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Seaspiracy missed an opportunity to spot the allyship of artisanal fishers

Updated: Apr 8, 2021

I watched the recently released Netflix documentary, Seaspiracy, over Easter. I think it missed an opportunity to consider artisanal fishers in the conversation. Artisanal or Traditional fisheries consist of various small-scale, low-technology, low-capital fishing practices undertaken by individual fishing households. Many of these households are of coastal or island ethnic groups. These households make short fishing trips close to the shore. How timely and more constructive it would've been to provide a voice and platform to small-scale artisanal fisherfolk, their story, and the local initiatives focused on promoting sustainable fishing, such as those based on an ‘Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries (EAF).’ I believe it's time the world not only sees our vulnerabilities in small island developing states and territories but values our contributions to conservation. No conversation about commercial fisheries is complete without considering the disproportionate effects on low-income communities and communities of color. Small-scale fishers were disappointingly not considered as a serious part of the solution. The documentary missed its chance to mobilize networks of people in support of community-based fisherfolk who are poised to be the best stewards of the ocean for generations to come. Instead, Seaspiracy repeatedly told us to reduce or remove fish from our diet, with no regard to what this would mean to the fishers and coastal communities most depend on seafood for sustenance or livelihood.

Photo credit: Clish Gitten - Barbados Fisheries Photos

My perspectives are influenced by the context of my home - The Caribbean. I certainly do not think that targeting the conversation/solution towards plant-based and cellular alternatives to seafood is useful. That’s a luxury option that would have next to no impact this decade where I come from, where what we need is urgent, practical action, and immediate and serious investments. Seaspiracy begs the question, 'What do advancement in cell-cultured seafood even mean for the artisanal fishers?' So much more could’ve been gained if we recognized the artisanal fisherfolk communities as allies, key stakeholders, leaders, and assets to the solution work.

One part of the documentary that didn't sit well with me was the portrayal of the two 'hungry Africans' in the canoe. I sighed and cringed at the same time - a missed opportunity! The documentary could’ve intentionally engaged the artisanal fishers and their coastal community to respectfully learn so much more about their traditional knowledge, skills, and challenges. In doing so, we could begin to unlock more viable solutions in ‘sustainable fisheries.’ A friend of mine mentioned how the mastery of the wooden boat's features took her attention at that moment. How easy was it to overlook? Of course, diversity, equity, and inclusion have not traditionally focused on ocean conservation, and as such, youth tell the story from the only lens they know. The US and UK ocean conservation community has little diversity, giving us plenty of opportunities to work together with people of colour more productively.

If nothing else, Seaspiracy is a good conversation starter and a successful example of youth ocean advocacy through film; I hope our Caribbean Ocean Heroes are watching it. It told Ali Tabrizi’s story, his concerns, and his chosen solution. Seaspiracy succeeded in triggering global conversations around one of the most critical environmental issues of our time - greed, sustainable fisheries, and our ocean's health.

I only wish it had embraced successes in the' Ecosystems Approach to Fisheries (EAF) across the world. I would hope that if there is a Seaspiracy Part 2, it dives deeper into the issues surrounding overfishing and sustainability in the sector, connecting with coastal communities to find the unsung heroes and highlight the solutions that need visibility and financial support. The documentary could've helped to pivot the conversation and, in turn, direct funders and collaborators to the people and organizations that need it most. I can highlight several Caribbean organizations such as Clear Caribbean, Alligator Head Foundation, Blue Finance, Caribbean Network of Fisheries Organizations (CNFO), CANARI, Fish 'N Fins Inc., and individuals like fisheries management professionals Dr. Shelly-Ann Cox and Newton Esthree helping to shape a new era for Caribbean Fisheries.

Newton Esthree was a guest on my live web series, The Blue Zone, on Wednesday 31st March. He is a local hero from St. Lucia who has worked for decades in managing coral reefs and artisanal fisheries in the Caribbean from the Grenadines to as far North as the British Virgin Islands and Jamaica. He has facilitated and participated in implementing numerous regional fisheries, conservation, and marine protected area initiatives in the Caribbean. Newton has also conceptualized CARICOM Vocational Qualification (CVQ) in Sustainable Seamoss Production that allows artisanal sea moss farmers to gain an internationally-recognized qualification at an associate degree and was instrumental in developing Caribbean Vocational Training in Coral Reef Restoration. Many others work at various fisheries management levels across the region whose story and work should be widely highlighted and celebrated.

Seaspiracy was great PR for Sea Shepherd Conservation Society; they do excellent work, so they are deserving of the good press. But, ‘Hello World!’’, it's the communities that rely on fisheries for their sustenance and daily bread that is the missing link in the storytelling and would add some much-needed perspectives and allyship in this highly complex issue.

Should we all stop eating fish?

No, but get informed about what species of fish to eat and when. This farmed salmon situation seems pretty awful too. But, in all fairness, this isn't native to the Caribbean, and I know very little about it; personally I tend to recommend eating the invasive Lionfish. Those who are reading from outside the Caribbean, who want to make better choices around seafood, I’d say stick to oysters, mussels, seaweed, and other fish species that are carefully farmed and grown without pesticides or feed made from wild fish. Monterey Seafood Watch also has fantastic resources and facts sheets that you might find helpful. Regionally, check out SlowFood Barbados, which focuses on promoting sustainable fishing methods, supporting responsible artisanal fisherfolk, and providing opportunities for public participation with cooking demos, competitions, and their ‘’ Sustainable Seafood Guide.’’ There are also several tech innovations that improve business efficiency and increase trust and accuracy in supply chain data, such as This Fish, Sea to Table, Dock to Fish - Meet the Fleet, and Get Hooked Seafood, that ensures fresh, local, wild-caught fish straight to your door. These innovating brands are certainly seeing opportunities, and Caribbean Fisheries are beginning to take inspiration, but there is still a long way to go.

By all means, when you live in the Caribbean or visit the Caribbean, eat our local fish! Choose the authentic experience. Our seafood supports self-sufficiency; it's organic and healthy, i.e., without chemicals or genetically modified products. And here lies the opportunity for grocers, fishers, fishing coops, regional fisheries networks, and regional governments, and academia to collaborate in educating us all on what is wise and ''sustainable" to catch and eat; then trace, label the catch, and publicize widely. Progressive leaders in SIDS and territories should be encouraged to Include sustainable seafood in school ‘climate or blue economy’ curriculum ‘s, green our fishers’ boats, and upgrade fishers processing units to support a circular economy, i.e., turning fish skin into leather or fish guts into feed. This way, we can fly that banner of being the most ecosystem-supported fisheries in the world!? How does that sound?

Folks visit the islands for our culture, music, and food, especially our coastal culture, ' Seafood Friday's and our infamous weekend ‘Fish Fries,’ and ‘Fish Festivals,’ are a traditional part of island life and culture. This is a reminder to the big hotel chains, catered villas, and 5* restaurants based in the Caribbean ( e.g., Nobu Barbuda, now open on Princess Diana Beach, on the island of Barbuda ). As opposed to encouraging folks to stop eating fish, support community-based fisheries. More of the good work that supports an, ‘Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries,’ needs to be funded to help revive the artisanal fisheries sector in regions like the Caribbean. Some practical actions that can be given include:

  • Buy local and get to know your fishers

  • Invest in high-tech data management tools for data collectors and support fisheries managers with sophisticated and low-cost data analytical tools

  • Collaborate with local fishers on new tech innovations like vessel monitoring systems

  • Amplify local NGOs doing the smart fisheries work

  • Support grassroots initiatives in education, and outreach programs

  • Partner with local fishers in biodegradable equipment such as fish traps

  • Invest in programs that upskill fisherfolk communities and help diversify incomes

  • Incentivize seafood transparency and traceability

  • Invest in coastal resilience and protection projects, at every opportunity

  • Help to set up innovative fisheries insurance mechanisms

Photo credit: Clish Gitten - Barbados Fisheries Photos

The solutions to our ocean's challenges are certainly not simple; I believe strongly in working with artisanal communities, enhancing livelihoods, strengthening cooperatives, and building strategic partnerships with governments and the private sector. This delicate matrix requires more open and honest conversations, fair access to resources and opportunities, investments in long term partnerships and projects, and a genuine willingness to work equitably with our most powerful allies in the ocean economy, i.e., small scale fishers and indigenous/native people of coastal communities, while ensuring they are not squeezed out of ocean spaces.

How do you know who to align with?

Seaspiracy suggested some deeply embedded blue washing and corruption in 'sustainability certifications,' which really got me thinking. It got me thinking, how do you, your NGO, your brand, or talent make decisions about who to align yourself with? It seemed to be the theme of my week. In one way or another, those working in ocean justice at the grassroots are driven by an intense need to survive and stay alive, but we must remember the long-term consequences of who we align with matters. My best advice is trust your gut, and write down your own business criteria or manifesto for partnerships.

Lea d'Auriol, Founder of Oceanic Global, partners with numerous sustainability brands and, most recently JUSTATAAD & UNDP, introducing a UNDP BlueSeal Badge Program in Barbados, helping businesses implement sustainable operating practices including restaurants, food trucks, stalls, and hotels and awarding them with a badge to celebrate their accomplishments. She shares how Oceanic Global decides what brands to align with. "Is the company mission-aligned? What is the company doing? What are their sustainability goals and road plan? Do we think it's authentic or bluewashing? What are the impact opportunities?

  • Is there an opportunity to help the company long-term with their sustainability and environmental actions?

  • Vet the products that you partner with. i.e., what are the materials made from, what are the opportunities to work with them to make it more sustainable and what is the products end of life strategy?

  • Create criteria that you vet potential partnerships against.

  • If these answers don’t align with your overall mission, then say no.

Image : UNDP Blue Digital

Throughout the documentary, I felt something was missing, fresh insights perhaps, that could create new income opportunities, support ocean stewardship, or provide greater opportunities to underserved communities. For folks who are just now beginning to pay attention to the trouble our ocean is in, then it's definitely worth a watch, and ask your friends to watch it too. Discuss it and ask questions; research solutions that could work for you in your community or positively impact mine.

One thing is for sure, Seaspiracy is thought-provoking, and so I give it 3.5/5; it reminded me once again of how important it is for us all to ‘ Tell Our Stories’, and focus on the pathways to more equitable collaborations around our ocean’s solutions. If, like me, you are still searching for a cinematic look at the vastly changing seafood system through the lens of small-scale fishers , watch ‘Last Man Fishing’ and ‘‘Coding for Crayfish.’’ Also, on January 28th, 2021, I was also a part of a Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Salty Cinema virtual film and panel experience that explored the many seafood options available to consumers and how to decide which ones to eat. The livestream includes a short film and a live Q&A panel with renowned experts in sustainable seafood including scientists, policy makers, advocates and supply chain specialists. You can view it here.

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Chinmay Gopal
Chinmay Gopal
Apr 10, 2021

I think that you provide valid points on the situation but your views are based on a very small and niche area of fishing. In 2019 the Caribbean's fisheries department accounted for about a relatively insignificant 3,500,000 metric tonnes of fish produce. The Caribbean is very fortunate in having a low population and a very high fish diversity. In contrast a massive country like China harvests a reported 81,000,000 tonnes yearly(although I suspect this number is much higher). Seaspiracy is a relatively short documentary that attempts to focuses on the fishing on a grand scale. I agree that migrating away from a pescatarian diet in a small communty like the Caribbean would be economically devastaing to many people. However, in…

Fa S
Fa S
Apr 27, 2021
Replying to

The volume of fish produce from traditional fisheries may be relatively small, but the proportions of vulnerable coastal populations relying on it are enormous! Whereas the people profiting from industrial-scale fisheries make up a comparatively small group of people. Let's not forget that humans are part and parcel of ecosystem-based management practices. Social justice and a sustainable blue economy definitely come into play "in the grand scheme of things".

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