The enforcement of lobster trap rules far offshore is getting increased attention from state and federal regulators, who are turning to new technology to inspect gear for compliance with requirements that aim to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales from deadly entanglements.
Michael Henry is a top fisheries enforcement officer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration here in the northeast. He says physically inspecting bulky gear out in federal waters dozens of miles off Maine can be a daunting and time-consuming task.
“It’s been a challenge for us for a long time to be able to effectively haul lobster gear offshore — just the environmental challenges, the safety challenges,” he says.
But inspectors are checking to see if lobstermen are complying with requirements to insert weak links into their traplines, to help whales break through the rope, and to use rope that sinks to the bottom, instead of floating into the water column where whales are more likely to swim.
In federal waters, NOAA inspectors traditionally winch those trap-laden ropes to the surface for examination. But last year, the agency started testing remotely-operated underwater vehicles, or ROVs, outfitted with video cameras, to dive underwater and send images back to a vessel.
Only when potential violations are found does the officer then winch the gear up for a direct inspection.
“We did have some success: we identified gear with floating ground lines, missing trap-tags and unmarked surface gear,” says Henry.
Henry says the agency is hiring a contractor to deploy the vehicles in the fisheries that lie farthest from shore more often this year, and may buy smaller versions for use by federal patrols closer in.
Some lobster industry advocates say NOAA needs to do more than just add ROVs to its toolkit.
“I don’t know why NOAA is investing in that and not actually having the same sort of enforcement across all segments of the fleet,” says Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.
McCarron is skeptical that the addition of ROVs alone will be sufficient once new gear rules are enacted this fall. Those will likely require ropes to have specific breaking strengths and diameters, and contain more weak links.
She says a new initiative by the state’s Department of Marine Resources could help, though. As part of Governor Mills ‘budget proposal for federal recovery plan dollars, DMR is asking for $3.3 million dollars for marine patrol infrastructure, including the purchase of a large vessel equipped to routinely handle the challenges of at-sea inspections.
“And actually be able to go out, patrol, haul gear, you know, buoy-to-trap, look at everything, haul the gear on board and be able to do true enforcement,” says McCarron.
The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee could act on that request next week.
Members of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ Marine Mammal Response Program rescued an adult humpback what that was entangled in commercial fishing gear in the waters off of Entrance Island on Thursday, June 10. (Photo courtesy Marine Mammal Response Program)
Department of Fisheries and Oceans responders spend hours untangling whale
Help was fortunately close at hand for a humpback whale that found itself entangled in commercial fishing gear in the waters off Nanaimo yesterday.
Paul Cottrell, Department of Fisheries and Oceans Marine Mammal Response Program coordinator, said fisheries officers happened to be working just off Entrance Island on Thursday, June 10, following up on reports of suspected whale entanglements, when an emergency call came in from a commercial fishing vessel just five minutes away that had discovered an adult humpback whale entangled in its prawn trap line.
Cottrell was linked in to the call and advised crews at the scene to stay back and monitor the situation.
The animal, an adult estimated at about 12 metres long, had become so entangled it was anchored in place, possibly for as long as 24 hours, when it was discovered.
“It was a 50-string trap line with anchors on either end on 3,000 feet of rope, so there was a lot of gear that was holding this guy down, a lot of weight,” Cottrell said.
The marine mammal response boat and team rushed to the scene from the mainland and started assessing the situation with an aerial drone and remote-control submersibles. The commercial fisher provided information about the equipment that ensnared the whale.
“We don’t go in and cut things until we know exactly the gear configuration because you can make things worse if you cut the wrong line and also it can hurt the animal, so we took our time,” Cottrell said.
The whole operation took about six hours, including about four hours to disentangle the whale, which had the rope wrapped about four times around its tail.
“The rope that’s used is Polysteel. It’s nasty stuff and it’s fairly abrasive and the animal had injuries on the dorsal side, on the dorsal ridge, from I think when it became entangled … and it was just anchored in place,” Cottrell said. “Its tail stock was down and the animal was just breathing, maybe every five to 10 minutes, just holding position and trying to breathe. It was something.”https://blackpress.tv/embed/47852/Rescuers_free_humpback_anchored_down_by_prawn_traps_near_Nanaimo
With the assessment done, Cottrell’s team was able to move in and cut the rope from around the whale’s tail as well as some loose lines and then they watched the animal for about 30 minutes.
“When it was freed … it took it a while to get back the tail fluke movement pattern, so it was slowly moving and we were just making sure all the gear was off,” Cottrell said. “There was one small piece of loose rope that’s left that we’re going to be monitoring, but there’s no tension on it and we believe it’s around the left pectoral fin. So, that’s something we’re going to watch over time, but it’s not considered life-threatening and it was loose, so we’re almost certain it will fall off on its own … By the end of about an hour after it was acting normally again and was moving on. It was fantastic.”
Cottrell said there are a large number of humpbacks in the area that have returned to the Salish Sea. The whales winter in Mexico and around Hawaii and return to the Salish Sea in the summer to feed on shrimp and other food sources. Last year about 30 whales returned, but a count for this year hasn’t been completed yet.
Humpback populations have been recovering after they were nearly hunted to extinction before whaling was halted in Canada in 1959.
The whale rescued Thursday has not been identified and its sex is unknown. That information will be gathered later with further observations.
“It couldn’t have worked out better,” Cottrell said. “I’m just still so happy.”
Jonathan Balcombe, Ph.D., is the author of What a Fish Knows and Super Fly and co-star of the new Netflix documentary, Seaspiracy. He recently shared his thoughts on the film with Sentient Media. Here’s what he had to say:Play00:00-01:25MuteSettingsEnter fullscreenhttps://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/bTEQqODe5gM?autoplay=0&controls=0&disablekb=1&playsinline=0&cc_load_policy=0&cc_lang_pref=auto&widget_referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fsentientmedia.org%2Fseaspiracy-co-star-jonathan-balcombe-gives-his-take-on-the-film%2F%3Ffbclid%3DIwAR3SkGmGZuLTRswhwMjq2mDsRZrhKQvy2l-rfd9eqVU0c5_yUqVi4nsBwvo&noCookie=true&rel=0&showinfo=0&iv_load_policy=3&modestbranding=1&enablejsapi=1&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fsentientmedia.org&widgetid=1Play
Jonathan Balcombe: The new film Seaspiracy does a terrific job of lifting the veil off of humanity’s terrible, unremitting exploitation of ocean habitats and its denizens. I like many things about this film. More so than many documentaries, it tells a story, that of filmmaker Ali Tabrizi and his partner Lucy Tabrizi’s global quest to document the various ways we are ruining ocean habitats. The couple set out to examine the problem of ocean plastics, and in doing so they discover that this is just the tip of the iceberg in our current path of destruction. I was pleased that the film emphasized the cruel and unconscionable ways that billions, perhaps trillions of fishes suffer and die at our hands every year.
Interviews with representatives of organizations purporting to protect oceans reveal a willful neglect of the paramount issue—our insatiable appetite for fish—reminiscent of producer Kip Anderson’s 2014 film Cowspiracy. I especially like that the film manages to end on a hopeful note, reminding viewers that we each can play a role in mitigating and ultimately reversing our voracious impact on sea creatures by refraining from eating them. If you haven’t already, watch this film. If you still eat fish, stop.Read More
At OBI Seafoods, a sprawling operation with outposts throughout Alaska, there’s all sorts of extra machinery for workers to master. At Whole Foods Market, there are new guidelines for purchasing salmon from wholesalers. And at Ivar’s, a fixture on Seattle’s waterfront for eight decades, the chef is sending back more and more salmon delivered to his kitchen.
Behind all these changes is an alarming trend that’s been building for years: The giant schools of wild Pacific salmon that can turn southeast Alaska’s ice-cold waters into a brilliant orange blur are thinning out, and those that do survive are shrinking in size.
It’s the shrinking part that’s causing the biggest logistical snarl right now. Many salmon are so small they’ve thrown off OBI’s fish-sorting process and no longer meet the purchasing specifications at Whole Foods and culinary demands at Ivar’s. There, head chef Craig Breeden snaps photos of the fish next to his knife to illustrate their diminutive size before shipping them back.
“It’s very irritating when the supplier sends it to me and I see the size of these fillets,” he said. “In the last eight to 10 years, the salmon sizes have started to get smaller and smaller.”
These disruptions are, for now, more a nuisance than serious problem. But they almost certainly presage more costly changes to come and, much more importantly, raise alarm bells about the growing crisis in some key salmon populations that is being driven, according to many scientists, by climate change and more competition for food. Decades after the Atlantic cod fisheries collapsed, concern is now mounting among experts that wild Pacific salmon could face a similar fate.
“The whole thing is out of whack,” said Laurie Weitkamp, a U.S. fisheries biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Salmon managers are realizing that climate change is impacting their stocks and it is generally not favorable and it’s only going to get worse.”
Salmon are so vital that scientists call them a “keystone” species, since animals such as bears and eagles depend on them, and the fish indirectly spread nutrients into ecosystems including forests. A salmon’s life journey from freshwater streams to the ocean and back again to reproduce and die makes them especially vulnerable to warming temperatures and a shifting environment.
Alaskan salmon are getting smaller partly because they’re returning from the ocean at a younger age, though scientists don’t really know why. The trend is also playing out across the Pacific Rim, from the U.S. mainland and Canada to Russia and Japan.
“When the size and the numbers go down that’s a harbinger of change that is taken as a red flag among many scientists,” said Peter Westley of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, co-author of a study on salmon size published last year with the University of California Santa Cruz.
The scientists examined four of the five Pacific salmon species in Alaska. Chinook — pursued by anglers and valued by restaurants — had the biggest average decline, at 8%, compared with pre-1990 fish. All other species shrunk, with sockeye showing the smallest decline at 2.1%. The most rapid changes were in the past decade.
Dwindling sizes in other species signaled a fishery’s collapse, including Canada’s Atlantic cod three decades ago.
In Europe and New England, the memory of rivers teeming with wild Atlantic salmon is all but forgotten due to overfishing, habitat loss and dam construction that blocked spawning grounds, said David Montgomery, whose 2003 book “King of Fish: The Thousand Year Run of Salmon” warns that the Pacific species could face the same fate. “Sadly, the book is still current.”
Agriculture, mining and other man-made interactions have sent Pacific salmon numbers plummeting in places including the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia-Snake River Basin. In some parts of Canada and the U.S., they’re endangered. Key runs in Alaska and Canada’s British Columbia province are seeing some of the worst years.
B.C.’s Fraser River had record low sockeye run sizes in three of the last five years, with last season setting a new low, said the Pacific Salmon Commission, which oversees management of the fish in the U.S. and Canada.
“We are seeing a march north on the declines and collapses of salmon fisheries,” said Guido Rahr, head of Portland, Oregon-based Wild Salmon Center. “Japan has almost no wild fish left. In parts of Russia, once massive salmon runs are collapsing due to overfishing.”
Russia and the U.S. make up 85% of the world’s remaining Pacific salmon.
Less weighty catches mean fewer dollars for the $2 billion industry. Last year’s haul garnered $295.2 million, down 56% from 2019, Alaska estimates show.
“Salmon is such a nuanced and interconnected species — one little tweak when they are young can make a big change,” said Arron Kallenberg, founder and chief executive officer of seafood retailer Wild Alaskan Co. “From an industry standpoint it certainty makes an impact.”
Historically, 4-pound sockeye and larger — key for commercial fisheries — comprise as much as 70% of each season’s Bristol Bay catch, Palmer said. Today, those larger salmon are no more than half the catch.
“Your yields go down a little bit with smaller fish,” he said.
At southeast Alaska’s Klukwan village, 115 miles north of Juneau, fishing nets have told the tale of shrinking salmon for years.
“Something is out of whack in the ocean and we wish we knew a way to fix it,” said Jones Hotch Jr., a tribal council member of this community of 40 families along a river whose indigenous name means “winter container for salmon.”
They depend on annual salmon return, which is why Hotch Jr. is pushing for stronger environmental protections against mining and other threats to the Chilkat River.
“My drive for saving our river for salmon runs to the very marrow of my being,” the 70-year-old said. “I believe that when we save our salmon, we save and preserve our culture.”
Operation Icefish represented a turning point in human history. Sea Shepherd broke the record for the longest maritime pursuit when they chased the toothfish poaching vessel Thunder for 110 days from the frigid seas of Antarctica to the coast of West Africa. They confiscated 75 km of net and boarded the vessel to retrieve evidence when it sank itself to avoid prosecution. The captain and officers of the vessel were sentenced to two to six years in prison and the company was fined more than $30 million. Sea Shepherd later provided information that resulted in the arrest of four other “Bandit 6” vessels before chasing the Viking to Indonesia, where it was blown up by authorities. Effectively ending illegal fishing in Antarctica, none of these vessels poached again, and this case has been cited by INTERPOL and other global law enforcement bodies. During the course of the second year of Operation Icefish, Sea Shepherd stumbled upon a fleet of illegal driftnet vessels in the Southern Indian Ocean. Operation Driftnet saw them chase the fleet back to China, reporting and documenting its activities, seizing 5 km of net, and ultimately securing $1 million in fines against the company and costing the captains their fishing licenses. Something remarkable happened as a result of these partnerships: countries wanted to work with Sea Shepherd to stop illegal fishing. Since 2016, they have launched Operation Albacore, Operation Sola Stella, Operation Jodari, Operation Guegou, Operation Vanguard, Operation Sierra Leone Coastal Defense, and Operation Gambian Coastal Defense. These partnerships with the governments of Gabon, Sao Tome y Principe, Liberia, Tanzania, Benin, Namibia, Sierra Leone, and The Gambia have resulted in the arrest of nearly 75 IUU fishing vessels for crimes like shark finning, using banned gear, using undocumented immigrants for labor, violating human rights laws, smuggling drugs and mangroves, bribing officials, catching endangered species, fishing in marine protected areas, and a plethora of other offenses. This is merely the expansion of their earlier efforts against illegal fishing. They were active in the fight against driftnet fishing in the North Pacific, Caribbean, North Atlantic, and Mediterranean and dolphin bycatch in the tuna nets of the Eastern Pacific between 1987 and 1997, resulting in bans in these practices. They evicted cod trawling vessels from Canada in 1993, secured a temporary ban on salmon fishing in British Columbia in 1995, and worked on several occasions to protect Cocos Island, Malpelo Island, Coiba Island, and Fernando de Noronha between 1992 and 2017. Their most famous collaboration was with the government of Ecuador between 1999 and 2017 to stop the plundering of the Galapagos Marine Reserve; aside from busting dozens of poaching operations and exposing corruption in environmental law, they launched landmark legal, educational, monitoring, surveillance, and detection programs. The modern iteration of this campaign is Operation Treasured Islands; the organization is working with Peru, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Ecuador to stop illegal fishing. Modern threats have required modern solutions, and their range has been truly global: Operation Apex Harmony-Timor Leste led to the arrest of 15 shark finning vessels and three driftnet vessels in just a few weeks, saving the lives of a million sharks. Operation Blue Rage, covered in the TV show “Whale Wars,” exposed the illegal bluefin industry in the Mediterranean. Operation Requiem worked with the Phoenix Islands and other South Pacific areas to stop shark finning. Operation Sunu Gaal busted numerous illegal fishing operations in Senegal. Operation Cap Roux and Operation Siracusa have focused on stopping poaching in the marine reserves of Southern France and Sicily. Operation Anguilla is working to stop the poaching of eels in Italy, and Operation Siso has cleaned up numerous tons of fishing gear from the Aeolian Islands. Operation Oresund exposed illegal trawling along the coast of Denmark. Nor have their efforts focused only on species being intentionally caught. They are working to save the vaquita porpoise from extinction caused by bycatch in nets, protecting Hector’s dolphins from industrial trawling, exposing the slaughter of 11,000 dolphins a year by French vessels in the Bay of Biscay, protecting porpoises in the Baltic, and have previously saved the Saimaa seal of Finland from extinction with Operation Milagro, Operation Pahu, Operation Dolphin Bycatch, Operation Perkunas, and Operation Saimaa Seal, respectively. This is in addition to their legal workshops in the Philippines, Malaysia, Gabon, Peru, Palau, China, Indonesia, Mauritania, Senegal, Singapore, Thailand, Liberia, and numerous other nations. If there is one organization doing more than any to protect the oceans from the onslaught of IUU fishing, it is Sea Shepherd. Their efforts have busted hundreds of illegal operators, changed laws, and rallied the international community to see IUU fishing as a threat to national security and the global environment.
Why Global Citizens Should CareThe UN’s Global Goal 14 for life below water aims to protect oceans and seas. That includes a commitment to end overfishing and help restore fish stocks, something that’s a focus of a new documentary on Netflix called “Seaspiracy”. Join our movement and take action to preserve the environment here.
Seaspiracy has made quite the splash.
The Netflix documentary, released in March, follows a personal investigation into the existential threat facing the world’s oceans from overfishing. But it’s landed in some hot water from some charities and experts for its “gotcha” journalism, dated facts, and on its official Instagram account, a failure to acknowledge Inuit rights.Brought to you by: IFADTweet Now:To PM Boris Johnson: Climate Change is Creating a Hunger Crisis — Step Up to Stop It!1,883 / 2,000 actions takenTAKE ACTIONMore Info
Ali Tabrizi, the 27-year-old environmentalist from Kent who directs the movie, features prominently on his quest to investigate the role of commercial fishing in the increasing threat of extinction to the world’s fish. His conclusion? Tabrizi advocates for an end to fishing subsidies, for no-catch zones to be established to protect a third of oceans by 2030, and for more people to take up a plant-based diet.
The film raises as many questions as answers. What would sustainable fishing look like? If fishing were substantially reduced, what would happen to the communities who depend on it for work? And why, as Twitter demanded to know, did they not call it “Conspirasea”?
Seaspiracy does exactly what it set out to do: make waves about overfishing. It’s prompted a critical discussion on the true cost of seafood, from accusations of modern slavery to the risk of accelerating the climate crisis.
1. Sharks kill 12 people a year. But humans kill 11,000 to 30,000 sharks per hour.
There’s a persisting myth that sharks are universally dangerous to human beings. But in reality, it’s the other way around.
Indeed, 50 million sharks are killed every year through bycatch alone, meaning that they’re scooped up from the ocean accidentally while hunting for other fish. The documentary says that without sharks, and the other fish governing the top of the food chain, the ocean’s ecosystem wouldn’t be able to cope. And yet, in total, 100 million sharks are killed every year.
2. Fishing nets make up 46% of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, three times the size of France, is the most polluted patch of water on the planet. Located between Hawaii and California, it’s filled with all kinds of plastic — especially all the leftovers from fishing activities.
But the documentary says that the role of overfishing in the patch hasn’t really been told. In fact, they say that “the whale in the room” is that a lot of large animals you see wash up on beaches with plastic in their stomachs often have fishing nets in them.
The claim about fishing nets in the patch has been disputed. The 2018 study quoted in the film was based on plastic that floats, and did not account for microplastics, tiny particles of plastic that often sink. For the ocean as a whole, a 2019 study from environmental charity Greenpeace found that fishing nets likely make up 10% of plastic waste.
3. Plastic straws account for just 0.03% of ocean plastic.
We can’t really know this one for sure.
According to the BBC, the two studies referenced in the movie both provide estimates, with a calculation made from these estimates. But it basically comes down to this: Plastic straws are not as big a problem as people think they are, and fishing nets are a far more serious threat to the ocean.
4. If we continue as we are, oceans will be empty by 2048.
This was perhaps the most controversial fact.
Boris Worm, the man who authored the 2006 study that this claim is based on, has since come out and said that the research is now dated — and shouldn’t be used to reach conclusions today. But while many have taken that to mean the claim is false, a Medium piece says that although the professor criticised his own findings, he never actually said they were incorrect.
Overall, it’s more about the direction than the destination.
“We are not scientists nor did we claim to be,” Tabrizi said in a response noted in the Guardian. “Despite there being some confusion about this particular projection, the overall state of fisheries are in severe decline.”
5. The fishing industry gets $35 billion in subsidies a year.
The documentary frames this alongside another fact: that it would only cost $20 billion a year to end world hunger. Both of these need to be taken separately.
Most of the subsidies come from the US, the EU, Korea, Japan, and China, totalling $35.4 billion in 2018, according to one study. The UN has previously said that for every $5 of fish products exported, $1 is subsidised.
And on world hunger, it’s important to note that this claim came from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2008. Although estimates vary wildly, updated research from FAO and others in 2020 put the figure at closer to $33 billion a year — still less than the figure for fishing subsidies.
‘I was in disbelief … I’ve never seen anything like it’Author of the article:Samantha PopePublishing date:Apr 16, 2021 • 1 day ago • 4 minute read • 71 Comments
A Cape Breton resident has made a disturbing discovery: Almost two dozen decapitated seals dotting the shores of two beaches.
“I was in disbelief … I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Kimberly Hayman, who’s lived in Dominion, Nova Scotia for three years. “I don’t like to see any animals suffer. I was just really disturbed.”
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While on a midday stroll along Big Glace Bay’s shoreline on Sunday, Hayman said she and some friends were startled to find 10 headless seals — all with holes in their torsos — sprawled along the pebbly beach. There was no odour and the bodies still looked pretty fresh, she said, with dogs curiously running over to investigate.
Though she said she felt upset by the sight, she didn’t think much else of it. Then the next day, while out on her usual sunrise walk along nearby Dominion Beach, Hayman said she counted 11 more of these decapitated animals and began to wonder what was going on.
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“I just kept taking pictures because I was thinking, ‘This can’t be normal — that’s 21 in total,’” she said.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada confirmed it is aware of the headless seals, though it said Nova Scotia’s Marine Animal Response Society (MARS) is taking the lead on the situation. It’s a familiar incident to the group, as several hundred dead seals were also found washed up near Cape Breton and Sambro shores in April last year.
In that case, the society’s response co-ordinator told CBC News it didn’t appear like the seals were killed as part of the seal hunt, as their skulls were intact and had not been crushed. This time around, Hayman said she saw no skulls nearby.
Similar issues have also persisted on the west coast of Canada, with headless sea lions found along British Columbia shores instead of seals. Last June, marine mammal zoologist Dr. Anna Hall said she believed decapitated sea lions along eastern Vancouver Island shores were deliberately beheaded by humans, with one incident being filmed on camera.
As for what’s happening on Nova Scotia beaches, Hall said she believes a similar crime may be happening. There appears to be consistencies among the carcasses, she said, reminding her of what she saw last summer on Vancouver Island.
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“The carcasses have a distinct similarity to them,” she said. “While we can’t say definitely that the seals on the east coast have been decapitated by human efforts, it does seem that is a distinct possibility looking at the photographs.”
However, MARS’s executive director and marine mammal biologist Tonya Wimmer said it appears to be a natural occurrence that happens every year to varying degrees, especially when sea ice has not been particularly thick or prevalent.
Though she hasn’t received images of all the seals yet, Wimmer said the holes don’t appear to be man-made, despite people assuming they have been caused by gunshots or other human-related trauma.
“From the images and information we’ve received, many of the holes are where the umbilicus would have been and is likely scavenging by other animals,” she said, explaining how it’s quite common for scavengers to target the area around the belly button, genitals or eyes.
Though there have been different theories about what happened, including that seal heads are being crushed by moving ice, Wimmer said she can’t say for certainty that’s what’s happening this time around.
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“The cause remains unknown,” she said. “(But) for the majority of animals we’ve examined during the incidents we’ve documented, it doesn’t appear to be due to human interactions.”
Hall said she doubts sea ice is to blame.
“I would be very surprised that this many seals would be decapitated by sea ice,” she said. “I’ve never heard of that before. That being said, I’m in Pacific Canada where we don’t have that issue.”
Either way, Hall said it’s disturbing to see that many decapitated seals in one localized region — which she said is cause for suspicion. While she said it could also be a result of shark predation, she said she still believes there might be something more to it.
“The sheer number of animals discovered within such a short time frame — 21 animals in three days — suggests that there is a possibility that those numbers could actually be higher,” she said. “It seems more likely that there is a human element to this, and I would really hope that DFO will take the appropriate steps to determine definitively what the cause of death of these animals were.”
For Hayman, she said coming across these seals was quite an unsettling experience, especially not knowing for sure what happened to them. She added she would hate to see it happen each year.
“I just feel like if this isn’t happening naturally, then what the heck is happening?” Hayman said. “To me, it’s bizarre.”
The slander against the Netflix documentary Seaspiracy says a lot about fishing industry influence in marine science. We have somehow allowed the fisheries industry’s own scientists to define sustainable fishing goals — it’s a disgrace leading to an ecological nightmare.
“Ocean QAnon,” “eco-fascism,” “self-indulgent vegan propaganda” — fishing industry scientists are angry about Seaspiracy, the new Netflix special topping charts around the world, which details the impact of industrial fishing on marine life and the complicity of certification labels and even some ocean conservation groups. The controversy swirling around Seaspiracy seems to center around statistics, but beneath the surface lurk deeper questions about industry influence in marine science.
Seaspiracy is not without its faults. Its interview style is abrasive. It has excessive animation. It makes a couple of statistical misinterpretations and several oversimplifications. Yet the film is mainly accurate and devastatingly detailed, provoking viewers around the world to question the industry values that have become integral to marine science orthodoxy: Why do we call fish populations “stocks”? What does it mean to call them “under-fished”? How do they calculate maximum sustainable yield? Is it really sustainable?
The academy’s response to Seaspiracy was swift, stern, and sloppy. Although allegedly leaked documents show that groups like the National Fisheries Institute were preparing a media response for weeks, the industry-funded Sustainable Fisheries, University of Washington’s fact-check page falsely claimed that one of the film’s source studies — estimating 20-32 percent of marine life imported to the United States was caught illegally — had been retracted. Ironically, they had to retract the claim. Sustainable Fisheries UW correctly questioned a sea turtle bycatch statistic, for which Seaspiracy repeated a mistake made on a Sea Turtle Conservancy white paper. Even though fisheries scientists tracked down the source study, they didn’t seem to read the abstract, which revealed that the near-global figure was misattributed to the United States. Instead, they attacked its credibility, revealing the modus operandi of fishing industry public relations.
It’s fair to say that Seaspiracy cited some studies that can be considered dated or disputed, but it also left out some of the most harrowing statistics published in recent years. The most current worldwide analysis estimated the bycatch of at least 8.5 million sea turtles in a seventeen-year period. Catch reconstructions show total fish hauls as peaking in 1996 and declining ever since, despite exponential industrialization and permeation of fishing fleets. A global investigation of navigation patterns estimated up to a quarter of fishing vessels may have forced labor on deck.
The most controversial statistic in the film is the projection of global crashes in commercially exploited fish populations by 2048. What the industry doesn’t mention is that they generated the controversy. Since the 2006 publication of “Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services” in Science magazine, industry groups have doggedly scoldedmediaoutlets for citing it. Professor Ray Hilborn, who founded Sustainable Fisheries UW, emerged as this study’s most prominent critic. A decade later, he would be exposed for not only receiving millions of dollars in seafood industry funding but failing to disclose it as a conflict of interest. While he did work with the author of the 2048 projection on a subsequent paper, this research didn’t correct or disprove its conclusions but rather cited them.
The lead author on both studies is a conservation biologist named Boris Worm, who said fisheries scientists’ cooperation on the second made him “somewhat more optimistic” but explicitly stated that the work “did not revisit the original projections.” When he finally did so in 2016, he clarified that updated models were less ominous but remained “sobering.” Hilborn nevertheless continues to crusade on behalf of industrial fishing, publicly advocating against marine reserves and providing testimony to lawmakers on the dangers of “under-fishing.” His foundation’s Seaspiracy response disputes four statistics out of more than one hundred, all of them by downplaying the degree of the problem and criticizing colleagues’ research, begging the question: Is the film full of errors, or does it just upset the industry?In essence, we have allowed fisheries industry scientists to define sustainable fishing goals, somewhat like allowing petroleum geologists to set emissions targets.
The enduring controversy over the 2048 projection is emblematic of a much deeper rift in marine science, between those who view fish as wildlife to be protected versus resources to be extracted — namely conservation biology versus fisheries science. While conservation biologists aim to restore fish populations, the explicit goal of fisheries science is to repress their recovery. The simplistic modeling formulae upon which modern fisheries science is founded defines the population level of maximum sustainable yield as half of a fish population’s carrying capacity. In theory, this strikes a balance between reproducing individuals and limiting factors where maximum population growth — and, conveniently, maximum profitability — will occur.
This means that when the UN Food and Agriculture Organization says that two-thirds of “fish stocks [are] within biologically sustainable levels” (disputed in itself), this means that most of these populations are at approximately half their historical levels, with the remaining third lower yet. Below 40 percent, populations are classified as overfished — in the United States, however, the threshold is 25 percent. Anything above 60 percent carrying capacity is defined as “under-fished.” This philosophy is not only markedly errant from fishing practices sustained for millennia by indigenous cultures but has become one of the greatest threats to their subsistence. In essence, we have allowed fisheries industry scientists to define sustainable fishing goals, somewhat like allowing petroleum geologists to set emissions targets.
However, fisheries scientists weren’t the only academics to decry Seaspiracy. While received rather differently by marine biologists around the world, these industry paradigms run deep in American academia. Sylvia Earle and Callum Roberts, the marine biologists Seaspiracy consults, represent marginalized ideologies and receive criticism for valuing fish as wildlife, as Dr Earle puts it, arguing that our goal should be to minimize, not maximize, their extraction. This advocacy got her locked out of meetings as the first female chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, advising the regulatory body formerly called the National Marine Fisheries Service — now NOAA Fisheries — of which she says the “primary purpose is to serve the interest of commercial fishing.”
While the pointed message of the film has inspired a reflection on these values among average viewers, it seems that academic institutions, in fisheries science and marine biology alike, may be some of the last to consider them. At least that’s how I felt after a summer researching at UW.
“Looks like we’ll have another urchin-cracking party,” my principal investigator chuckled, planning another student’s study on urchin gonad contents. My eyes widened as I realized she was talking about “my” urchins, whose feeding behavior I was studying in tanks down the road. They were wild-captured giant red sea urchins — Strongylocentrotus franciscanus — the biggest species in the world. They can grow to twenty-one inches from spine to spine and live for perhaps two hundred years. Some of these urchins may have walked the seafloor below the bustling canoe fleets of the precolonial Salish nations. Many were likely older than me. I wanted to set them free but was hesitant to object, as this research project was a critical opportunity for me to build connections and obtain references for grad school.
As I loaded up the urchins near the dock, the marine lab’s program director approached me. I waved nervously. “Thank you,” she said, in her thick Senegalese accent. She told me of prestigious urchin researchers she’d seen in her career simply leave captured urchins in stagnating tanks to die in the sun. “Of course,” I replied. She must not have heard that there were other plans for them. As I reached the other side of the channel and cut the engine, I pulled out a plastic drum brush and began tickling the urchins’ tube feet until they let go. I leaned over the gunwale, placing them carefully in the water and finally came to my favorite — Houdini. I was never quite able to design an enclosure capable of containing that one.
Watching the little urchin slowly disappear into the depths of Puget Sound, I couldn’t help but smile, rediscovering what I had always known yet learned to forget: marine life is wildlife.
The upwelling scrutiny around Seaspiracy deflects from the greater issues it raises. Life on Earth began in the sea, and human life has always been bound to it. We must protect our ocean, using all strategies at our disposal, and collectively reclaim the authority to govern how it is treated from those who profit from its exploitation.
Seaspiracy premiered on Netflix less than two weeks ago. Just four days after it was released, it had already made it to the Top 10 lists on Netflix in more than 32 countries, including the U.K. and the U.S. Netflix does not release viewing numbers often (or in most cases, at all) but we can take this as a strong indication that the film is getting a lot of viewing traction. The documentary is also getting its fair share of blowback. A barrage of criticism from NGOs, marine biologists, scientists, fisherpeople, fishing industry heads and social media commentators suggest that the film is too (Redditors are having a field day). Below, we dive into the backlash, starting with the responses from the various organizations depicted in the film.
Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)
Overally, MSC’s statement is rather mild, given how they are portrayed in the film (or not portrayed)- remember that they did not answer calls or requests for interviews and . The gist of their response is that sustainable fishing is very much what they believe the world needs.
“While we disagree with much of what the Seaspiracy documentary-makers say, one thing we do agree with is that there is a crisis of overfishing in our oceans. However, millions around the world rely on seafood for their protein needs. With the global population set to reach 10 billion by 2050, the need to harness our natural resources more responsibly is more urgent than ever. Sustainable fishing has a vital role to play in securing those resources.”
Plastic Pollution Coalition
Their statement is on the shorter end and mostly involves disputing the film’s representation of their funding and highlighting that both Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society are members of their Coalition.
“Plastic Pollution Coalition is not funded by Earth Island Institute or working with other projects of Earth Island Institute to support the commercial fishing industry. Plastic Pollution Coalition has a small but mighty staff supporting a growing global alliance of more than 1,200 organizations, businesses, and thought leaders in 75 countries working toward a world free of plastic pollution and its toxic impacts on humans, animals, waterways, oceans, and the environment.”
April 6 2020 Update: the above statement was taken on March 28th. The response page has since been updated with a more complete list of Q&As about the film above the original response, included one about their relationship to Earth Island Institute:
“We are not funded by Earth Island Institute; rather, we pay Earth Island Institute to run our human resources and payroll for our small and mighty staff of 9 people. Our work is in no way dictated by Earth Island Institute.”
Oceana’s statement, fairly concise as well, mostly focuses on their policy victories and disputes the movie’s conclusion- they believe coastal communities need to consume fish for survival.
“We believe people have the right to choose what they eat, and we applaud those who make personal choices to improve the health of our planet. However, choosing to abstain from consuming seafood is not a realistic choice for the hundreds of millions of people around the world who depend on coastal fisheries – many of whom are also facing poverty, hunger, and malnutrition. Oceana campaigns to save the oceans for both the people who depend on them and to protect the marine animals (and other forms of life) who live in them.”
Will McCallum of Greenpeace
This article is not presented as a response to Seaspiracy, in fact the movie is not referenced at all. Still, given the arguments presented and the publication date (Mar 23 2021), it’s reasonable to infer that it’s meant to engage with the discussion. McCallum, who is Head of Oceans at Greenpeace, elaborates on the problem of overfishing that he has seen first hand, while underlining that populations in the Global South that rely on fishing for their livelihood must be supported.
“During my time as an oceans campaigner at Greenpeace, I’ve sat in a tiny boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean, watching a fishing boat pull in miles of drift nets. The nets were full of tuna, but there were also dead spinner dolphins, manta rays, thresher sharks and more – a grim demonstration of devastation at sea. I’ve been right up close with some of the biggest fishing vessels in the world, watching as they haul out incomprehensible numbers of fish.”
“For years, Greenpeace has been telling our supporters that eating less fish and eating a more plant-based diet is key for ocean health. But campaigning for a blanket ban on fishing would undermine the rights of people worldwide who depend on the oceans for their food and livelihoods and who are in desperate need of allies prepared to speak up on their behalf.”
Earth Island Institute (Dolphin Safe)
Earth Island Institute, which manages the Dolphin Safe label that was harpooned in the film, issued a statement on behalf of their International Marine Mammal Project, which in their own words “worked assiduously for the protection of marine mammals for more than 40 years” backing their Dolphin work.
“David Phillips, director of the International Marine Mammal Project stated, ‘The dolphin-safe tuna program is responsible for the largest decline in dolphin deaths by tuna fishing vessels in history. Dolphin-kill levels have been reduced by more than 95 percent, preventing the indiscriminate slaughter of more than 100,000 dolphins every year.’
Phillips added, ‘While covering critical topics, Seaspiracy unfortunately does a disservice to a number of organizations that are doing critical work to protect oceans and marine life. It’s no surprise that the New York Times panned the film for entrapping interviewees with leading questions and getting lost in a sea of murky conspiratorial thinking.’ “
Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA)
The Global Aquaculture Alliance, which later this year will become the Global Seafood Alliance given its work around wild fisheries as well as farmed setups, was not directly named in the film, though it has responded to Seaspiracy by inviting Tabrizi and Kip Anderson, the movie’s executive producer to join them in a roundtable debate, a gesture worth applauding.
“In light of the documentary “Seaspiracy,” released on Netflix on March 24, GAA invites director Ali Tabrizi and executive producer Kip Anderson to join the nonprofit organization’s responsible-seafood journey by participating in its upcoming discussion on social accountability as part of its series of GOAL 2021 virtual events.”
GAA says “is committed to continually raising the bar on social accountability through the adoption of standards and certification demonstrating best practices in aquaculture and fisheries as well as through its pre-competitive education and advocacy work.”
What should you believe?
Now you’ve got a handle on the other side of the story. Here’s the gist of most of the arguments and statements: the film raises important issues about illegal overfishing, but it’s wrong to insist that there is no such thing as sustainable fishing and many low income communities rely on fishing for subsistence. Further, the more angry commenters and debaters add that it’s elitist to ask people to convert to veganism, and that the film is one-sided in its arguments.
Our take on the above:
If you don’t like the film, that’s your right. However, do make sure you have actually watched it before you critique it.
Do your own homework- you don’t have to believe Tabrizi and the Seaspiracy producers, but don’t blindly believe the NGOs and other interested parties either. Everyone has an agenda (and most of the most ardent critiquers make their money from, your guessed it, fishing). Tabrizi’s agenda may be to promote veganism. He is not hiding this.
The film is one-sided, this is a fact. For the better part of the last few decades, we have been fed the other one-sided side, aka the fishing industry’s story.
Veganism is an all encompassing lifestyle choice based first and foremost on compassion for all beings. This includes fish and marine wildlife. End of story.
As a consumer, you likely have very little oversight into whether the fish you are eating is 1) mercury & heavy metal free, 2) was fished without marine bycatch, 3) is actually the species you believe it to be, 4) was fished legally and without any slave/indentured labor and 5) was partially responsible for any fishing gear debris left in the ocean. If you feel you can be sure on all these points, then by all means, go ahead and consume fish. If not, reduce as much as you can.
It’s taken many years and relentless work by experts and activists (including films such as Cowspiracy), but finally people are starting to reduce their meat consumption. The problem? They are turning to fish instead. If this film helps stem this tide, it’s a net positive.
The argument that the film is looking to punish low-income coastal fishermen communities is a stretch- quite on the contrary, the Somali pirates segment does the opposite, illustrating how industrial overfishing led poor fishermen to lives of crime. This seems like an easy way for those with industrial fishing agendas to discredit it and on the whole, rings hollow.
Famous last words: Captain Paul Watson
Captain Paul Watson founder of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and a human who has spent 60 years of his life at sea may deserve the last word here:
“Predictably, the successful release of Seaspiracy on Netflix is receiving some criticism from the usual subjects. That was expected, but it really is not all that important. Many documentaries that I have been involved with over the years have been met with similar negativity and vitriol. […] Seaspiracy as a film is what it is, a message transmitted by a medium to provoke discussion and to expose and illustrate a global problem and as such it is both powerful and influential and most importantly thanks to Netflix it is reaching millions and trending phenomenally. […] Filmmaking is storytelling. It’s meant to be emotive. It’s designed to captivate viewers and to entice discussion and controversy. If people are talking about it that means it’s a success. If people are criticizing it, that means it is having an impact. If some people are condemning it, that means that some people are threatened by it. Personally, I don’t care if there are scientists and industry people who dislike the film. I don’t need bio institutes and P.R. firms to lecture me on something I have seen and witnessed with my own eyes over the last 60 years. There is no such thing as a sustainable fishery. That is my considered observation based on 60 years of experience. Phytoplankton populations in the sea have been reduced by 40% since 1950 and that is probably the most important validated scientific fact to be concerned about. (Source: Scientific American). Life in the Ocean is being diminished and that diminishment is escalating. I’m not surprised that there are many who wish to deny this just as there have been many quick to deny climate change. Change comes about through stories and in today’s world, the most powerful communication medium is film. […] If they [the critics] want to make a film with what they consider to be “real” science they should do it. […] This film despite the naysayers and the critics is a critically acclaimed success and that is a fact. It is a weapon of revelation and it is influencing millions and it needs to be built upon and not dismissed or belittled, especially by people who profess to care about marine ecology. The Ocean does not have time for the justifiers, the appeasers and the complainers. Right now, the Ocean needs activists more than scientists.
There is no such thing as a sustainable commercial fishing industry. Over 2 trillion fish are taken from the sea every year and that figure does not include the 120 billion killed on fish farms. This kill is far larger than the estimated 65 billion animals slaughtered each year for meat and fur. The critics of Seaspiracy are trying to say that fishing can be sustainable and necessary by pointing to artisanal and indigenous communities suggesting that the film is racist. That is a ridiculous accusation. The film is directed at the reality of industrialized commercial fishing. The fishermen in their tiny boats in the waters off Africa or India are not the problem. In fact they are the victims of the problem as industrialized highly technological ships plunder their seas for profit. Traditional artisanal fishing communities in the Southwest coastal province of Kerala have long suffered from the mechanized vessels funded by Norway.
Commercial Norwegian fishing off India forced hundreds of thousands of Indians into poverty with the result that today Norway, the 2nd largest exporter of fish in the world (And the world’s No. 1 killer of whales) is a major exporter of fish to India. By destroying artisanal fishing, Norway reduced competition in India and increased their export sales to India.
Norway is also the world’s largest producer of farm raised salmon. Pirate fishing is also a major problem and many of these illegal operations are funded by companies in Spain and China and untraceable trans-shipping of fish at sea makes it difficult to track fish catches. Who are the pirates of Somalia? Why is piracy becoming a problem now in the West African Gulf of Guinea? The answer is desperate artisanal fishermen forced into piracy by the depredations of the highly efficient illegal operations by Europe and Asian commercial fisheries.
When consumers order fish on the menu or buy it from the market they are supporting the destruction worldwide of marine eco-systems. They are supporting the impoverishment of artisanal and indigenous communities. They are supporting slavery and the murder at sea of observers and rebellious slaves. When consumers eat meat or wear fur they are also supporting the destruction of marine eco-systems and slavery because some 40% of fish caught are rendered into fishmeal to feed chickens, pigs, domestic salmon and farm raised fur-bearing animals. Additionally 2.4 million tons of wild fish caught each year is used directly for cat food.
This is more fish for cats than consumed by all four species of seals ((Harp seals (Phoca groenlandica), Hooded seals (Cystophora cristata), Grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) and Harbour seals(Phoca vitulina) in the waters of the Northwestern Atlantic Ocean. Chickens and pigs eat more fish than all the world’s puffins and albatross. This translates into a world out of balance and the antithesis of the word sustainable.In recent years the use of the words “sustainable” or “sustainability” has increased as species and eco-systems are depleted. It is the green-washing or blue-washing term of choice by the commercial fishing industry.
In 2021, no self respecting environmental NGO should be justifying, rationalizing and enabling commercial fishing operations. If they do so they are in willful denial of the reality of the threats to survival of life in the sea and on land.Since 1950, the seas have lost 40% of phytoplankton populations (Source: Scientific American). from pollution and diminishment of the nutrient base provided by marine life. Phytoplankton provides up to 70% of the oxygen in the air that sustains all life.
The Ocean is the life support system of this planet. Yes it provides food (Far too much for us and far too less for other species) but more importantly it provides oxygen and regulates climate and temperature. This life support system is maintained by a crew of living beings and we the human passengers feasting merrily and ignorantly oblivious at the table are murdering and consuming the crew that sustains this life support system.