Something fishy. Credit: Chris Furlong/Getty

March 25, 2021   4 mins

Did you know the cod in your fish and chips is almost as likely to be caught by organised criminals as a folksy Captain Birdseye working the family trawler out of Grimbsy or Hampton Roads? Indeed, the makers of Seaspiracy, a new documentary about the fishing industry, were threatened with a filleting over their exposures of fishy practices. Perhaps The Cod Father would have been a better title.

It could have been a lot worse than threats: the good guys policing the piscatorial business are frequently murdered; some 18 fishery inspectors from Papua New Guinea were “lost at sea” in the space of just five years. Gerlie Alpajora, a Philippine government inspector, suffered a different fate. After exposing a raft of illegal tuna-fishing, she was assassinated in her sitting-room with a bullet to the head.

The reality for those working in the seafood trade — which is funded by a leviathan $35 billion from the world’s taxpayers — isn’t much better. Thailand’s coastal shrimping relies on slave labour, which is eminently expendable: about 24,000 fishermen die every year. As one commentator in Seaspiracy remarks: “We have heard a lot about Blood Diamonds. This is Blood Shrimps.”

Yet the crime on the high seas that concerns director/presenter Ali Tabrizi is ecological destruction. Cue the predictable, tear-inducing segment on the 150 million tons of plastic swirling around the bellies of whales. Far more horrifying, though, is the ecological holocaust caused by mainstream, commercial fishing methods. Usually, these involve “bottom trawling”, where boats pull gigantic nets across the ocean floor which scrape up fish — along with everything else in their path — wreaking havoc on ocean habitats. The United Nations suggests that it causes up to 95% of global oceanic damage.

Longline fishing, a technique often vaunted as preferable to bottom trawling, isn’t much of an improvement. Here, boats drag fishing lines bearing multitudinous hooks through the water. The hooks are indiscriminate; they catch and kill unintended species — from sea birds to whales — by the score. So whether you’re bottom-trawling or longlining; the methods are prodigiously wasteful: 40% of fish netted is so-called “by-catch”, unwanted fish which is dumped over the side of the trawler, usually dead. Meanwhile, longlines also snag on the ocean floor, and are never retrieved, killing marine fauna long after the boats have departed.

“Thank Poseidon”, you may say, “I only eat certified sustainable seafood approved by the Marine Stewardship Council.” But as the makers of Seaspiracy prove beyond reasonable doubt, the little blue “MSC” printed on supermarket packaging is hardly worth the label it is written on. The MSC receives income from giving its approval; and so few who apply get rejected. Ditto “Dolphin Safe Tuna”; one researcher discovered that 45 dolphins died for the sake of eight “friendly-fished” tuna.

What the labels don’t tell you is that over-fishing has caused wild fish-stocks to plummet. Seafood species have declined by 90% in the post-War period. In one of Europe’s most underreported scandals, 10,000 dolphins die every year in nets off the Atlantic coast of France. Then there are the seabirds which, like us, depend on natural fish-stock: their number has dived by 70% in just seventy years.

Neither does Seaspiracy let fish-farming off the hook. On industrial “aqua farms”, whether they are inland or cages in the ocean, fish spend their lives packed as tight as sardines in cans. Not infrequently, the water deteriorates into a toxic, anaerobic brew of antibiotics, faeces, and growth-enzymes which seeps into adjacent areas — a two-acre Scottish fish farm produces about the same amount of waste as a town of 10,000 people. Yet it’s Seaspiracy’s secret footage of salmon being eaten alive by lice that is most hard to forget.

Still, it is a tough sell, getting viewers to feel for fish in the way that they weep over furry and feathery things. (I confess, though, that my inner schoolboy warmed to herring on discovering they communicate by farting.) Sea-creatures, as great literature has often had the acuity to recognise, are Other; hence Scylla and Charybdis, Moby Dick and Jaws.

They are monstrous things in the primordial waters we escaped from, which makes it hard to secure money for their conservation. Eco-lucre is based on the animal popularity contest; a team led by Stefano Mammola from the Italian National Research Council analysed the EU’s Life programme, which funds climate and environment action, between 1992 and 2018 to see how money was allocated. The study found that 23% of Europe’s vertebrates received funding compared with 0.06% of invertebrates. In total, vertebrates attracted €970m (£880m), six times more than the €150m for invertebrates. Risk of extinction does not influence how much money a species received. Giant clams just aren’t as sexy as grey wolves.

Doubtless Seaspiracy will still make a splash, though perhaps not on the scale of the same production team’s anti-factory farming Cowspiracy from 2014. For although Seaspiracy makes for striking television, one would need to be as mad as Captain Ahab to swallow all of its political solutions. There is the sensible suggestion of “No-Catch Zones” (a mere 1% of the globe’s oceanic expanse is presently protected), and fishing subsidies could certainly be made more transparent. But Seaspiracy, taking its lead from Cowspiracy, which reputedly turned more people vegetarian than any other “text” in history, also wants us to do the “only ethical thing”: stop eating fish.

In shoving this message down our gullet, Seaspiracy comes over all fishy itself. Not all fish-farming is as tainted as Tabrizi would have us believe. Either he has never heard of organic fish farming, or has chosen not to highlight it. Be it ignorance or manipulation, it is unseemly methodology. Also, if the vegetarians promoting “plant-based alternatives” believe arable farming to be intrinsically environmentally good, they need to get out to the grain prairies of East Anglia more — and watch the chemically loaded, eroded soil wash into watercourses, and thence to the sea.

More to the point, it’s entirely impractical. People will never stop eating fish; Homo sapiens developed a taste for trout, a hankering for haddock as soon as he climbed down from the trees. To cater for demand, commercial fishing was begun as early as Graeco-Roman Antiquity: Oppian’s Halieutica, the oldest surviving treatise on sea fishing, dates to circa 180AD. And if the Romans did not invent the artificial fishpond, they perfected it. The earliest known Roman fishpond in England is at Eccles, Kent, and was built around about the time of Oppian.

During the Medieval Era, Western Europe was speckled all over with man-made fish-ponds. All of them organic, all of them brimming with wildlife; there are few better places for nature than a pond. And these fishponds were maintained precisely because they provided food. Sometimes the best conservation of nature comes from satisfying the stomach. It is perfectly possible to have your fishcake and eat it.

John Lewis-Stempel is the author of Still Water: The Deep Life of the Pond

John Lewis-Stempel is a farmer and writer on nature and history. His most recent books are The Sheep’s Tale and Nightwalking.