Note: This column was updated on May 4 at 2:45 p.m. to clarify claims made in a National Fisherman editorial and the columnist’s opinion about them.

The new Netflix documentary “Seaspiracy” generated an oversized splash when it was released in late March. We’re still feeling the ripples today.

The popularity of the film caused online searches for vegan seafood to spike, a grocery store in Hong Kong to stop selling animal-based seafood, the fishing industry near and far to cry foul, animal rights groups and environmentalist organizations to praise the documentary, and some viewers to question whether animals that live in the sea belong on our plates.

“The film was very well done and a mix of creating strong emotion and giving information backed by experts in various fields,” said ocean activist Angela Bell, who serves on the board of the Maine Animal Coalition and does regular beach clean-ups. “The first thing that struck me in the film was the reality of how much plastic pollution is not straws or bags, but more harmful discarded fishing equipment. I can confirm this locally … fishing nets, ropes and lobster claw bands are the biggest component of the trash I pick up on any beach.”

After its release, “Seaspiracy” quickly became a top-viewed film on the streaming service. Narrated and directed by British filmmaker Ali Tabrizi, “Seaspiracy” alleges that the global fishing industry is “at war with the oceans”; that it’s impossible to enforce sustainable catch limits; and that “The same syndicates that are behind illegal fishing are the same criminal groups that are behind drug trafficking, human trafficking and other crimes.” The producers of Seaspiracy also created the 2014 film “Cowspiracy.”

Animal rights groups and environmentalist organizations have praised the new Netflix documentary “Seaspiracy,” while the fishing industry has criticized it. Image courtesy of Netflix

Seaspiracy” begins with Tabrizi’s desire to produce a classic nature documentary about his life-long love, the ocean. Instead, he finds himself pulled into an investigative journey where each discovery is worse than the previous one: Dead whales with bellies full of plastic. Whale and dolphin slaughter. Tuna overfishing. The brutality of the shark fin industry. Plastic fishing gear dominating ocean garbage. Ten thousand dolphins killed as bycatch. The damage trawling does to the marine ecosystem. Blood shrimp caught by enslaved people. Pollution and disease at fish farms.

“Overall, we thought it was a great documentary,” said Amy Grant, founder and president of Belfast-based Upstream Watch, which opposes the large-scale, land-based confined salmon operation that Nordic Aquafarms wants to build in Belfast.

Grant said that “Seaspiracy” was at times “hard to watch,” yet she and other members of the group recommend Maine people take a look. “We only wish (filmmaker Tabrizi) talked more about other things we can do (to help fish), like removing dams,” Grant said.

The film does connect overfishing to issues as diverse as dying coral reefs and the ebola epidemic. “Seaspiracy” ends with Tabrizi urging viewers to stop eating animal-based fish and seafood and switch to plant-based seafood. That advice is hard-to-swallow for those working in Maine’s fishing industry.

At the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries in Stonington, staff scientist Carla Guenther acknowledged that eating either land-based or marine-based animals can be “rife with issue.” But instead of the film’s vegan eating advice, Guenther offered another solution.

“It all comes back to scale: Know your farmer, know your fisherman, eat local, eat with the season,” Guenther said, adding that the challenges of any animal-based food comes from “large-scale, remote food production.”

But eating local animals doesn’t always make the choice less murky in Maine. Take the iconic lobster fishery: Its sustainability claims were undercut by the same group criticized in “Seaspriacy” as too lenient. The London-based Marine Stewardship Council yanked the U.S. lobster fishery’s sustainable certification last August because the ropes attached to lobster traps entangle critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.

Then along comes “Seaspiracy,” criticizing the Marine Stewardship Council for allowing too much bycatch in the fisheries it certifies as sustainable. Media reports about “Seaspiracy” have focused on the film’s accusation that nonprofits like the Marine Stewardship Council that supply dolphin-safe and other sustainability labels aren’t able to ensure their labels are completely accurate.

The Newsweek review of the film, for instance, concluded: “Based on comments made by the Earth Island Institute and other experts, it is not possible to say whether all canned tuna that is labeled ‘dolphin-friendly’ is guaranteed to have not harmed dolphins in the fishing process.”

Grant, of Upstream Watch, pointed out that fish are also killed on an industrial scale for fish oil supplements and pet food. She wishes the filmmakers had spent time explaining all the products that contribute to the destruction of marine life. An editorial in the Portland-based trade magazine National Fisherman sidestepped the film’s accusations, arguing instead that eating animals results in “stronger and healthier brains and bodies.” It goes on to say, “Human civilization made dramatic technological leaps with the introduction of meat, then cooked meat, and then dairy as we became an agricultural species.”

I’d say this argument echoes colonial notions that the cultures around the globe that traditionally don’t eat much meat or drink the milk of other species are less civilized than people who slaughter mother animals and steal milk from babies, a practice that originated in the Middle East and was embraced in northern Europe but didn’t take hold in much of Africa, Asia or the Americas until modern times. My long-time readers know the off-repeated but unscientific notion that humans “need” to eat meat is what psychologist Melanie Joy labels a key defense mechanism used to reinforce and normalize the cultural practice of eating animals while ignoring more than 2,000 years of vegetarian history.

No vegan seafood companies are headquartered in Maine; however, the state’s sizable seaweed and algae industry provides key ingredients for many of the national brands of vegan fish products. Like the plant-based food sector as a whole, vegan seafood remains a hot investment choice. In April, just weeks after “Seaspiracy” came out, vegan seafood brand Good Catch secured more than $26 million in funding to expand its products beyond the plant-based tuna, fish burgers and crab cakes it now manufactures.

“I personally have a few favorite seafood recipes that include a chickpea tuna salad and a mock clam chowder that uses mushrooms for their chewy texture and seaweed for that ocean taste,” Bell said. “I have tried some of the new vegan seafood options and have been extremely impressed by their quality. We are in an amazing time of vegan innovation where eliminating animal consumption no longer means giving up any meat or seafood favorites.”

Pass me the tofu tartar sauce, because I predict the ripples from “Seaspiracy” will buoy interest in vegan seafood for a long time to come.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at:

[email protected]
Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

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