Seaspiracy: What a great documentary and how it got us all talking about the wrong solutions

The documentary Seaspiracy on Netflix is a huge hit. With bloody images it has succeeded in bringing the overwhelming challenges of overfishing, destruction of ecosystems, climate change, slavery, and forced labour practices, and plastic pollution to the attention the millions of viewers and consumers. Thank you Seaspiracy! This public outcry is needed as all these issues have been going on for too long and the time for talking has long passed. We need to act!

Where Seaspiracy is successfully showing the overwhelming size and urgency of the problems, it fails in two aspects. It, unfortunately, fails in pointing the blame effectively to the right actors and it does not have the right call to action. The documentary makes the argument that the fishing industry cannot be trusted as they are the bad guys. Sustainable fishery certification programs like dolphin friendly and MSC are not working because they cannot give a guarantee. And NGOs are not credible because they are funded and depended on the industry. It, therefore, concludes with the cynical message that the whole fishing sector is ‘in on it’ and nothing can be done about it except for consumers to eat less fish. We disagree with this.

We are not here to argue about nuances as these bold statements are partly true and untrue. Yes, large parts of the industry are still fishing unsustainable, just as large parts of the industry are making enormous progress in becoming more sustainable. Yes, certification programs are not the whole solution to all the problems and indeed they cannot give guarantees (no program can), but they are doing great work and standards are an important instrument for change. And yes, many NGOs are dependent on funding from and collaboration with the industry, and at the same time, I know few organisations who are so committed to bring positive change and protect our oceans.

The real point we want to make is that we are not talking about the real elephant in the room. There is one actor here that is so obviously failing to take up its fiduciary responsibility that it is not even funny anymore. Seaspiracy challenged all actors, seafood companies, retailers, third-party certification, NGOs, and consumers, but did not call out the very organisations that have the responsibility to protect the oceans on behalf of their people and the global population. We are talking here about Governments.

The world’s oceans and seas are more than anything else a public resource and as such whilst those that exploit it for profit must take their responsibility to look after it and be accountable, so must governments first and foremost. Governments have simply failed to adequately step up to protect the oceans, whether from overfishing, climate change or plastic pollution. They have also failed to address human rights abuse and safety at sea. Reasons being because it is in their interest to exploit the seas and the oceans as well, for example, to enable cheap food for their citizens and create employment or they lack the political will and the means to do something about it. The public oceans are a textbook example of what Garret Hardin calls a free common. And as we know all too well “Freedom in commons brings ruin to all”[1].

As long as we allow to see the oceans as a free resource where every nation and every boat is rewarded to exploit it and take as much as possible, we have little hope to change that with certification programs, NGO campaigns or a call to consumers to eat less fish.

In fact, certification programs and NGOs campaigns have brought us this far, and now it is time to get the governments to step up as well. For this, an additional tool is needed that tells everyone what governments are doing to protect the oceans and those that harvest the truly sustainable fish protein that it generates – this tool we propose is an Ocean Governance Scorecard (OSG).

A credible Ocean Governance Scorecard can:

  • Hold coastal states that do not adequately manage and monitor fish stocks in their territorial waters to count based on scientific targets
  • Highlight flag states that let their fishing vessels roam the world’s oceans to fish at will
  • Identify port states that allow fish to be landed without checks on its legality
  • Spur market states to check seafood when it arrives at its borders for sustainability and legality
  • Provide insight to countries that provide labour to the fishing industry what control the flag states of the fishing boats their people will man have for their safety
  • Enable consumers to check what controls governments have in place to stop plastic from entering the oceans via their river systems
  • Bring the many different benchmarks and rating systems that seafood uses to assess their governance risks for the sources they buy from under one umbrella

A lot of work has already been done to protect the oceans and its resources, but it clearly is insufficient, and the one-stop-shop of an Ocean Governance Scorecard will help to bring this critical work to a meaningful end. This is what we call phase III of market transformation where the focus is on collaboration, scaling, and preparing for institutionalization. We, therefore, call on the leaders of the seafood sector to come together and agree on effective mechanisms to hold Governments accountable and make them part of the solution. 

For more information on the Ocean Governance Scorecard and on strategies for effective Sustainable Market Transformation go here.

Are you interested in making a structural impact and ensuring that your organization also benefits from the transition? Read the book Changing the Game or follow one of the upcoming Changing the Game courses on sustainable market transformation. Find out more here.

About the authors

Lucas Simons:

Lucas has been involved in business and sustainability leadership for over 20 years. He has spent the last ten of those years founding and growing NewForesight Consultancy – a leading management consulting firm specialized in sustainability, and SCOPEinsight – a rating tool for agricultural producers. Previous to that he was the first director to set up Utz certified, the largest global certification program for sustainable commodities. He is author of the successful book ‘Changing the Food Game’ (2014) and together with Andre Nijhof (Professor of Sustainable Business and Stewardship at the Nyenrode Business Universiteit) author of the book ‘Changing the Game’sustainable market transformation strategies to understand and tackle the big and complex sustainability challenges of our generation (2021).  

Lucas is a trusted advisor of many of the Fortune 500 Industry in Food and Agriculture, Governments, NGOs, and leading International Organizations.  For his efforts, he has been honoured as a Global Leader by the World Economic Forum and names an Ashoka Fellow.

Huw Thomas:

Huw has been in seafood for nearly 30 years with experience spanning the global seafood processing industry, retail and working with NGOs. He founded 3 Pillars Seafood in 2020 to provide seafood sustainability policy development and implementation support to a range of stakeholder in the seafood industry.

Acknowledged as a thought leader in sustainable seafood market transformation he has worked with and informed GSSI, Seafood Task Force, Philanthropies funding sustainable seafood markets work and the Hong Kong Sustainable Seafood Coalition.

Laure Heilbron:

Laure is the Food Systems lead of NewForesight. He is a hands-on innovator of solutions for the advancement of society, the environment, and business. A strong advocate of collaboration in order to create scalable, cost-effective, yet practical solutions to societal and environmental problems.

He has put his learnings as a consultant to practice as the first Executive Director of the Organic Cotton Accelerator and as the COO of the Social Impact Factory. In addition to his work at NewForesight, Laure is also a member of the  Worldconnectors  – a thinkcubator of prominent and engaged opinion leaders from different backgrounds who commit themselves to achieving the SDGs.

[1] Famous quote from Garret Hardin from “Tragedy of commons” – 1968 

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