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How gangsters took over the fishing industry Not all fish farming is as tainted as this new documentary depicts

Something fishy. Credit: Chris Furlong/Getty

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.

JLewisStempel

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conall boyle
conall boyle
3 years ago

Could there be a more blatant example of Too Many People, and the overwhelming ecological necessity to reduce the human bio-load on the planet? All else, solar panels, veganism, electric cars is flim-flam, window dressing.
And yet, anyone who says this e.g. Bill Gates is reviled as a Nazi Eugenicist. Of course human population will crash, but we could think about doing it the nice way!

Jos Haynes
Jos Haynes
3 years ago
Reply to  conall boyle

Yup – no one will face the fact that too many humans are the problem. But one day a supervirus will come along and hit a population with a weak immune system (weakened by universal health care). That is the only way to regain an ecological balance because humans are too short-sighted to take the necessary prophylactic action.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Jos Haynes

AI is going to solve the issue, it will take over by networking all things electric and then the issue will be if it thinks of us as pets, and so optimizes our numbers, or if it thinks of us as cockroaches, and then handles us in that way.

Bits Nibbles
Bits Nibbles
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

You should not insult the cockroaches like that. They were here before us, they will be here after us.

J Bryant
J Bryant
3 years ago
Reply to  Jos Haynes

Yup – no one will face the fact that too many humans are the problem.
I couldn’t agree more.
Today Freddie Sayers has a youtube interview with a scientist who warns that human sperm count has been decreasing for twenty years or more and that will result in many fewer people being born.
I’m not sure I’m convinced by everything she says, but I do believe sperm count is decreasing in response to pollution.
Maybe Mother Nature will cull humanity and rebalance the global ecosystem after all.

Bits Nibbles
Bits Nibbles
3 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Mother Nature is already working on it.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Have no fear, the Goddess Nemesis is on ‘standby’.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  conall boyle

Actually, Bill Gates needs reviling, and calling him what you did merely deflects from the real issues he is involved in, which are more about controlling people in all ways, like some mad 007 villain.

The real issus of calling for population decrease is WHO needs to decrease in numbers. Daring to say anything on that gets the Naz * label.

James Rowlands
James Rowlands
3 years ago
Reply to  conall boyle

Too many people.

I agree.

You first….

peterwarthog
peterwarthog
3 years ago
Reply to  conall boyle

Letting Covid rip would be a reasonable means, although not likely to be efficient enough

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  peterwarthog

Precisely, we either need a Super Virus as advocated by Jos Haynes above, or a plethora of Trident II D-5 ballistic missiles might do the trick.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago

I happen to know a great deal of the aquatic world. I have been a life long fisherman and have sport fished from the Hindu-Kush to the Alaska Arctic, Far North to Tropic, seas, oceans, lakes swamps, ponds, creeks, estuaries, even deserts. I also have been a commercial fisherman, still hold a license to do so, worked in fish processing, and studied zoology and biology for years. Been all over.

I will tell you the real issue: West vs Non West. Westerners do not put plastic into the oceans, do not have destructive fishing practices, do not hurt the oceans they control, keep good fishing practices (sure some of the ‘Farmed And Dangerous’ (a rallying cry from Canadian salmon farming killing wild stocks by increasing sea lice) treat their water and waste, really are extremely good at the oceans (Maybe not so great on the Mediterranean, but it is shared by too many assorted peoples, but one day they will do better there too).

The problem is the developing and second and third world. 90% of the ocean plastics comes from the great rivers coming out of the developing nations who dump all in them, and so out to sea. The rest comes from developing nations other ways. The West adds almost none. The destructive fishing methods, the pollution, the horrors, they are not from us.

That is the problem, but the hair shirt loving, White Privilege laden, nose ring wearing, Green Liberal/Lefties have to make it all about us, probably want us to pay sea reparations to the nations destroying their own seas. I would like a high seas fishing police that sank any violator, and fined any polluter, or embargoed them.

Seb Dakin
Seb Dakin
3 years ago

The tragedy of the commons, writ large. If it’s not your fish, you’ve no incentive to police it, none really to conserve it, that is anywhere near as great as the profit motivation of the people doing the fishing. And the real tragedy is that scarcity will drive prices up, providing extra incentives for even more thorough fishing methods. Hard to see what can be done about the oceans. Nation states can just about regulate their own waters, provided they’ve a viable navy. As awful as some fish farms may be, if they can reduce prices below the cost of fishing on open water, that might be the best chance fish stocks in the wild have. At least until someone works out how to grow ‘fish’ in a lab.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Seb Dakin

Yea, yea, it is just horrible humans, that is the Liberal answer……

“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”

BS on that one! The Cod comes from Iceland, Norway, UK and the nations around there, all managed well, and not fished by crime families! Typical Greenie, make us the bad guys when it is the high seas, the warm oceans, which are ravaged by slaving, Eco-killing, pirate fishing gangs, and they are based in Philippines, SE Asia, and other badly policed lands, mostly. The Liberals are either ‘All Must Have Prizes’ or All Are To Blame’ because they have to absolve the non-West, and Blame the West. They are institutionally racist to the point they mislead in everything.

“Ditto “Dolphin Safe Tuna”; one researcher discovered that 45 dolphins died for the sake of eight “friendly-fished” tuna.” !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! OK, this is crazy stuff!

Bits Nibbles
Bits Nibbles
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Not sure where you shop. My “Cod” comes from China.

Last edited 3 years ago by Bits Nibbles
David M Pelly
David M Pelly
3 years ago

If you take a God point of view of this planet, we are in a situation similar to that of Noah’s day, for lots of reasons. When I eat fish, and I love fish, I almost always think of the problems you write about. But that is only one of many reasons, one of the many causes of the unsolvable problems of this planet.

People in general have become hopelessly degraded in many ways, just look at US politics, and the sexual immorality and perversion that is going on, for which the only solution is serious depopulation. But I just do not like who is doing it and how they are doing it.

By that I mean, Klaus Schwab, Bill Gates, George Soros, and a long list of others. Those who have been doing their homework know exactly who I mean. When I look at pictures of Klaus Schwab, especially, I feel like vomiting. The embodiment of evil.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  David M Pelly

‘The Seas Will Hold Nothing, And You Will Be Happy.’ (Schwab)

But one thing you do not understand is those self made guys above, they are likely totally evil, but the actual Global Elite who are going to enslave the world in the Great Reset, no one knows their names except in the highest levels, they keep a zero profile. They are the people who made their unbelievably vast wealth and power by owning the means of loaning money, the real source of all power. ALL production and industry and economies are based on borrowing. These money families go back centuries, they have been there the whole time, the power behind the thrones – but in the old world without computers it was impossible to actually rule the world as it could not all be pulled together – that is over, and globalism will take everyone and everyone’s freedoms.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
3 years ago

Cowspiracy, which reputedly turned more people vegetarian than any other “text” in history

That’s a pretty low bar.
The vegetarian population of the world is less than 5%, almost all of them in India.
However, it does shed light on the film-makers’ motivation – not to save fish, but to alter human behaviour. If, inevitably, they can’t persuade the general population, they will focus on politicians and the result will be coercion.

Cho Jinn
Cho Jinn
3 years ago

Watched this the other night; as one who enjoys fishing (catch and release) and our natural world tremendously, it certainly is a sad state of affairs. I already felt guilty ever ordering fish, despite how healthful it is. Seaspiracy is somewhat pornographic, like many alarmist documentaries, but whether the subject matter is ocean conservation climate change, [insert], these films are produced for a Western audience who is not-exactly the problem, at least not directly. For the same reason Greta Thunberg’s creepy parents are gutless for stopping short of addressing the worst actors (we have to suffer her impish impetuousness because…why?), this message need to be pushed into the East.

Roland Ayers
Roland Ayers
3 years ago

Is canned fish less wasteful? The fresh stuff has a short shelf-life, so I imagine a lot of it gets chucked. Are those MSC labels really so meaningless?

John MacDonald
John MacDonald
3 years ago

Seaspiracy? Codspiracy shurely?

Su Mac
Su Mac
3 years ago

too much alliteration:didn’t read

Richard Warren
Richard Warren
3 years ago

This is a confusing article, the author seems to agree with the general thrust of the points made about the damage the fishing industry is doing but then sees red regarding the suggestion that people should eat fewer fish, i.e. there’s a problem but the solution is definitely not to reduce the demand that ultimately causes the problem. Point taken that trying to get the whole world to be veggie is unrealistic, but the documentary is made for a largely privileged western audience and the conclusion of the makers findings/his opinion, is that the best thing an individual viewer of the documentary can do it reduce consumption of fish. It’s not a White Paper, its a documentary highlighting an issue not many bother to think about.
The article then goes on to make a series of lazy points in support of the author’s view that we shouldn’t alter our fish consumption patterns:

  • The documentary disingenuously ignores organic fishing farming. [Organic salmon farming has most of the same ecological impacts highlighted by the documentary, albeit it reduced by lower stocking levels. Agreed, this is probably the best form of fish production, but they still require huge levels of wild caught fish to feed them and still do huge amounts of damage to wild salmon populations.]
  • Vegetarians are naĂŻve if they think arable farming is all ecologically sound. [The author provides a single example of the harm arable farming does as an argument against a being a veggie. Bit like saying, I’m not going to give up smoking because there’s nicotine tablets aren’t very good for you.]
  • There’s a long history of humans eating and liking fish. [There’s a long history of human doing lots of things, not really an argument in itself that we shouldn’t do something to reduce the activity if its proving unduly harmful to society and the planet]
  • Ponds are good for wildlife, some started off as medieval fish farms, therefore fish farms are good, ergo no worries, keep on eating fish.
Last edited 3 years ago by Richard Warren
Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
3 years ago

As more “western” countries declare Marine Parks in order to placate local greenies, more fishing is pushed to the very gangsters described in this article.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago

no, not true.