Over the past month, Instagram has been flooded with #savethesea. This swelling interest around marine resources was triggered by Seaspiracy, the latest of Netflix’s environmental documentaries. As a social scientist and educator working in a fisher community, I was curious to watch the documentary and see what the furore was all about.
The documentary promotes a straightforward message – it is not plastic straws but fishing nets that are ruining the world’s marine resources. When Ali Tabrizi begins the narration – “The oceans will run out of fish by 2048” – the somber voice and red Scorsese-esque font meet its purpose of instilling a sense of urgency, discomfort and even fear in the viewer’s mind. As the plot travels across nations from Canada to Thailand, it uses rich visuals and hard-hitting facts to criticise fishwork:
“70% of the microplastics at sea come from fishing gear”.
“Abandoned fishing gear injures or kills over 100,000 whales, dolphins, seals and turtles every year.”
“Governments give $35 billion to the fishing industry every year to continue plundering our seas. According to the United Nations, only $30 billion is needed to solve world hunger.”
Statements and solutions
The documentary has done an excellent job in simplifying the complex scientific jargon associated with fisheries, making this knowledge accessible to around 190 million people. However, beyond the compelling screenplay, it is the documentary’s strong solution-oriented approach that has made it so popular. The website and Instagram handle of the movie outline three simple steps towards saving the ocean: shift to a plant-based diet, enforce no-catch marine reserves and end fishing subsidies.
The first suggestion of adopting veganism holds a lot of significance in the Indian context. While veganism has become increasingly popular among people looking to be ‘active change-makers’, the seemingly simple debate between veganism and other forms of diet is actually quite layered and complex, particularly with regards to the Indian socio-political economy.
What does all this mean for fisheries at a global and local level? Is the condition of fisheries bad? Undoubtedly so. The fishing industry across the world has taken a ruthless avatar with unregulated fleets and highly intensive motorisation and fishing gear. This has not only led to massive ecological damage, but also robbed a large number of small fishers off their livelihoods.
However, the problem with Seaspiracy is not the facts it states but the ones it doesn’t. This can be analysed both at an international level and in the context of India’s fishing economy. Fishwork must not be understood merely as an occupation or a commercial expedition as it is influenced by geopolitical dynamics, territorial expansions, and glocal commodity-oriented power.
The colonial cover-up
Firstly, Seaspiracy does not engage with the US and other European nations’ role in the depletion of marine resources. Before the demarcation of the Exclusive Economic Zones, North American and European fleets have scoured the Asian and African seas for seafood. Australia carries out the world’s most extensive ranching of Southern Blue Fin Tuna, a critically endangered species. Even though Scandinavian countries have one of the highest recorded per capita consumption of fish of around 60-70 kg as of 2017, the documentary restricts its critique to ‘third-world’ countries.
India (6.9 kg) is the second most populous nation globally, but its fish consumption is less than the US (22.36 kg). The movie’s narrative is rather conveniently orientalist, with white researchers travelling to China, Taiwan, and Japan, thoroughly ignoring the role of developed nations in the inception of this rampant mechanisation. It reduces all Asian and African fishers to heartless criminals, agency-less workers, or worse, slaves. This is ironic considering that it is American and European fishing corporations that continue to exercise monopoly through supermarket chains and businesses. Whole Foods, ALDI, and Target – all North American firms continue to claim to be the most sustainable seafood chains worldwide.
History and heritage of Indian fishwork
Moving on to the Indian context, any engagement with food sources must reflect caste consciousness. Fisheries support many communities – particularly the marginalised – in terms of nutrition, income generation, and even gaining of social capital. When one makes an over-arching statement to shift to plant-based food, it turns a blind eye towards the lack of access to vegetarian products, let alone vegan products among the poorest.
Consumption of meat is rooted in historical caste oppression, where the peasants have never had access to the agricultural produce for which they perform labour at meagre wage rates. In this situation, it was only natural for the proletariat to look for alternative sources of nutrition which was found through meat consumption. Furthermore, vegan products are highly inaccessible to people and, even if affordable, the supply is highly contingent on geographical location.
The current political climate in India (read: beef ban) is also a marker of how dangerous this promotion of anti-seafood consumption could be. Ridiculing the intake of seafood can lead to a rise in puritan vigilance. Blaming fisheries as the sole source of oceanic damage also nullifies the role of indigenous communities, who have been involved in fish work and the caretaking of the marine resources in ways more sustainable than we can ever imagine. There is also a question of the feasibility of these communities finding alternate sources of livelihood. Fishwork is often passed on as generational artisanal skills, and migration of this labour to agriculture or even urban industries is perilous for the individual and the economy.
Tabrizi states: “This film will radically transform the way we think and act on ocean conservation forever.”
While it is definitely essential to pay immediate attention to the abysmal state of fisheries, one hopes that the saviour complex of the documentary impacts us as consumers to radically engage with conservation and sustainability that is guided by the subaltern’s voices.
Rashmi Sridar is a social scientist and educator who hopes to amplify the narratives of people in the coast.
Featured image credit: Netflix