'Seaspiracy': A Nutritionist's Review

Written by Katia Tassiou, content creator and dietitian intern at Nutrition A-Z

Are you one of the millions of viewers who saw “Seaspiracy”? Are you still wondering if you should give up fish and boycott canned tuna brands?

There’s a massive influx of documentaries on nutrition and the foods we should avoid, accusing them of harming our health and the environment. 

"What the Health'' was followed by "The Game Changers" and then “Seaspiracy”, which made its debut in the spring of 2021. The take home message of all 3 docos was that plant-based nutrition is superior over an omnivorous diet, for either health, sports performance or the environment. 

‘Seaspiracy’ is the latest one, passing the message that fish and seafood consumption should be diminished in order to save our planet. In fact ‘Seaspiracy’ states that the fishing industry might be hurting the planet's ecosystems even more than the meat industry.

Being a pescatarian, which means avoiding animal products other than the ones deriving from the sea, is considered a positive step when someone has concerns about the impact of meat consumption on their health. However, this twist wouldn’t sound like a good solution to the creators of  ‘Seaspiracy’ as the planet’s suffering would still remain with such a dietary approach. 

So here we are, once again, left with only plants to eat, until the next Netflix documentary debuts, potentially leaving us with only water as an option (of course, with a disposable straw).

Humour aside,  while we are all for banning plastic straws (0.03% of the world's oceans pollution), fishing nets (46% of the ocean’s pollution) ending up in the sea after fishing are slowly killing 50-80% of our world's wildlife. ‘Seaspiracy’ addresses the admittedly major issues of overfishing, plastic packaging and their deadly effects on the oceans and our planet. As stated, the global fishing industry is largely unregulated and is "sometimes a criminal enterprise that needs to be reined in." All the problems presented in the documentary indeed exist, however we should be aware that there is always an element of overly-exaggerated truths or subtly presented misinformation to lure the audience in. 

So we’d like you to consider today’s piece as a call for critical thinking. The objective is lost during any debate that only shows one side of the coin. When an industry is represented, pointing out the good and the bad aspects of it is necessary for the final message to find light.

Distortion of the truth?
After the release of the documentary, several experts that were interviewed complained that their statements were taken out of context. Moreover, many of the studies used in the documentary as evidence, were studies that admitted to presenting wrong results and had to be redone and republished.

Suppression of some truths?
Fish is one of the most nourishing non-plant protein sources, which was information completely missing from the documentary. Fish and seafood provide omega-3 fatty acids, which the human body can’t produce. However, the percentage of omega-3s in algae is comparable to that of various fish so fear not! Algae is definitely a great alternative source for you if you can’t or you decide not to consume fatty fish.  Fish consumption appears to be beneficial for mood, heart health, brain health, depression, dementia, cancer and exercise recovery. Now, can too much of a "good" thing be bad for us? There has been a huge concern about the mercury content  of fish. The larger the fish, the more mercury they are likely to contain.  However, recent research shows that fish do not often exceed the set regulatory limit for mercury, so consume fish with modesty! Furthermore, if you are pregnant, you should definitely be mindful of the mercury content of some fish and how frequently you should be consuming them. 

A core argument in 'Seaspiracy' is that individuals need to make a habit of buying seafood products that are sourced, produced and packaged with ethics and sustainability in mind. Knowing as much as you can about the origin and the handling of your fish is a move we highly encourage everyone to make. It makes a big difference in the health of the fish and its nutritional benefits as well as the impact of its consumption on the environment. The massive number of illegal, unreported or unregulated seafood is not the only fish you will be trying to avoid.

This brings us to another unfortunate, long-standing problem within the fishing industry : human rights violations. This seems to be driven by consumers' need for low-cost seafood, which is an issue worldwide and not just in Thailand as Seaspiracy emphasises. The seafood sold by the world's top four retailers is indeed often connected to human rights problems such as human trafficking, enslavement, physical abuse, beatings and even murder. Unfortunately, as most of the world’s seafood gets processed and transported numerous times, even so-called “ethical” seafood can be hard to track. Therefore, despite the way researchers might nitpick each statistic and study used in the documentary, knowing where our seafood comes from is an important habit to embrace. 

What you can do
  • Support local, small fishing companies when possible, which avoids the human rights insult of overseas fishing. 
  • Consult ethical seafood guides like the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch or the Environmental Defense Fund's Seafood Selector (while Seaspiracy criticises these guides’ efficacy, they’re great resources to help consumers distinguish the more sustainable fish species).
  • Look for sustainable labels, such as the Oceanwise or Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) logos on foods (organisations that Seaspiracy also criticises, but some third-party oversight is better than no oversight).
  • Buy products with minimal, reusable, or recyclable packaging.

Our take home message
You can make most dietary decisions work for your reality and values, in collaboration with your registered Dietitian/Nutritionist. Although true change on a global scale is required (far more than just individuals changing their eating and shopping habits), the final decision on whether you should eat fish or not is yours. In any case, please do not base that decision on a single documentary that gained publicity - put the popcorn away and research beyond it.
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