"Seaspiracy": Perpetuating White Saviorism in Environmentalism

Social media can’t get enough of the expository documentary Seaspiracy, directed by Ali Tabrizi, that highlights the dangers and destruction of the commercial fishing industry. What started as a project to expose abuses to dolphins and whales developed into a much larger picture of the environmental destruction happening to our oceans. While the film certainly does a good job of calling attention to an overlooked aspect of climate change, the documentary itself has many issues with the ways in which it presents these controversies.

Tabrizi brings attention to important issues related to commercial fishing. Initially, Tabrizi set out to expose the whaling and fishing industries in Japan, specifically at the port city of Taiji. While filming boats who were capturing dolphins for marine parks, Tabrizi witnessed fishermen intentionally killing dolphins. He came to the conclusion that fishermen were culling dolphins to essentially cut out a fellow competitor as a result of depleted fish stocks from overfishing. While this conspiracy is yet to be proven, it would be a major scandal if proven true.

Tabrizi also does a good job of conveying complicated yet essential information. For example, he explains how marine life helps capture carbon from the atmosphere, either through marine plants or through mixing waters from natural movements and patterns. He later uses animated diagrams to illustrate the way that toxic chemicals get more concentrated as you move up the food chain, making bigger fish like tuna more toxic to us.

Additionally, Tabrizi points to bigger problems than plastic straws. While many environmental movements have called for the reduction of single-use plastic, Tabrizi argues that, in the case of the ocean, plastic fishing nets and gear are a much more serious source of plastic pollution. This assertion may be true in some cases, but touristy or impoverished coastal cities may still suffer from single-use plastic pollution in their area.

Trash, outdoors Photo by John Cameron from Unsplash Tabrizi overlooks nuanced complications of climate change throughout the entire documentary. Several times, he tries to get interviews with powerful marine NGOs and, when they deny his request, he quickly jumps to the conclusion that the organization is doing something illegal or wrong. The worst part of Tabrizi’s ignorance, however, was his cultural insensitivity that, in some instances, came off as racism. He was quick to critique fishing industries in Eastern Asia or traditional whaling industries that are vital to ethnic Faroese in the Faroe Islands, but fell short when addressing issues of consumerism in the West.

Part of this failure could be due to the fact that Tabrizi did not include a lot of non-white sources in his interviews or research. Twitter user @TaoTaoTasi, who says in his bio that he is a campaign manager for Blue Nature Alliance, complained that “So far, the Asians are villains, the browns are victims, and all the people who get speaking roles are white.” In fact, out of 23 featured interviews, only six were with non-white sources, and two of them were slaves from Thailand. After filming in both East Asia and Africa, you would think that he would turn to scholars familiar with the nuances and cultures of those specific regions.

Another issue with Tabrizi’s documentary style is the way that he centered the story around himself and his journey in understanding environmental justice. He begins the film by discussing how he came to care about the oceans. While this would ordinarily be a nice touch, Tabrizi constantly returned to this storyline as if his own personal struggle to save the oceans was the most important part of this film. His behavior is reinforced by long shots of him driving, walking, or crying in an attempt to fill up space and time rather than delving deeper into the grave issues he brings up. Moreover, he tended to stress his own safety concerns for filming without permits over the safety of fishing industry workers who were enslaved and sometimes murdered. In a scenario like this one, it would have been more responsible and respectful to remove himself from the narrative.

Finally, Tabrizi concludes his documentary with a privileged solution that he seems to think will single-handedly save the ocean: don’t eat fish. He suggests that people instead eat plant-based alternatives that taste like seafood. Yet, these alternatives can cost at least twice as much as traditional seafood like canned tuna, which is often an affordable protein staple in low-income households. Tabrizi suggests that sustainable fishing can never exist, despite the fact that fish populations are one of the fastest reproducing animal populations, rather than cows or pigs. It is also important to note that sustainable and ethical fishing does exist–indigenous populations have been doing it for centuries. For example, spearfishing and cast-net are indigenous fishing methods that minimize environmental harm and help maintain healthy fish stocks throughout the year. Again, Tabrizi fails to understand and address the complexities of climate change and environmental justice. In any human-oriented environmental documentary, it is necessary to address these issues in order to adequately capture the problem and develop viable solutions.

Seaspiracy, overall, is not the revolutionary environmental film that people claim it is. Ali Tabrizi calls attention to the horrors of an overlooked industry in environmental movements, but that’s about it. He does not explain how complicated this industry is in terms of economics, the environment, and human rights. Tabrizi also completely fails when it comes to environmental justice and in fact perpetuates the harmful stereotypes that have inhibited environmental efforts. He paints East Asian fishing companies as evil, not only supporting an incredibly damaging stereotype against Asians, but also ignores the deeply rooted cultural aspects of fishing. He touches on culture when it comes to East Africans who have been outcompeted by big fishing companies, but instead of addressing this nuance to the fishing issue, Tabrizi simply paints the East Africans as poor and hungry, again perpetuating harmful stereotypes.

The takeaway from all of this? Don’t watch Seaspiracy. This film is harmful and not helpful to environmental movements. Educate yourself on environmental issues, cut back on meat and fish if you can, and uplift marginalized voices.