely discussed online and among the marine conservation community.
GRID’s Executive Editor Paco Guerrero sits down with marine scientist Tara Abrina and marine cinematographer Boogs Rosales to break down our definition of sustainability and why it needs to be more inclusive.
PACO: First, Seaspiracy. We’ve all seen it, right? It’s basically Ali Tabrizi and his wife exploring the situation of marine conservation. He explores the fisheries industries, coming to some very hard conclusions. He’s got some incredible people appearing in this documentary. Sylvia Earle, probably one of the most famous living marine biologists in the world.
Boogs, as a filmmaker yourself, what is your impression?
BOOGS: First of all, it tries to tackle a lot of things. In my opinion, too many things. It goes into plastic pollution, into fishing, into dolphin captivity, whaling, slave labor. There are some human rights issues that are discussed here as well, and all of those are used to support a single narrative.
What struck me as someone who [has] sat through and conducted interviews myself is how the interviews were conducted. I think a lot of the interviewees were placed in a position where they weren't expecting [those questions]. You could see in the way it was cut that they were made to appear like they were confused as to what they were wanting to convey. I think there is some dishonesty there. He basically calls up a restaurant and goes, “Hey, my name is Ali Tabrizi. We got some questions on why you won’t stop using straws because it’s killing baby turtles.” That sets the tone for the rest of the film really.
Portrait courtesy of Boogs Rosales. Photo of Tara Abrina by Sonny Thakur.
PACO: I’m gonna ask you, Tara. As a marine scientist, what was your impression of the film?
TARA: I started watching it because the international marine science community just blew up on Twitter. True enough, a lot of the things that they pointed out—you don't even have to know the science of it, if it’s shaky or not—but it was really shaky. There are some points that were half-truths or just not researched well enough. It’s just dishonest the way they portrayed fishing and the fisheries field in general because there has been a lot of progress.
PACO: Scientists rarely go on Twitter and “blow up,” as you say; at least, that’s my perception. Why [is there] such a strong reaction from the scientific community do you think, Tara?
TARA: One is just some information that’s incorrect. For example, that very dramatic title page that says, “By 2048, the oceans would be empty by that time.” That was something that Boris Worm said in 2006 which he retracted in 2009 after going through the data.
PACO: Who is Boris Worm? Fill me in on this person.
TARA: Boris Worm is one of the top conservation scientists. He talks about fisheries a lot and values also. If you just Google that really quickly, you’ll find it one of the top results. I could’ve done that really quickly just to double check—it’s just one of those things. The research wasn’t very good.
Number two, because the research wasn't very good, the conclusions were so shaky. They weren't based on a fair assessment of what is going on in fisheries conservation.
PACO: One argument I’ve seen online is that we—I mean you, the filmmakers and marine scientists—aren’t the audience. That the whole purpose of this documentary is to reach out to non-experts to try and create awareness. Do you have an opinion on that defense?
BOOGS: There is some educational value there, for [those] who [have] never heard about shark finning practices or bottom trawling, and how destructive these fishing practices are. If this is the first time for [a] viewer to hear or see this, then it is shocking, it is compelling.
The reason it’s problematic for those who are more aware is that it’s an oversimplification. More often than not, oversimplifying a complex issue is counterproductive. It doesn't help the issue progress. It doesn't help create solutions. All it does is allow people to make their own conclusions about the way things should be based on—as Tara mentioned—shoddy conclusions, conclusions that [aren’t] based on real science.
I think that can be a problem when people start feeling helpless after watching the film because when your call to action isn't grounded in reality (“everyone just stop eating fish”) and is not really an option for millions of people around the world… then you're not adding to the solution.
“As filmmakers, we all. . . have a responsibility to be honest. This film in particular does a huge disservice to a lot of organizations that are doing really good [work].”<callout-alt-author>Boogs Rosales<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>
PACO: I don't consider myself an expert by far, but there were a couple of red flags for me. For example, [there is] footage of slave laborers on [a] ship being shot, but he doesn't show whales being killed. He cuts right before the knife enters the whales in the Faroe Islands. There’s even this overdramatic treatment in the edit itself. It seems like this is a commercialized version of conspiracy theory filmmaking.
TARA: What conspiracy theories do is they make people wary of institutions. While sometimes that’s a good thing, other times it’s just really not.
This is really important not to do in fisheries because [...] it’s difficult to patrol open seas—it’s just free for all. It’s common pool resources, basically, and you have to get everybody involved. It cannot be privatized because it’s so difficult to put borders on these kinds of resources. It’s prone to extraction that way because there is no barrier to entry. The best way to do it is to get everybody involved. And so when we have conspiracy theories [...] it’s gonna hurt a lot.
BOOGS: As filmmakers, we all want to have that money shot—the most compelling image that shocks people into changing their perspectives. But we also have a responsibility. A responsibility to be honest. A responsibility to at least show alternate viewpoints without really overstating your own.
This film in particular does a huge disservice to a lot of organizations that are doing really good [work]. For example, the way they interviewed Oceana, who is making strides locally at least, to help small fishermen oppose the current bill that’s allowing industrial fishing into municipal waters closer to shore.
PACO: Boogs, you’re talking about Oceana, which is an NGO that works specifically with local communities. Again, to oversimplify what you're saying, Oceana isn't backing the don’t-eat-fish [mindset] because they realize that our coastal communities—and we have a lot of them—need food. Let’s talk about the Philippines specifically.
BOOGS: Yeah, it’s not a realistic option for so many people. Oceana made a statement on Seaspiracy. I can’t speak [for Oceana here], but in their statement, it’s clear that the way they can create solutions is [through] impact on the policy level. Impacting policies that help fishermen, that make fishing more sustainable and in turn, [give] us better choices.
PACO: Tara, you’ve worked with marine protected area communities which are on a much smaller scale, protecting specific reefs close to their communities. Is this working? Or should we all become vegan?
TARA: You want fishers to become vegan? That’s ridiculous! If you look at mass organizations that do a lot of this policy campaigning on the ground, the criticism for these kinds of messages is [always]: stop putting the blame and the responsibility on us, on the consumer. It honestly is all those big unsustainable illegal fishing corporations doing a lot of damage; it’s funny that [Ali] couldn’t even name those corporations.
“Sustainability has to be broad. . . because we want it to be as inclusive as possible. You can only do it within your local context.” <callout-alt-author>Tara Abrina<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>
PACO: I know you work with similar organizations as Oceana. Is the Philippine model of the marine protected area (MPA) working?
TARA: That’s a contested question. Some people say it does help, and you see that in studies that show that inside the marine protected area, the biomass of fish is actually bigger or higher than those outside, so that shows it’s working as a policy.
There are [also] some [studies] recently that showed that protected areas protected by the national government have no difference inside and outside the MPA.
And then you have studies questioning: What are the MPAs for, who are they for? Because if you are going to put a protected area in a location so you can drive away the fishers and then put tourism in its place and squeeze out the fishers from benefiting from the resources of the ocean… What is the MPA for? And that's a [question] that national fisheries organizations, [are] asking: is it really helping us maliliit na mangingisda?
BOOGS: [In the film], Ali asks this question: “What is sustainability?” There may not be a universal definition of sustainability but there is a universal understanding of it, and it’s just that we’re able to use our resources without compromising the ability for future generations to use the same resources. Everyone’s understanding of it, it’s pretty straightforward.
PACO: You just said that statement without 45 minutes of globetrotting filmmaking, that’s amazing.
BOOGS: I hope I’m not oversimplifying it!
PACO: It’s a great definition, it’s there.
BOOGS: Another thing Tara and I were discussing a couple of days ago is that there was this article that basically describes vegetarianism—
PACO: We’re getting into dangerous territory here, Boogs.
BOOGS: I know! That’s why I’m citing the article. Basically it says when you have a group of people coming together towards a goal that is unattainable for the majority of the people—basically the rest of the planet—then that’s something that’s resembling more of a religion.
I’m not saying that in a bad way, but if you’re gonna treat it as such, then you can treat veganism as a virtue; [something] one can aspire to. But this means that you’re acknowledging that we do have to treat animals better.
We do have to understand that some resources, if not all resources, are finite. But we also have to understand that you can’t condemn the rest of the population for not adhering to it because it’s really close to impossible for a lot of people.
TARA: I just want to add to Boogs’ definition [of sustainability]. What he said is actually the most accepted definition; it came out in the 1980s. It’s the Brundtland definition of sustainability, and a lot of people actually do understand it better, you know, for the future generation. That’s why you have a lot of campaigns saying “for the future generations.”
There’s a lot of contention though on how to do [it right] because a lot of people [ask] what percent should go for the future and what percent should stay with us. There’s a lot of criteria, very technical stuff, I don’t want to go into that.
“Oversimplifying a complex issue is counterproductive. It doesn't help the issue progress; it doesn't help create solutions.” <callout-alt-author>Boogs Rosales<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>
But sustainability has to be broad like that because we want it to be as inclusive as possible. Because you can only do it within your local context. For some people, maybe vegetables are more accessible. For some people, maybe fish. That’s the beauty of sustainability; it's so inclusive.
If you are going with a message that excludes even just a small portion of the population, that’s already counter to what sustainability stands for.
I won’t go into theory anymore, but something I’ve learned from indigenous peoples, listening to them talk about protecting the environment, is that when they think about the environment, when they have an image of the environment in their head, they never really separate themselves from it. There’s no nature-human dichotomy going on when they think about conserving for the future. There’s always going to be people today, our children tomorrow, and how we use those resources.
NOTE: The views expressed by the interviewees do not necessarily represent the views of the institutions they work for.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. Listen to the full podcast episode here.