The film features the effects of plastic marine debris and overfishing around the world and argues that commercial fisheries are the main driver of marine ecosystem destruction. It rejects the concept of sustainable fishing and criticises several marine conservation organisations, including the Earth Island Institute and its dolphin safe label and the seafood certifications of the Marine Stewardship Council. Seaspiracy proposes marine reserves and the elimination of fish consumption. The documentary also covers modern slavery within the fishing industry.
* * *
[suspenseful music playing]
[man in Thai] When ships are in the middle of the ocean… where problems occur… they can throw you overboard into the sea.
It is dangerous for you to make this documentary.
There are many risks.
[in Thai] If you’re scared of dying, go home.
[mid-tempo guitar music playing]
My name is Ali. That’s me. And for as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated with dolphins and whales. My obsession with the ocean, though, was really born out of watching documentaries from people like Jacques Cousteau, David Attenborough, and Sylvia Earle. Watching their films opened up a whole new world for me, filled with an abundance of beauty, color, and life.
I would dream of one day exploring our thriving seas just like they did. Capturing images of all the extraordinary wildlife that lived beneath the waves. After finishing college, I’d been working on other documentaries, but at 22, I was ready to embark on making my own film on just how incredible the oceans were.
It’s home for up to 80% of all life on Earth. And with the vast majority of our seas still unexplored till this day, for me, the oceans were an indestructible source of inspiration. But not long into starting the project, this romantic vision that I always had of the ocean completely changed.
[reporter 1] …beached whale found off the country’s coast earlier this week had more than 30 plastic bags inside its stomach.
[reporter 2] It’s the 29th whale of this species to become stranded across Europe in the last two weeks. This represents the largest stranding episode in the last 100 years.
[reporter 3] …washed up on a beach…
[reporter 4] In the UK, 4 others died in a number of beachings nearby in recent days…
[Ali] When news started coming in of whales washing up on beaches, even along the Southeast coast of England where I lived, I was forced to confront a side of the story I never knew. A story of just how huge our impact on the seas had become. These animals washing up with their stomachs filled with plastic was devastating not only because of their incredible intelligence, but because they even help keep the entire ocean alive. When dolphins and whales return to the surface to breathe, they fertilize tiny marine plants in the ocean called phytoplankton, which every year absorb four times the amount of carbon dioxide than the Amazon rain forest does, and generates up to 85% of the oxygen we breathe. So in a world concerned with carbon and climate change, protecting these animals meant protecting the entire planet. The way I saw it was if dolphins and whales die, the ocean dies. And if the ocean dies, so do we.
But with so many whales washing up dead, the future looked bleak. Plastic was invading every last corner of the world’s seas, with huge floating garbage patches accumulating in the middle of the ocean, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. In fact, today, the equivalent of a garbage truckload of plastic is dumped in the sea every single minute, joining the over 150 million tons already floating there.
But this plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces known as microplastics, which now outnumber the stars in the Milky Way galaxy by at least 500 times, and is seeping into every living creature in the ocean. Essentially, our oceans have turned into a toxic plastic soup. And worst of all, I was a massive part of the problem.
Although I signed petitions and subscribed to ocean newsletters, I did nothing to actually protect what I loved. So from then on, I did what any self-respecting Jacques Cousteau wannabe would do. I became the plastic police. I donated to every ocean charity I could.
Attended beach cleanups, and carried reusable cutlery and a drink bottle wherever I went. My mission was simple. Stop the world from using plastic toothbrushes, straws, cutlery, bottles, bags, or anything single-use plastic. And I was gonna stop at nothing until my message was heard.
[woman] Seaside Fish and Chips.
Yeah, hi. My name’s Ali. I’m just wondering if you’d swap out your plastic straws ’cause it’s killing whales and baby sea turtles.
But that didn’t stop me from tackling this plague of plastic.
So, this is my first beach. In just one hour, I’ve been able to collect three whole bags full of plastic trash. There’s takeaway food packaging, there’s cutlery, there’s straws, there’s everything. I even found Nemo. Onto the next beach.
But no matter what beach I went to or how much I collected, there was always more plastic, and more animals washing up. After months of this, and as I began to wonder if this really was the best way to save marine life, I came across this.
Japan has confirmed it will resume commercial whale hunting, and is withdrawing from the International Whaling Commission.
[reporter] The country’s whaling fleet set sail for the Antarctic last Tuesday. Tokyo says it plans to kill despite a worldwide ban.
[Ali] So, this is the news I woke up to today. The Japanese government want to resume whaling in the Antarctic again. I knew that dolphins and whales were dying accidentally from plastic, but I never dreamed that they’d be targeted on purpose by an industry I thought only existed in the history books. I did some research and found there’s been an international whaling ban since 1986. However, several countries have operated under the radar for years, most notoriously, though, is Japan.
Logistically, it was extremely challenging to film or do anything about the whaling in Antarctica. But I found there was one place in the south of Japan where this industry could still be seen operating from the coast, in a place called Taiji, where each year over 700 dolphins and small whales are herded into a cove for slaughter. I wanted to find out just how big of a threat Japan’s whaling practices were compared to plastic. So I set up a meeting with one of the few activists who’d been involved in this issue for years, a guy named Ric O’Barry.
[Ric O’Barry] The Japanese government go through a lot of trouble to make sure that people don’t know about this. If you went there, and you didn’t know what you were doing, you could get arrested, and you could be in jail a very long time. Because they’re trying to get rid of people who are opposed to their war on dolphins. When you first show up in Taiji, immediately, the police are on you. They’re at your hotel. They’re following you everywhere you go. You got the Yakuza, you got the right wing, you got the government, the fishermen, you got everybody against you. The room is bugged, the telephone is bugged. The television is actually photographing you while you’re in your room. So you ask what, how… What happens when you go to Taiji? Just know that all of those people are watching you, and they are trying to figure out, “How do we take these people out?”
[Ali] But if it’s so risky to go, and there are other issues affecting the entire ocean, like plastic washing up everywhere, then why go to Taiji?
[Ric O’Barry] Showing up in Taiji with a camera is extremely important. If we can’t fix this, what are you talking about, saving the ocean? How can you do that? You can’t even fix this. This is the size of a football field.
[suspenseful music playing]
[Ali] My head was still filled with questions, but with the dolphin hunt just starting, I knew that figuring out what was going on in Taiji would give me a better understanding of the bigger picture of how to save the ocean. Either I stayed home picking up trash on beaches all day, or take a risk and find out if there was a bigger threat to the sea. So I dropped all my other projects, packed my camera bags, convinced my partner Lucy to join me, and with the mission to expose what was truly happening to our oceans, got the next flight out to Japan.
[suspenseful music continues]
[officer] Where are you going today?
[Ali] Oh, we just arrived. We’re just visiting the area.
[officers speaking Japanese]
[officer 2 in English] Holiday?
What the hell?
From that point on, we had an entourage of police, secret service, undercover cops, and the coast guard following us everywhere.
[ominous music playing]
Is it the police?
[Lucy] Yeah, they’re out there. Let’s go out the back.
[car door slams]
[Ali] So, arrived in Taiji, and first thing in the morning, decided to head to the harbor. Pretty quickly, boats start heading out to sea. There was about 13 of them in total, and they were gone for several hours. When they returned, they returned in formation and were billowing black smoke from their exhaust pipes. And banging on poles in the water to try and scare a huge pod of dolphins closer to land, and then maneuver them into a cove where I’m standing above right now. It’s impossible to see exactly what’s going on. There’s a lot of splashing. There’s people down there wrestling these dolphins. Whatever is going on, they don’t want us filming. Police are trying to search for us. It’s really tough conditions to try and film this stuff.
[Lori Marino] The Taiji dolphin drives continue to be supported, underwritten, funded by the marine park entertainment industry. A live dolphin really is very expensive. And so, the big ticket is catching young dolphins and whales, and selling them to marine parks. What captivity in concrete tanks does is it takes away everything that makes life worth living for them. Everything they need to do, they can’t do. And everything they don’t want to do, they’re forced to do.
[Ali] I had enjoyed going to these marine parks my whole life, but never even questioned how the animals got there in the first place. But now, knowing it was connected to industries like whaling made me pledge to never go to these parks again. But every day in Taiji was like Groundhog Day, witnessing boats go out, dolphins driven in, and the inevitable capture and mass slaughter of the pod again, and again, and again. Before we knew it, we’d been in Taiji for over a week, but still couldn’t figure out why on Earth they were killing them, since dead dolphins don’t perform tricks.
Lucy, show me again what you just found out.
I’ve just been doing the maths from the data online, and from 2000 to 2015, for every one dolphin captured, at least 12 more were killed. It doesn’t make any sense. I don’t know why they’re killing all these dolphins.
[Tamara Arenovich] So, if the annual Taiji dolphin drive is fueled by the captivity industry, it begs the question, “Why kill the dolphins that aren’t selected for captivity?” There’s very little reason to slaughter them. There’s no market for dolphin meat. Why not just release them back into the sea? And the answer to that question is pest control. The fishermen view the dolphins as competition. They feel that they eat too many fish, and if they get rid of the dolphins, there will be more fish available for them to catch. Essentially, the slaughter of these dolphins is a reaction to the overfishing that’s happening here in Taiji.
[Ali] If this was true, that dolphins were being blamed for the overfishing, then boycotting marine parks wasn’t gonna stop this. So to find out more, we decided to visit a local fishing port just a stone’s throw from Taiji.
[suspenseful music playing]
However, upon arrival, we quickly learned this wasn’t just any fishing port.
[Lucy] Ali. Ali, what is it?
This is just tuna. This is the tuna industry.
We had just stumbled across one of the largest tuna ports in the world, which landed bluefin tuna, the most expensive fish on the planet. Just one of these fish sold in Tokyo’s fish market for over three million dollars. I had read about these fish. They were like the cheetahs of the ocean, warm-blooded, and can accelerate faster than a Ferrari. But due to high prices, the only direction they were accelerating in was into extinction. Today, less than 3% of the species remain. They were once thriving just decades ago.
It’s not just bluefin though, it’s all tuna. There’s everything here. This is sold around the world. This is a $42-billion-a-year industry. And it’s at threat from overfishing. Of course they’re gonna blame the dolphins.
The excuse of killing dolphins for the crime of eating too many fish was a lie. In reality, what they were doing was killing dolphins as a scapegoat for the overfishing. That way, they can continue participating in the multibillion-dollar tuna industry, and wash off any ecological responsibility. I learned one of the world’s largest tuna companies belonged to Mitsubishi, who control 40% of the world’s endangered bluefin. Since they were based in Japan, we surprised them by showing up at their head office.
I was wondering if we could do a quick interview. We have questions about why your company is wiping out an endangered species, and how that’s connected to killing dolphins.
[woman] Our company refused, so…
[Ali] Your company refuses all interviews?
[woman] Yes, all interviews.
[Ali] We’re asked to turn our cameras off, and leave immediately.
Back at the fishing port, I noticed that tuna weren’t the only highly-prized species they were landing. Sharks were everywhere, and they were all having their fins sliced off.
[man] Turn off the video!
Shut! [speaking indistinctly] Camera shut!
[Ali] Why don’t you want me filming?
[Paul de Gelder] The shark-finning industry is a multi-billion dollar industry and is oftentimes heavily criminally involved and Mafia-esque run. They don’t want people with cameras sniffing around because they don’t wanna get exposed for all of the shady things that they do. So sharks around the world are being killed for their fins. These fins are being shipped to Asia, and predominantly China, for shark fin soup, which is held as a status symbol. It has no nutritional benefits, it really doesn’t taste like much, and it can cost anywhere upwards of $100 a bowl.
[Ali] Seeing so many sharks finned, and being kicked out of the port just for filming, only made me want to learn more. Since we had discovered all we could about dolphin hunting in Taiji, we decided to follow the shark story to try and understand what impact this industry was having on the world’s oceans.
Just a hop over the ocean from Japan is Hong Kong, otherwise known as Shark Fin City. We arrived to find streets filled with shark fins, and huge quantities being offloaded from trucks on every corner. We tried to film the fins up close, but were met with the same response as before.
Go, go! No, no!
[Ali in English] We can’t film?
Are you gonna hit me with a chair? All right, we’re going.
Why? Why you are filming?
Why you are taking the photo? You didn’t get any permission.
Delete the photo. Delete first.
[Ali] Hey, hey, hey!
Filming in Shark Fin City was proving harder than we thought. So in order to see these fins up close, we got ourselves some spy cameras.
[woman speaking Chinese]
I used to be scared of sharks as a kid.
[Paul de Gelder] People should not be afraid of having sharks in the ocean. They should be afraid of not having sharks in the ocean. The sharks keep the oceans healthy. They keep the fish stocks healthy. They keep the ecosystems alive. They keep the coral reefs alive. If we don’t have these sharks, if these sharks get finned into extinction, the ocean’s gonna turn into a swamp. And guess who’s gonna die next? Us. And a lot of people would think I’d be the last person to stand up for sharks. I was attacked by a shark after serving 12 years in the military. I was on a counter-terrorism exercise in Sydney Harbor, and a bull shark attacked me. But knowledge dispels fear. And through necessity, I learned about the plight of sharks through working within the shark filming industry over the last decade.
[Ali] It turned out sharks were just as important as dolphins and whales in keeping the ocean alive. But for the first time ever, sharks were in danger of going extinct because of us. Like bluefin tuna, shark populations were crashing, with species like thresher, bull, and hammerhead sharks losing up to 80 to 99% of their populations in just the last few decades. And it was causing other unlikely species to die out with them.
[Prof. Callum Roberts] Over the period that we’ve been monitoring seabirds, since about 1950, the abundance of seabirds has declined by about 70%. And if you look at how they feed, you can understand why. And what they do is they kind of lightly dip down to the sea, and they pick little fish off the surface. And where seabirds are doing their best is where predatory fish are driving shoals of tiny bait fish to the surface, where the terns can get them. When you overfish the predators, they no longer drive the shoals to the surface, so there’s not enough food for the birds. So the loss of fish across the world’s oceans is bringing us into direct competition with whales, dolphins, seabirds, for prey, and that’s causing their populations to decline even further.
[Gary Stokes] Sharks are apex predators. So they’re at the very, very top of the food chain. They are what I call level one. They eat level two. They eat the poor, the sick, the weak of level two. But when you take away level one, level two then overpopulates. And level two eats level three. So they’ll actually overpopulate. They’ll wipe out their food supply, which is level three. And then, level two’s got nothing to eat. So level two then disappears, and they go extinct. And it carries on down the food chain, down to the smallest organisms. So when we talk about saving sharks and how important they are, even though people don’t necessarily like them, they are that key to the survival of our oceans.
Around the world, on average, sharks kill about ten people per year. Now, comparatively speaking, we kill 11,000 to 30,000 sharks per hour. The crazy thing is, almost half of those sharks killed are killed as bycatch from commercial fishing fleets. And they’re discarded as waste back into the ocean.
[Ali] Bycatch was all the other marine life caught while trying to catch a target species. And I was shocked to learn that every year, at least 50 million sharks are caught in nets this way, side by side with our favorite seafood. Studies estimate that up to 40% of all marine life caught gets thrown right back overboard as bycatch, and most of them die before they even hit the water.
So stopping shark fin soup is only half the picture. The problem is that eating fish is just as bad, if not worse than the shark finning industry, because the shark finning industry is strictly held in Asia, whereas everyone around the world is eating fish.
[Captain Peter Hammarstedt] I refer to bycatch as the invisible victims of the fishing industry. The industry will call bycatch “accidental take,” but there’s nothing accidental about bycatch. It’s factored into the economics of fishing.
In those fisheries where we have a better understanding of bycatch, the numbers can be alarming. And so to give you one example, in Iceland, in a one-month fishery, that fishery caught 269 harbor porpoises, something like 900 seals of four different species, and 5,000 seabirds. And that’s just one little fishery in one little part of Iceland. Taken across the world’s oceans, the amount of bycatch is huge.
[Ali] What made matters worse was that this destructive fishery had been awarded for its sustainable fishing practices for years by the very label I had trusted whenever I bought seafood, the MSC blue tick. I contacted the charity who hand out the labels about doing an interview, but I received no reply. In the meantime, I discovered there were already over a hundred different fishing regulations on paper for reducing this kind of bycatch. The problem was, with over four and a half million commercial fishing vessels at sea, it was a problem governments had practically given up on enforcing. Apparently, though, there was one vigilante organization who are filling this law enforcement void. A volunteer-run group who sail around the world and into harm’s way in order to protect marine life and bring ocean criminals to justice. The marine conservation group Sea Shepherd, who have even sunk 13 whaling and illegal fishing ships, and rammed a further five, all without harming a single person. And by getting up close and personal with the industries that are destroying the ocean, they have made some shocking discoveries.
[Lamya Essemlali] One of the recent discoveries that Sea Shepherd has made is that on the Atlantic French coast up to 10,000 dolphins are being killed every year by bycatch. So this is ten times more than dolphins being killed in Taiji, and no one knew about it. This has been going on for at least 30 years because the French government has been very effective in hiding the problem. People love dolphins, and most of them have no idea that when they eat fish, they’re actually putting a death sentence on the dolphin population in France.
[Captain Peter Hammarstedt] One of the most shocking things that most people don’t realize is that the greatest threat to whales and dolphins is commercial fishing. Over 300,000 whales and dolphins are killed every single year as bycatch of industrial fishing.
[Ali] Well, what about sustainable labels, things like Dolphin Safe tuna?
[Captain Peter Hammarstedt] For those of us who spend as much time at sea as I do, uh, we realized that labels often obscure what’s really happening at sea.
[Lamya Essemlali] We caught tuna fishing vessels who had slaughtered 45 dolphins to catch eight tunas. And that fishing vessel was working for Dolphin Safe canned tuna.
[ominous music playing]
[Ali] I had learned some shocking things so far, but this was just unbelievable. I couldn’t verify these numbers online, and I was skeptical to Sea Shepherd’s claim against the organization. To find out for sure, I decided to meet with the organization behind the label, the Earth Island Institute.
What’s the maximum number of dolphins that can be killed in a net before the tuna is no longer Dolphin Safe?
Zero. [laughing] One. So, one dolphin and, you know, you’re out.
[Ali] So can you guarantee that every can is dolphin-safe?
Nope. Hm-mm. Nobody can. Once you’re out there in the ocean, how do you know what they’re doing? Uh, we have observers on board. Uh, the observers can be bribed.
[Ali] Wait, um… Are your observers out at sea often?
On a regular basis, no. Mm-mm.
There’s nobody out there witnessing whether they kill dolphins or not. So how do you know it’s dolphin-safe, especially when they’re paying you to license your Dolphin Safe label? What they’re doing is taking the captain’s word for it. They look at the captain’s log. He says, “I didn’t kill any dolphins.”
“Oh, okay. Here’s your label. That’ll cost you blah-blah-blah.”
[Ali] So just… just so I get my head around this, um, you have observers, but they’re rarely there, and they can be bribed. And so you can’t guarantee that Dolphin Safe tuna is dolphin-safe?
That’s certainly true in terms of, uh, how the system works.
[Ali] So, what are people meant to do now if they want to protect dolphins?
What we tell them is to buy Dolphin Safe tuna, tuna that’s verified by Earth Island Institute to be dolphin-safe.
[Ali] But it’s not guaranteed to be dolphin-safe.
Uh, nothing can guarantee it’s dolphin-safe.
[Ali] Um, but if it’s not guaranteed to be dolphin-safe, why is it called Dolphin Safe?
We can pretty well guarantee it’s dolphin-safe, yeah.
[Ali] But you just told me it’s not guaranteed.
It’s not guaranteed in the same way that, uh… The world is a difficult place sometimes. [chuckles]
[Ali] Conflict of interest?
Yeah, I think it’s a conflict of interest. I also think it’s fraud. So, I was working for them, and I walked away from that. I was making more than $100,000 a year. Free life insurance. Something I can’t even buy. I left that because of their phony… Dolphin Safe tuna label. I don’t wanna be associated with that.
[Ali] I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The internationally recognized seafood label was a complete fabrication since it guaranteed nothing. At this point, I began to wonder what else was being covered up.
[George Mombiot] Even the groups that are talking about marine plastic are highly reluctant to talk about what a lot of that plastic is, which is fishing nets and fishing gear. We hear a lot about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and say, “Oh, isn’t it terrible? All our cotton buds and plastic bags are swirling around in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” Forty-six percent of it is fishing nets, discarded fishing nets, which are far more dangerous for marine life than our plastic straws. Because, of course, they’re designed to kill. Now, this is so crashingly obvious, why aren’t we talking about it? Why aren’t even the plastics campaigns talking about fishing?
[dramatic musical crescendo]
[Ali] How had I not heard about this before? Fishing vessels discard a massive amount of ropes and lines, and this was a major problem. Today, even some of the most remote places on Earth were awash with fishing gear. Like Henderson Island in the Pacific Ocean, and Svalbard in the Arctic Circle. In fact, looking closer at some of the whales that washed up in the UK when my journey began, I discovered fishing gear was the main trash in their stomachs. This was the whale in the room that no one was talking about. I even found that longline fishing sets enough fishing lines to wrap around the entire planet 500 times every single day.
Although there isn’t a single fishery in the world that deliberately targets sea turtles, six out of seven species of sea turtle are either threatened or endangered. Not because of climate change, not because of ocean pollution, not because of plastics in the ocean, but because of fishing. But this is an issue that nobody wants to talk about.
[Ali] Again, if this was true, how come I’d never heard about it? All the headlines I’d ever seen focused on plastic straws. So I decided to look into the research. A global study estimated a conservative 1,000 sea turtle deaths from plastic per year. However, in the United States alone, 250,000 sea turtles are captured, injured, or killed every year by fishing vessels. If a single sea turtle with a straw in its nose went viral, then why wasn’t this front page news? When I went on the websites of leading marine organizations who tackle plastic pollution, I found pages and pages encouraging people to stop using everything from tea bags to chewing gum. But no mention whatsoever of what to do about fishing gear, that is if they even mentioned it. Instead, plastic straws seemed to take up 99% of what these groups were talking about, which became even more shocking when I found out plastic straws only accounted for 0.03% of plastic entering the ocean. This was like trying to save the Amazon rain forest and stop logging by boycotting toothpicks. It was barely a drop in the ocean. If fishing gear was such a huge problem, I wanted to know why my favorite plastic organization wasn’t talking about it.
So, according to the Plastic Pollution Coalition, what is the main source of plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
Microplastics. Uh, for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, I’m mostly finding microplastics.
[Ali] Well, the latest study actually showed that 46% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is fishing nets alone, and the majority of the other garbage were other types of fishing gear. So wouldn’t that be the majority?
No, I wouldn’t say… I won’t say the majority of the plastic in the jar is fishing nets. Um, it’s… it’s a lot. It’s a… it’s a mix of things.
[Ali] But a majority means over 50%, and fishing-related garbage in the patch is over 50%. So wouldn’t that make it the majority?
Yeah. So if the… if the… If it’s close to 50%, that’s, um, uh… Yes, plastic fishing nets. There is nothing that would compare to that ratio as far as one item, you know. Uh, but the overwhelming, uh, thing is that it’s… it’s plastic fishing nets.
[Ali] Is there something that people can do to stop this fishing net trash?
Uh, one thing that you could do is… is, uh, eliminate, or really, really reduce your intake of… of fish, and to really let those… those populations rebound. But also, that will eliminate as much materials being used to… to get those fish.
[Ali] Well, do you know why this important message isn’t on your website?
I… I don’t… I don’t know. I don’t make the website. I mean, it’d be great for you to talk to Dianna about it. She’s the founder, she’s been in it, she’s got the… She could probably give you better answers.
[Ali] So, Jackie was saying that one of the ways to tackle the massive problem of fishing nets in the ocean is to say no to eating fish. I was wondering why you haven’t put that important message on your website.
A consumer message to eat less fish? Yeah, it’s not my area. It’s not my area of focus. I hear you.
I don’t have time. We have an event. Can you turn off the cameras? Thanks.
[Dianna] I’m not interested in focusing there. I don’t have an opinion about that.
[Ali] I was talking about what people can do to make a difference about fishing net trash in the ocean, and Jackie said to eliminate or reduce fish consumption. I asked if that was…
[Dianna] She didn’t say eliminate fish.
[Ali] She did.
[Dianna] I know she didn’t.
…is, uh, eliminate or really, really reduce your intake of… of fish.
[Ali] She did. She…
[Dianna] She didn’t say eliminate fish.
[Ali] I had no idea what was going on. Why was such a simple question receiving such backlash? My only option was to follow the money. So I did. And sure enough, there it was.
Of course they’re not gonna talk about fishing nets. The Plastic Pollution Coalition is the same organization as the Earth Island Institute. These are the same ones who are behind the Dolphin Safe tuna label, who work with the fishing industry to sell more seafood. No wonder why they don’t talk about the leading cause of plastic pollution in many parts of the world.
Now, it’s entirely right to say that we must use far less plastic. But even if not a single gram of plastic entered the oceans from today onwards, we would still be ripping those ecosystems apart because the biggest issue by far is commercial fishing. It’s not just far more damaging than plastic pollution, it’s far more damaging than oil pollution from oil spills.
[Prof. Callum Roberts] The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was the biggest in history. It gushed huge quantities of oil into the deep sea for a period of months. And everyone was appalled at the death of wildlife on the beaches as the oil slopped ashore. But in fact, the fishing industry in the Gulf of Mexico destroyed more animals in a day than that oil spill did in months. Because large areas were closed to fishing because of the possibility of being tainted by oil, marine life actually benefited from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill because it got a respite from fishing.
[Ali] I have a hard time accepting that a fisherman on his little fishing boat could be causing all this damage.
So, what’s the deal?
There’s this image of the fishing industry, which is deeply implanted in our minds from childhood. It’s a little red boat chugging across a sparkling sea with Captain Birdseye at the wheel, with his white beard, and his twinkly blue eyes, and his fisherman’s cap. And of course, what it really is, is a death machine. This is a highly effective, technological machine. You’ve got these massively powerful boats, huge fishing ships, whose purpose is to mop up the animals which are at the basis of the whole marine food chain, the fish.
[Ali] Although I finally felt like I was on the right track, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated that the constant media and global attention on plastics and fossil fuels were distracting from an industry we hear almost nothing about, with a much, much greater impact on the sea. Digging deeper, I discovered this was also true when it came to coral reefs. With scientists predicting the loss of 90% of reefs by the year 2050, the only mainstream narrative on why reefs were dying was climate change. But hardly anyone was talking about the fact fish were vital to keep corals alive.
[Prof. Chris Langdon] The ecosystem on coral reefs is heavily based on recycling. When these animals excrete, that is food for the corals. As fishermen come in and catch the fish, not only is the fish suffering, but the products that the fish release into the water is food for the corals, and the nutrients to replace them and grow them up again will be lost.
[Ali] Fishing has become the major threat on many reefs around the world. From the Middle East to the Caribbean, where 90% of the large fish which prospered there for millennia have now disappeared. So our oceans were clearly at a turning point, and I needed definitive answers. I wanted to speak to conservationists who had spent their lives trying to protect the sea, starting with meeting a living legend, and one of my all-time favorite heroes, to tell me more.
[Dr. Sylvia Earle] I’m Sylvia Earle, an oceanographer, explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic, founder of Mission Blue, founder of Deep Ocean Exploration and Research. So over the years, I’ve seen changes. I’ve been a witness to perhaps the greatest era of discovery about the ocean. But at the same time, the greatest era of loss. Since the middle of the 20th century, humans have succeeded in extracting from the ocean, immense quantities of wildlife. The estimate is by the middle of the 21st century, if we keep taking wild fish at the level that we are today, there’ll be no commercial fishing, because there won’t be enough fish to catch.
In the middle of the North Sea in the 1830s, a typical fishing boat would be able to catch one or two tons of halibut every day. But today, the entire fishing fleet there catches about two tons of halibut across the entire year, which means that halibut is more than a thousand times less abundant today than it was then.
[Cyrill Gutsch] We are at war with the oceans. And if we win this war, we’re going to lose it all, because mankind is not able to live on this planet with a dead sea. It’s the total industrialization of fishing that is the problem here. We are pretty much destroying everything at rapid speed.
[Ali] Commercial fishing was essentially wildlife poaching on a mass scale, catching up to 2.7 trillion fish every year, or up to five million killed every single minute. No other industry on Earth killed anywhere near as many animals as this trade, let alone wild species that we barely understand. This has led to global fish populations, in some cases, plummeting to near extinction. But perhaps one of the most shocking facts of all came from one of the world’s leading fisheries experts estimating that if current fishing trends continue, we will see virtually empty oceans by the year 2048.
[dramatic musical swell]
The more I learned, the more devastating this fact became, as I began to understand just how interconnected each species were with each other, and even the role they play in maintaining the chemistry of the ocean and our planet’s atmosphere.
It sounds just mind-blowing, but the power of animals moving up and down through the water column, in terms of mixing, is as great as all the wind, waves, tides, and currents in the seas combined. And this has a huge impact on the, the physics, the chemistry, and the biology of the seas.
[Ali] All this churning of the sea may be one of the ways the oceans help absorb heat from the atmosphere. As animals swim through the water column, it creates a powerful down-welling of the warmer surface waters to mix with the colder waters below. And although more research needs to be done, the decimation of marine life may be interfering with this process, and contributing to warmer sea temperatures. The bottom line, the oceans and the life within it play a much bigger role in climate than we ever expected.
And it turns out that the life in the oceans is absolutely crucial for holding on to carbon and preventing it from being released to the atmosphere.
[Earle] We understand that leaving trees or planting trees really helps the carbon equation, but nothing matters more than maintaining the integrity of ocean systems. I mean, these big animals, even the little ones, they take up carbon. They sequester carbon when they sink to the bottom of the ocean. The ocean is the biggest carbon sink on the planet.
[Captain Paul Watson] If you want to address climate change, the first thing you do is protect the ocean. And the solution to that is very simple: leave it alone. I always equate it to this being a spaceship. The Earth is a spaceship. It’s on a trip around the galaxy. It takes 250 million years just to make one orbit. And every spaceship has a life-support system, provides us with the food we eat, the air we breathe, and regulates the climate, the temperatures. That life support system is run by a crew of earthlings, and there’s only so many crew members you can kill before the machinery begins to break down, you run out of engineers. And that’s what’s happening, we’re killing off the crew.
[ethereal music playing]
[Ali] I discovered that one of the most important crew members on this spaceship Earth were actually marine plants. Per acre, these coastal plants can store up to 20 times more carbon than forests on land. In fact, 93% of all the world’s CO2 is stored in the ocean with the help of marine vegetation, algae, and coral. And losing just 1% of this ecosystem was equivalent to releasing the emissions of 97 million cars.
[Richard Oppenlander] By, uh, continued extraction of fish out of our oceans, you’re essentially deforesting our oceans by not only removing the fish, but the act of removal, the methods of removal are devastating to habitat, to ecosystems. And it’s even more so there because it’s out of sight, out of mind.
[Ali] Trawling was by far the most destructive form of fishing. The largest trawl nets are so big they could swallow whole cathedrals or up to 13 jumbo jet planes. The nets drag heavy weights at the bottom, scarring the sea floor that were once abundant with life, leaving nothing but a barren wasteland behind. This was just like bulldozing pristine Amazonian rain forest, except it was much, much worse. Every year, approximately 25 million acres of forest are lost. This was equivalent to losing about 27 soccer fields per minute. However, bottom trawling wipes out an estimated 3.9 billion acres every year. This was equivalent to losing 4,316 soccer fields every single minute. Tallied up across the year, this was equivalent to wiping out the land area of Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, the UK, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Turkey, Iran, Thailand, and Australia combined.
Where are the big environment groups? Why aren’t they all over this like a rash? It’s so obvious. It’s just shouting in our faces. It is the fishing industry that is destroying the fish and the rest of the life of the seas. How much more obvious does it need to be? And yet, for the most part, they are silent. They’re not speaking out against it. They are deliberately not engaging with the most important issue of all.
Many, uh, researchers feel that we should be at about 30% of our oceans being protected. But, in reality, we’re at 5% now of marine protected areas. But that’s misleading because over 90% of those marine protected areas still allow fishing. So in reality, less than 1% of all of our oceans are being regulated.
We hear a lot from governments about these marine protected areas. And one of the government ministers was interviewed and asked, “In this particular protected area, what is the additional protection you’re actually giving it?” “Are you gonna protect it against industrial fishing?” “No.” “Are you gonna protect it against oil drilling?” “No.” “So, what are you actually protecting it against?” “Well, we’re going to put some more restrictions on sea kayaking.” Seriously? Kayaking? This was the only thing she could come up with? It’s an utter disgrace.
[Ali] With virtually no marine protected areas that didn’t allow fishing, and global fish populations on the brink of collapse, I began to question whether sustainable seafood could even exist.
I have looked long and hard, seriously, at trying to find an example of where a large-scale extraction of wildlife is sustainable.
It just doesn’t exist.
[Cyrill Gutsch] It’s hard to say, “In some areas, fishing is okay, and in others, it’s not.” Because who will draw the line? How would you know if a fish is, like, caught illegal, or is coming out of a sustainable fishing method?
[Captain Paul Watson] Well, first of all, there’s no such thing. It’s impossible. There’s no such thing as a sustainable fishery. There’s not enough fish to justify that. Everything is now sustainable. It’s not sustainable. Just a marketing phrase, that’s all.
[Ali] So don’t you agree with organizations that recommend people eat more sustainable seafood as a way to protect the ocean?
[Captain Paul Watson] No, I disagree with it completely. You know, basically what they’re trying to do is to appeal to the big tent. They want the people who eat fish to support them. And this was a problem when I was National Director for the Sierra Club, that was their problem. They didn’t wanna come out against hunting, against fishing, or against meat-eating. Because they thought they would lose membership support if they did. A lot of these groups aren’t interested in solving the problem, they’re interested in exploiting the problem. There’s a lot of groups out there, climate change, conservation, whatever. It’s a business. It’s a feel-good business.
[Ali] I looked on Oceana’s website. They were the world’s largest marine conservation group, but there wasn’t a single mention of reducing or eliminating seafood consumption. Instead, the organization recommends one of the best ways to save fish was to eat fish. Oceana were advocating for sustainable fishing, so I decided to meet with the group so they could explain what that meant.
[Ali] What does sustainable fishing actually mean? Who defines it?
That’s a really thoughtful question. Uh, sustainable… Sustainability is not defined as such. There is not a definition of sustainability, as a whole, for fisheries.
[Ali] Isn’t it confusing, then, to say, “Eat sustainable fish,” if there’s no universal definition for it?
Uh, absolutely. No, the consumer can’t assess right now, uh, properly what fish is sustainable, what is not. Uh, there is full of advices, but it’s true that the consumer can’t make an informed decision right now.
[Ali] So if no one really knows what it means, wouldn’t a more effective strategy be to, say, reduce or eliminate seafood consumption? Wouldn’t that be the best for the ocean?
That’s… I mean, it’s difficult to answer a question with such a deep reflection with, uh, so little time to think about, right? Um, because we don’t have a position in that respect. We’re never asked that question.
[Ali] Oh, it would just be on the website. You know, “Number one thing you can do for the ocean, reduce fish consumption.” Something like that.
[Ali] I left the Oceana office with less faith in the group than when I walked in. Disappointed that they were unable to answer such a simple question about sustainable fishing. Perhaps contacting governmental authorities would better answer my question. After all, it was the second-best thing to do on Oceana’s website. So I went straight to the top and managed to secure a rare meeting with the European Commissioner of Fisheries and the Environment, who was recently passing laws to ban single-use plastic.
What is the definition of sustainable fishing?
[Commissioner Karmenu Vella] Imagine that you have money in a bank, you have capital, you put, I don’t know, €100 in the bank. That €100, which is the capital, is giving you interest. As long as you are taking the interest, and spending the interest without touching the capital, then that is sustainability. As soon as you start taking away the capital as well, then you’ve entered the unsustainable cycle.
[Ali] Well, using your economic analogy, today’s oceans aren’t only in debt, but they’re in a major depression. Shouldn’t we just stop spending what we can’t afford?
[Commissioner Karmenu Vella] Obviously, we cannot go to the other extreme, and say, “The only solution is not to fish at all.” We cannot… I don’t think we can do that.
[Ali] But your government are taking extreme measures to ban single-use plastic, when fishing causes far more destruction. So why is the fishing industry getting special treatment from this?
[Commissioner Karmenu Vella] Yes. For me, the idea is not to stop fishing. For me, the idea is to do more sustainable fishing. To do more sustainable fishing.
[Ali] More sustainable fishing meant doing more of something that isn’t working, and can’t even be defined. I wondered though, with no clear definition, where did that leave sustainable certification groups, like the MSC, who still haven’t got back to me?
Oh, you mean the Marine Stewardship Council?
Oh, God. Getting me onto the subject of the Marine Stewardship Council, you know.
How much do I want to say? Well, they have certified fisheries that produce astonishing levels of bycatch. And those are ignored because the level of kill is considered to be “sustainable” in itself. But that’s not what a consumer is looking for. They want to know that no marine mammals are being killed, no seabirds are being slaughtered, in order to put that fish on their plate. The label on the tin isn’t worth a damn in some cases.
[Richard Oppenlander] They make it appear on paper as if, uh, eating, on one hand, uh, sustainably-produced salmon is, uh, better than killing a bluefin tuna, and therefore creates a justification in the eyes of the consumer. But that’s like essentially saying that it’s more sustainable to shoot a polar bear than shooting a panda. When in reality, uh, neither one is sustainable, and neither one is right to do.
[Ali] So, do you think it’s gonna be possible to do an interview with the MSC at any point?
[woman on phone] Um, I don’t think that’s gonna work out. Um, there’s nobody in the office at the moment. There’s loads of conferences on.
[Ali] After having our interview request turned down countless times over phone, we decided to visit their head office instead.
Hi, my name’s Ali. I’ve been trying to organize an interview with someone at MSC for months now, and I just had some questions about sustainable fishing. Would there be anyone around I could speak to really quickly?
We were told to wait in the waiting room while they found someone to speak to us. But after half an hour of panicked looks between the members of staff, we were asked to leave.
[sighs] Just got palmed off again by the MSC. The world’s largest sustainable seafood organization doesn’t wanna talk to me about sustainable seafood.
The only thing left to do was to try and follow the money. And it didn’t take long to find the massive conflict of interest.
One of the founders of the MSC was the Unilever corporation, who at the time were a major seafood retailer. And despite countless fisheries clearly being depleted and destructive, I could only find a couple that had ever been denied certification in over 20 years. But most shocking of all was learning that over 80% of the almost £30-million-a-year income was from licensing their logo on seafood. Basically, the more blue ticks they handed out, the more money they made. So as far as I was concerned, there was no way I was gonna trust these labels again. In fact, other attempts to regulate the industry were also failing, with government observers who are given the task of monitoring fishing activity on ships being murdered at sea, thrown overboard, like Keith Davis, a 41-year-old American observer, who in recent years went missing off the coast of Peru, never to be seen again. In Papua New Guinea, 18 observers went missing in the space of just five years. And in the Philippines, in 2015, an observer by the name of Ms. Gerlie Alpajora received death threats from the family of a tuna fisherman who was arrested for illegal fishing. Soon after, armed men entered her home, and she was assassinated in cold blood with a gunshot to the head in front of her two young boys.
When we look at fisheries crime, we have to look at it within the context of transnational organized crime. And the same syndicates that are behind illegal fishing are the same criminal groups that are behind drug trafficking, human trafficking, and other crimes. If you get in the way of their business, you are risking your own life. But also don’t be surprised at the extent at which governments will go to prevent you from exposing the economic activities that they subsidize at sea.
[Ali] A subsidy is taxpayer money given to an industry to keep the price of a product or service artificially low. And in an increasing number of countries, more money was going out than the value of fish coming back in.
So if you don’t eat fish, you’re still sustaining fisheries because you’re paying for it in your taxes.
[Prof. Christina Hicks] So if you think about it, it’s really shocking that we subsidize the fishing industry somewhere in the region of $35 billion, which is the same amount that, according to United Nations, we’d need to combat world hunger.
[Ali] Subsidies were originally started as a means to ensure food security. But ironically, they are now the cause of food insecurity in many developing regions.
[Hammarstedt] Fishing by the European Union in places like West Africa is driven by European Union subsidies. And that means that local businesses can’t compete with the economic might of the European Union. Really it’s just a continuation of a history of plundering the African continent.
[Ali] These intensive fishing operations weren’t only wiping out the fish, they were also destroying economies. In the United States, up to one in every three wild-caught fish imported had been caught illegally, and therefore sold illegally. Stolen, often from countries in most need, where there are now wars over the fish. One of the causes for the infamous pirates of Somalia, now feared across the world, was actually illegal fishing. They were once humble fisherman working to feed their families. But when Somalia fell to civil war, foreign illegal fishing vessels, the real pirates of today’s oceans, invaded their waters and began taking the fish, effectively pulling food from their mouths, giving Somali fishermen no choice but to move into another line of work. This plundering of the African Coast, though, was happening across the continent. And Sea Shepherd was on a daring mission to end this, working with governments to track down and arrest illegal fishing vessels in places like Liberia.
[suspenseful music playing]
Despite the warnings of traveling to this region of the world, we decided to join Sea Shepherd to get up close to the front line of this problem.
[Stefano Tricanico] We have mostly international fleets coming from countries where they’ve already depleted their own local stocks, and they’re pushing further and further away to try and make up for that. And using more and more sophisticated technology to increase their catch numbers.
[Alistair Allan] When we look at international fleets, they come here, and they either fish illegally… And what they’re catching is worth huge, huge amounts, so it’s like a gold rush.
[Joseph F. Johnson] Our coastal waters had now become a free-for-all, until, quite recently, when we decided to pay attention to that, and try to police it.
For us, with the military, when we go on these operations, we assume the highest alert. We know that it’s piracy going on. So indeed, it’s a dangerous operation.
[Ali] Upon arrival, it became clear why the ocean around West Africa was so worth protecting.
[ethereal music playing]
It was home to one of the last strongholds of life in our oceans. Teeming with rare and wonderful wildlife of all kinds. Countless species journeyed across the Atlantic Ocean to find themselves in these waters. A refuge for mating and feeding. Living in as close to harmony and balance as I’d ever seen. But there was another species, journeying to these waters for a very different purpose. It didn’t take long to witness how Sea Shepherd and the Liberian Coast Guard tracked down and boarded fishing vessels.
[somber music playing]
Species I had never seen in my entire life were dying in the nets before I could even appreciate them. But the scenes continued below deck, where it became clear that these vessels were more like floating slaughterhouses.
This is the hold of just one purse seiner ship. And this is just the tip of the iceberg, it goes down the whole size of the ship. There could be hundreds of thousands of fish. Seeing how hard it is to get on this ship, you need pretty much a military operation. Plus, they could be fishing unsustainably, and no one would ever know. They could sell this as sustainably certified. So I just don’t see how you could possibly enforce sustainable fishing laws with all these boats this far out at sea. I just don’t see how it’s possible.
It’s at nighttime that illegal fishing thrives under the cloak of darkness.
Vessels entering the waters of other countries without detection and stealing the fish.
But that was also prime time for Sea Shepherd to do their work.
Yeah, we gonna board the vessel, we have to do it as soon as possible.
[man on radio] Copy that.
So, Sea Shepherd have just spotted a boat on the horizon.
It’s on the radars.
Could be an illegal fishing vessel.
We’re about to go and find out.
[suspenseful music playing]
[Ali] The ship was a Chinese trawler.
In its hold were huge quantities of illegally-caught fish.
The vessel was detained and fined.
It was only one victory, but it sent a clear message to the other ships in the area, that there were now real consequences to their illegal actions.
Still on the illegal fishing vessel after sunrise, as the ship was getting ready to be taken back to port, I saw some men rowing up to the ship.
I remembered the piracy warning from the Minister of Defense, but these men didn’t look like pirates.
Why were they risking their lives in open waters on a small canoe?
Suddenly, I saw this.
They were hungry.
If you look along the coast, these are people who’ve lived here from time immemorial.
That’s their livelihood, that’s their way of life.
But when we allow the industrial fishing to come so close into their zone, it doesn’t give them a chance to get a good catch out of there.
‘Cause if he cannot catch what he’s supposed to catch because a commercial vessel has come up and scoop up everything from here, he’s destined to go further out.
These guys are out here without life vests.
It’s dangerous. Anything can happen.
You get kicked out of your boat, or your canoe, that’s it.
[suspenseful music playing]
[Ali] Fisheries workers at sea have some of the most dangerous jobs on Earth. In context, over 4,500 US soldiers were killed in the Iraq War over the course of 15 years. But during that same time, 360,000 fisheries workers died doing their job, as an estimated 24,000 workers die every year. And West African canoe fishermen happened to have the highest mortality rates of any fisheries job on the planet.
[Monbiot] Huge numbers of people depended on the fish, which is now mostly gone.
That’s caused a great deal of hunger, not just on the coast, but up to a thousand miles inland.
So, what do people do for fishing instead?
They’ll hunt wild animals on land.
And that has not only had devastating impacts on animal life on land, it also seems to have had a very major impact on human life, because it’s the bushmeat trade which is responsible for the Ebola epidemics.
You can actually stand this up, it’s in the scientific literature.
The theft of fish stocks is enhancing or causing Ebola outbreaks of West Africa.
[Ali] As our trip in Liberia drew to a close, I questioned whether there was any alternative fishing method that could provide some kind of solution to both the environmental and humanitarian ramifications of this industry.
And a glimmer of hope presented itself in the form of fish farming, an industry with the reputation of being an eco-friendly way to feed the world without all the problems of wild-caught fish.
With no bycatch, no illegal fishing, no sea-floor damage, no killing of endangered species, and no dangerous working conditions, it was exactly what I was looking for.
Yeah, so a lot of people jump to the conclusion that sustainable seafood comes from farming fish and not high seas fishing, but it’s really not the case.
Uh, there’s so many issues involved with farming fish, uh, being pollution, disease, and we have to ask the question,
“What are these fish being fed?”
[Ali] What were they being fed?
The industry claim that to produce one kilogram of farmed salmon, only 1.2 kilograms of feed is needed.
But when I looked further, I found the feed is heavily processed, and is made of dried fish meal and extracted fish oil, which requires a massive amount of fish to produce.
So in reality, you need many times more fish going into the farmer’s feed than will ever come out.
So fish farming was just wild fishing in disguise.
And what made this even more shocking was the scale fish farming already operates at.
Today, around 50% of the world’s seafood is coming from farms like these.
Huge cages in the ocean containing tens of thousands of fish.
So we decided to leave Liberia and journey back to the UK, for Scotland, one of the world’s leading producers of farmed salmon.
Since none of the major companies wanted to speak to us, we decided to meet with some of the industry’s whistleblowers instead.
The salmon farming industry in Scotland is extremely powerful.
And we’re talking about billion-dollar multinationals, which have the resources and the skills to dominate the narrative, and ensure that the only information that gets out is the information they’re comfortable with.
So when I went to document the issues, ended up making my way out to one of the farms.
And there, I filmed some of the most severe sea lice infestations that’s ever been recorded.
[Ali] Corin was able to capture footage of salmon being eaten alive by an infestation of sea lice parasites.
A common reality of fish farming across the world.
It was sad to think that this incredible species, which had evolved for millions of years to migrate across entire oceans and navigate up rivers to reach the exact same spawning grounds they were born in, were now confined to swim in circles in their own filth.
[Smith] So, it’s estimated that each salmon farm in Scotland produces organic waste equivalent to a town of 10 to 20,000 people.
And taken together, it’s estimated that the Scottish salmon farming industry produces organic waste equivalent to the entire population of Scotland each year.
[Ali] The next activist I wanted to meet was Don Staniford, who’d been going undercover to expose the reality of fish farms for years.
And we agreed to go undercover with him.
[Staniford] So, we’re here at Marine Harvest Salmon Farm, and it’s disgusting.
This is the… this is the stench of Scottish salmon.
This is where salmon go to die from the farms.
Maybe 50% of the salmon are dying from egg to plate, from hatch to catch.
And this is the Mortality Mountain.
This is a symptom of factory battery salmon farming.
These fish are dying from anemia, lice infestation, infectious diseases, chlamydia, heart disease.
This is welfare abuse.
So, far from being a panacea for the world food problem, salmon farming is a waste of resources.
It’s biological nonsense.
[Ali] The stench was horrifying.
These weren’t the bright orange and pink salmon I’d seen in the commercials.
So, farmed salmon, without colorants being added to its feed, would be completely gray, to the extent that salmon farmers can actually select from a color chart, much like you get when painting your house.
You can select the pinkness of the salmon that you’re gonna produce.
So it wouldn’t be for me to say, but it does seem like people are eating gray fish that’s painted pink.
[Ali] This was the real monster in the lochs of Scotland.
But the environmental impact of farming marine life didn’t end with fish.
One of the world’s most important habitats is mangroves.
Now, mangrove forests are absolutely crucial storm barriers.
They protect communities from storm surges, even from tsunamis.
And yet, 38% of the world’s mangroves have been destroyed by shrimp and prawn farming.
However, it’s the shrimp feed which is having the greatest humanitarian impact, because it depends on slavery.
We hear a lot about blood diamonds.
This is blood shrimp.
[ominous music playing]
[Ali] This recent aerial footage shows a fisherman in Southeast Asia writing a secret message to the drone, out of sight of the captain.
Slavery at sea is a massive problem.
I think it’s very hard to give precise figures, precisely because it operates under the radar.
Those people who are driving these abuses, for obvious reasons, don’t want to get found out.
In that regard, I would point to Thailand.
So there are now somewhere in the region of about 51,000 boats fishing in Thai waters under the Thai flag.
They had to find a way of fishing ever more cheaply to catch fewer fish.
And that’s where the inherent vulnerability begins.
Most of those boats would not be economic without this free, cheap labor.
[Ali] I had no idea when I started my journey that it would lead me here, but it was hard to believe the fishing industry could be this corrupt.
The information I was finding online was conflicting, so I wanted to ask the industry myself, at an international seafood expo open only to industry insiders.
We created fake business cards for a fake seafood company to sneak in, which actually worked, and secretly filmed my interaction with a representative from Thai seafood.
I was doing some research…
[Ali] Research. And I found out that a lot of, uh, Thai shrimp and prawns are coming from slave labor. People kidnapped…
[man] Oh, no, no!
[Ali] It’s not true?
[man] No, not true!
[Ali] Whoa! So they’re lying?
[man] Lying. [chuckles]
[Ali] So there’s no slavery going on?
[man] No, no. [chuckles]
[Ali] So why would they say that?
[man] I don’t know. You ask them that. [chuckles]
[Ali] Yeah. So it’s…
[man] Business, huh? It’s business.
[Ali] Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, it’s business.
[Ali] I was so fed up by all these companies and NGOs bluewashing the truth, but honestly, I didn’t know what to think.
The only way I could find out for sure if fishing slavery was still going on today was by actually speaking to these fishing slaves ourselves.
[Ali] Would you say there’s any safety concerns for me making this film?
The safety concerns are serious.
And I think, ignore them at your risk.
You can see people are being murdered.
So some of those involved are murderers.
Somebody might kill you, and that is possible if you’re foolish, and if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.
You can be victim of unfair or unreasonable actions by the law who have been paid, i.e. a victim of corruption.
So you have to be extremely careful, and the security protocols that you apply may well mean the difference between life and death.
[somber music playing]
[Ali] We arrived in Bangkok with the details of a halfway home for escaped slaves.
We knew that just by filming these interviews and shining a light on the criminal activities in the country, we were putting ourselves and those around us at risk.
[translator, distorted] Don’t film my face.
I can be hunted down for helping you.
[Ali] All we could do was cross our fingers, and hope we got the answers we were looking for.
[somber music continues]
[Ali] Could you start off by telling me how long you were on these ships for?
[in Thai] I was at sea for 10 years, 2 months, and 2 days.
I was scared, let me be straight with you.
Nobody could get off the ship, there were guards that kept eyes on us.
[in Thai] I was at sea for six years.
I was so depressed I tried to take my own life three times.
When I first met the captain on land, we drank and had a good time.
But once I was on the ship and the ship left the shore, the captain changed from white to red.
He changed, like we didn’t know each other.
He bullied and abused me like we didn’t know each other.
He splashed us with boiling water when we were sick and tired, hit us whenever he wasn’t happy by using an iron bar, and threatened us with a gun.
On the ship I was on, sometimes they kept dead human bodies in the freezers after killing them.
[in Thai] On my ship, boys dropped into the sea and drowned.
I saw their dead bodies floating on the water surface days later.
I felt sorry for their parents, they would never know of their son’s death.
[in Thai] When ships are in the middle of the ocean, where problems occur, they can throw you overboard into the sea.
They can just say to the authorities that you were sick and fell into the sea.
People don’t see how we catch seafood, they only care for consumption.
A lot of the seafood we’re consuming today is from slavery, from forced labor.
I would like to see everyone stop supporting them if that’s possible.
[Ali in English] Would you be able to take us to the slave ships, or is it too dangerous to film?
[in Thai] Oh…
It’s dangerous for you to make this documentary, and film these ships.
[in Thai] If you’re scared of dying, go home.
[translator speaks indistinctly]
[Ali] At this point, off-camera, we were notified that we had to end the interview right then and there as police were on their way.
Someone had reported us for filming without permits, and we needed to get out of there immediately.
[police sirens wailing]
[suspenseful music playing]
[Ali] I was sad to be leaving Thailand so suddenly, knowing there were young men just like me trapped on fishing boats who’d never be able to go home.
But after risking our safety, I felt powerless to do anything about it.
Especially knowing the authorities were involved in covering it up.
[somber orchestral music playing]
Back home, it’d been weeks since I picked up a camera.
The gravity of everything had caught up with me, and frankly, I was overwhelmed.
However, months earlier, we had booked a trip to the Faroe Islands, a small archipelago in the North Atlantic that practiced an old form of whaling.
We’d booked the trip back when I thought whaling was one of the biggest threats facing the ocean.
But after witnessing much greater impacts and the human rights abuses that followed, it seemed like a step backwards.
However, this particular form of whaling, called a “Grind,” had recently received attention in the media as a sustainable form of whaling, claiming the species of whale aren’t endangered and that hunting them caused no environmental damage.
Whales were the whole reason I set out on this journey in the first place, and I was skeptical about how sustainable it could possibly be.
So we decided to make one final trip to the Faroe Islands, in the hopes of witnessing one of these hunts and speaking to a whaler.
Some years on the islands, a whale hunt may only occur a handful of times.
Other years, none at all.
We patiently awaited news of a hunt for ten days, until finally, we received the call.
There’s a Grind? How far?
How do you spell that?
Yeah, I know where it is. Okay, okay. See you later.
[ethereal music playing]
[men shouting in Faroese]
[men continue shouting]
[ethereal music continues]
[music fades to silence]
[Ali] In the chaos of everything that happened,
I finally understood sustainability.
It just meant that something could continue on and on forever regardless of how much suffering it caused.
In reality, the Grind was about as sustainable as you could get.
But I began to wonder whether sustainability was truly the right goal for how we took care of the ocean.
[Rasmussen] So, I don’t feel like I’m a bad person.
If somebody want to say, “Yeah, you’re a bad person for killing a whale.”
Uh, I would rather kill one whale than 2,000 chickens.
That’s about the same amount of meat.
Uh, so if the world wants to take 2,000 lives, and we are taking one, you’re welcome.
And at that point, I feel like I’m a better person than many other people that are thinking about,
“Yeah, we had salmon for dinner last night.”
Four people, salmon, that means two, three salmons killed.
Do you really feel good about yourself killing two salmons for eating dinner?
Uh, I can follow the thoughts that people are saying, “If you want to eat, don’t kill anything.”
Like, just eating vegetables, and fruits, and stuff like that.
I can go along with that, but I really can’t go along with people that are saying,
Uh, “You must not kill Grind.”
And then, they are killing or eating other animals.
For me, a fish, a chicken, a whale, exactly the same value.
It has one life.
And… some say it doesn’t need to be taken for getting food, but that’s what we are doing.
[somber orchestral music playing]
[Ali] Although I didn’t agree with everything he said, the whaler had a point.
All this time, I had only looked at fish and other marine life in terms of sustainability and ecological impact, but I never considered the lives of these animals in their own right, or whether they could feel.
To me, it’s remarkable that the question is even asked that, “Do fish feel pain?” [chuckles incredulously]
As a scientist, it’s common sense.
They have a nervous system, fish do.
They have the basic elements that all vertebrates have.
They have the capacity to feel on a level that I almost can’t imagine we can.
We feel pain, we feel touch.
But fish have a lateral line down their sides that senses the most exquisite little movements in the water.
So you see a thousand fish moving like one fish.
Those who say, “Doesn’t matter what you do to a fish, they can’t feel anything.”
Or that they… Their consciousness, they can’t relate to pain, or they can’t sense danger in the future.
Well, they haven’t really observed fish.
I think it’s a justification for doing dastardly things to innocent creatures.
It’s the only explanation I can think of for treating fish with such a barbaric attitude.
[Ali] So you don’t eat fish?
Oh, I don’t eat fish now, or any animal.
[Ali] A scientific panel for the European Union concluded that fish do in fact feel pain and experience fear.
Just like dolphins and whales, fish can also have complex social lives, even teaming up with other species to find food.
With research proving, once and for all, the intelligence, memory capabilities, and sentience of these animals, fish, and even crustaceans, were more like us than we ever expected.
Fishes probably invented all of the familiar senses to us.
Uh, they’ve been around a long time.
So they have excellent vision, hearing, sense of touch, sense of smell and taste.
They have the right kind of pain receptors for physical, chemical, and heat types of pain, the same three kinds that we have.
And also, there’s evidence that fishes show, uh, curiosity, perhaps concern, perhaps, uh, fear, when they can see other fishes being taken out of their tanks, and chopped up on a block right outside the tank.
It could be family members, or relatives, or just individuals who they’ve gotten to like over time.
There’s emerging science on how animals do use democratic decision-making.
One example is herrings, they have a very curious way of communicating.
They actually fart to communicate.
So, if 60% of the herrings in the school are farting, then that means it’s time to leave, maybe not surprisingly.
But they actually use that as a communication tool.
[Balcombe and Ali laughing]
[laughing] I can’t keep a straight face.
[Ali] As hilarious as that was,
I’d always been taught that seafood was an important part of a healthy diet, and I still had some questions.
[Ali] What am I going to miss out on if I stopped eating seafood?
Well, what you’re gonna miss out on, if you stopped eating seafood, is you’re gonna miss out on all that toxic heavy metal.
You’re gonna decrease your intake of dioxins and PCBs, these other, you know, persistent organic pollutants.
The aquatic food chain is the most concentrated source of industrial pollutants.
The thought of clean fish?
There’s just dirty fish and then dirtier fish.
And so if you look at the number one source of dioxin exposure, of toxic heavy metal exposure, PCB exposure, of hexachlorobenzene, plastics compounds, flame-retardant chemicals…
I mean, you name your industrial pollutant, it’s found most concentrated in fish.
Again, because that’s just where the pollutants eventually end up.
Mercury is totally a toxicant to the body.
Let’s say mercury from some industry pollutes the air or the water.
Small bacteria, plankton, they start picking up on the mercury.
And then, small creatures eat those.
Then you’ve got the smaller fish eaten by the bigger fish, and so on.
In essence, this is called bioaccumulation.
So there’s other things in fish, it’s not just omega-3 fatty acids.
Those contaminants oftentimes outweigh the benefits of the nutrients.
A common belief is that fish are the best source of these essential omega-3 fatty acids, but people don’t realize that fish don’t make omega-3 fatty acids.
It’s the algae cells that are making the omega-3 fats, and the fish swallow the algae cells.
And the algal DHA is what winds up in the fish’s flesh, that when we kill the fish, and crush its flesh, and squeeze out the “fish oil” for the omega-3s, it was really algae oil in there all the time.
So why not just eat the algae that has those great benefits we’re looking for?
Why even mess with the middleman, and just eat the direct source.
We started New Wave Foods with the mission to disrupt seafood, not oceans, by creating seafood from sea plants.
So you’re not gonna miss out on taste, it’s there for you. It’s delicious.
But you will miss the cholesterol, there’s no PCBs, no mercury, no heavy antibiotics.
You get the things you want from seafood, but none of the negative things.
Plant-based solutions, I think, is definitely one of the best options that we have to go forward.
Traditional animal agriculture, raising cows and chickens on land, have huge impacts in the ocean.
The runoff from those procedures create dead zones in the environment.
And fishing and fish farming, too. So if we can find alternatives that are just as delicious, just as healthy for you, but better for the environment, why wouldn’t we do it?
[Ali] My journey had taken me far.
And despite witnessing catastrophic destruction,
I had more admiration for the ocean than ever before.
I felt empowered by what I’d learned, and couldn’t wait to put it into practice.
Although I still pick up trash on beaches, and have embarked on a project to continue investigating and reporting on environmental issues, with so many plant-based alternatives emerging for almost every seafood product I could imagine…
I realized the single best thing I could do every single day to protect the ocean and the marine life I loved, was to simply… not eat them.
[Roberts] If we protect more and fish less, and restore that kind of balance and healthy ecosystem, they’ve got a good chance of making it through the tough times ahead.
There is real hope here because marine ecosystems bounce back so quickly if they’re allowed to.
You would see the reefs coming back, you would see these incredible shoals of fish returning, you would see the whales returning to our coast.
This is within our grasp.
We can do this.
The prospects for marine recovery, for rewilding, are incredibly exciting, but it can only happen if very large areas of sea are closed to commercial fishing.
And while governments are not prepared to take action, and while the industry is basically unregulated, the only ethical thing to do is to stop eating fish.
It isn’t too late to take the best hope we will ever have of having a home in this universe.
To respect what we’ve got, to protect what remains, don’t let any of the pieces escape.
Most of the positive and negative things that bring about change in human civilization start with someone.
And no one can do everything, but every one can do something.
And sometimes, big ideas make a big difference.
That’s what we can do.
That’s what you can do right now.
Look in the mirror, figure it out.
Go for it.
[“Whale Song” by Caravãna Sun playing]
♪ You see the truth ♪
♪ Always finds a way ♪
♪ To rise above the waves And I’m scared ♪
♪ To see what I’ve become ♪
♪ All I was ♪
♪ Like a whale ♪
♪ Gasping for air ♪
♪ I’m diving deep ♪
♪ I’m diving deep ♪
♪ Motions of emotions Motions of emotions ♪
♪ Motions of emotions Motions of emotions ♪
♪ Motions of emotions Motions of emotions ♪
♪ Motions of emotions Motions of emotions ♪
♪ Take me over the ocean s ♪
♪ That I believe ♪
♪ It’s the only thing That’s been honest to me ♪
♪ Take me over the oceans ♪
♪ That I believe ♪
♪ It’s the only thing That’s been honest ♪