8 Ocean Documentaries Better than Seaspiracy

by Sara Marriott

Seaspiracy, the viral Netflix documentary, concludes the only way to save the ocean is to stop eating fish (and I assume all meat). I am not going to spend my time going into the inaccuracies and misleading statements in the film, since many marine scientists have already done so (Science of Seaspiracy, What Seaspiracy Gets Wrong). All documentaries have an agenda and will use information to sway their audience. There is always more conversation to have about how conservation and science is portrayed in the media. I try to be brief in my summaries and critiques, though neither are comprehensive.

I was very excited to watch this new movie about ocean conservation, as I study small-scale fisheries management and have spent over 10 years studying the problems facing our oceans, specifically overfishing. However as director and narrator Ali Tabrizi ping-ponged from topic to topic, I quickly recognized many of the storylines from other films. As you can see each topic he addressed in his 90 minute film has at least one other entire feature film dedicated to it. If Seaspiracy left you inspired and wondering where you can view more ocean related media, here is a list of other documentaries that I find better than Seaspiracy.

Ghost Fleet: Amazon Prime ($4.99)

Review: Ghost Fleet is probably one of the most inspiring and heart wrenching movies I have seen. The film follows protagonist, Patima Tungpuchayakul co-founder of the Labor Protection Network in Thailand, as she searches for escaped slaves of the fishing industry. She documents the horrors they went through and how people are trafficked from other nations onto these vessels (mostly Thai in the film) and forced to work without pay for years. Some of these men had been offshore for decades. Something that surprised me was that some of these fishers were able to escape and even had families in their new countries, which added to the complexity of their situation when rescuing them. Patima’s work has lead to her being nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, which is entirely deserved. I actually had the honor of hearing Patima and two former enslaved fishers speak at the Capitol Hill Ocean Week Conference in 2019, there was not a dry eye in the room. Similarly, while watching this film, I was sobbing at the heartbreaking conditions of these fishers and heartwarming reunions with families.

How to help: Human rights violations are a serious but regional problem at sea. One way to help is by donating to the Labor Protection Network to support Patima’s work. Additionally, you can look for sustainable certified seafood from your favorite certification board (such as Seafood Watch), who are increasingly looking at human rights conditions at sea before certifying a product. If the certification process does not include this, you can write to demand that they update their guidelines to include human rights violations as exclusionary for certification.

Why it’s better than Seaspiracy: This movie highlights Asian women as the protagonist. People who are local to the problems and are in the field actually risking their lives to save these men should be the focus of this problem, not a white man exploiting people’s stories. This movie does not have colonialist or anti-Asian tropes, while still talking about serious ocean issues in Asia that demand attention.

Rating: 12/10 Highly Recommend.

Mission Blue: Netflix

Review: If you watched Seaspiracy, you may recognize Mission Blue’s leading lady, Her Deepness, Dr. Sylvia Earle. Mission Blue is a gripping account of the history of ocean exploration through the eyes and context of Dr. Earle’s life as an oceanographer and marine botanist. Her life is an inspiration to any young woman scientist, balancing family life, school, and research. She touches on a variety of topics involving how humans have drastically altered the sea in the last 70 years including our dependence on fossil fuels, overfishing, and even 150 nuclear bomb tests. She still mentions some questionable or outdated science in the film and there are still some elements of anti-Asian and Malthusian sentiments that left me feeling uncomfortable. After discussing all the ways we are harming the oceans, she pitches her solution: Hope Spots. She likens these Hope Spots to National Parks on land, citing that about 12% of land is protected but only about 1% of the ocean is fully protected.

How to help:Mission Blue has a foundation to help support the development of Hope Spots available for donations. Additionally, you can write to your congresspeople to express your support for the 30 by 30 policy that demands 30% of the ocean be protected by 2030. As per the Mission Blue website, lower your carbon footprint, reduce single use plastics, and, yes, even reduce your seafood consumption.

Why it’s better than Seaspiracy: This movie is everything I think Seaspiracy wanted to be. It has infinitely more credibility because Sylvia Earle has a lifetime of experience in the water. While she does mention not eating fish, she also acknowledges the nuance and complex nature of ocean issues. No amount of eating seaweed is going to stop the destruction caused by nuclear weapon testing. While I still found parts of this film problematic, overall, it presents the arguments more eloquently and with a hopeful conclusion that we can make and are making a difference to help protect the ocean from further degradation.

Rating: 9/10

The Cove: Vimeo (Free) or Netflix DVD

Review: The Cove is a chilling story of the Taiji dolphin drives, public health crisis, and conspiracy. You may recognize it from one of the first scenes in Seaspiracy where Ali Tabrizi says, “How have I never heard of this?” Clearly, he has never seen The Cove. Full disclosure, I watched this soon after it came out in 2009 and was moved by this story. It achieved everything it set out to achieve with me as a viewer: I cried, I was angry, and I probably signed some petitions. Rewatching it for the purpose of this blog, I was left feeling more conflicted than I was 11 years ago. The Cove follows Ric O’Barry, one of the fathers of the dolphin entertainment industry, as he tries to assuage his guilt from his past dealings with captive dolphins. The film focuses on the town of Taiji, Japan where fishers herd dolphins into a cove where some are sold to marine parks and many are slaughtered and subsequently sold (sometimes unknowingly). Dolphin meat is highly toxic to eat in high quantities and O’Barry posits that the Japanese government is covering up the mislabeling of dolphin meat as whale meat, which is less toxic. My conflict comes from the severe cultural insensitivity and lack of stakeholder engagement that really damages any ability for change to occur.

How to Help: Because we are dealing with a regional issue, I personally think the best course of action at this point is listening to people who live in Japan and take the lead from local activists who want change. International activists trying to end the dolphin drive have deteriorated any trust between the fishers and outsiders, therefore making policy change difficult. This is not trivial: the conflict and dissolution of trust between Japan and the international community has lead to Japan withdrawing from the International Whaling Commission. Additionally, to learn more about marine mammal conservation you can check out the Read Lab at Duke, or the National Marine Mammal Foundation.

Why it’s better than Seaspiracy: Seaspiracy briefly mentions the Taiji dolphin drives and tries to use the graphic imagery of dolphins being slaughtered to further the “stop eating fish” argument. Tabrizi does this by saying that the drives are being driven by the Japanese believing that the dolphins are competing with them for resources, but there is no evidence that is what the fishers are doing. The Cove fully explains what is going on in Taiji and again gives space to some of the complexities in the issue. That said, The Cove is still a movie by activists with their own agenda and there is still valid criticism of this film as well, including that there are no marine mammal facilities in the US or Europe that have dolphins captured in this way and that the marine mammal facilities in the US help fund research programs that go back to protecting whales and dolphins in the wild.

Rating: 7/10

The Islands and the Whales: Amazon Prime ($4.99)

Review: I am not going to sugarcoat it, this movie is not for the faint of heart. It is always hard to watch large charismatic megafauna that we have grown up learning to love be slaughtered. It is easy for those used to industrial farming to become separated from the slaughter of our food, but on the Faroe Islands there is still a deep connection with the sea and the whales they hunt. The Islands and the Whales is an intimate look at the Faroe Islands grind, which is a pilot whale hunt, similar to the dolphin drives in Taiji. The indigenous people of the Faroe Islands have sustained their population from the sea for thousands of years. The film explains that agriculture is difficult on the islands and the people have always depended on hunting for food. This is not a pro-hunting or pro-conservation film, but an honest documentation of the lives of the Faroese. It describes the conflicts within the Faroese about continuing whaling, both for sustainability and for health reasons. The film features Dr. Pál Weihe, who has studied the impacts of mercury in the Faroese and tried to convince people to reduce their whale meat consumption. Pilot whales are high on the food chain and contain a lot of mercury in their system. Mercury is in the ocean because of pollution from burning coal, making paper, and other industries. That mercury pollution then gets into fish, through a process called biomagnification, and when humans consume too much mercury, it can become toxic, especially to infants. The pollution from global electricity production is leading to the Faroese way of life becoming unsustainable, not because of whale populations, but because of the toxicity of consuming the whales.

How to Help: Similar to The Cove, this is an international regional issue. It seems that people in the Faroe Islands are coming to grips with the potential loss of their cultural hunting. The number of hunts and whales caught has been declining in recent years and there was no hunt in 2020. You can follow Pál Weihe’s research here.

Why it’s better than Seaspiracy: I thought the interview with the Faroese hunter in Seaspiracy was his best interview in the film. He made a great argument about the sustainability of the hunt and compared it to factory farming. However, Tabrizi, teary eyed from witnessing the hunt, missed the point and quickly moved on to a montage of “do fish feel pain.” One of the arguments I have seen floating around the internet is that, “Seaspiracy is not targeting subsistence fishing or those who depend on fishing for their livelihoods.” Yet, the movie targeted the Faroese who are subsistence hunting for their livelihoods. The Islands and the Whales really delves into the cultural significance of the whale hunt, conflict with foreign actors who are seen to be attacking that culture, and internal conflict to reduce or end the hunt for their own health benefits. I appreciated this film showed conservation arguments (including from Sea Shepherd the anti-whaling conservation group), public health arguments, and the socio-cultural complexities surrounding the hunt.

Rating: 9/10

End of the Line: Vimeo ($6.99)

Review: “The loss of fish is akin to the loss of soul.” End of the Line is a documentary about overfishing narrated by Ted Danson, who sat on the board of Oceana. This film was released in 2007, so some of the data and statistics (some of which are referenced in Seaspiracy) are outdated. However, it interviews major players in fisheries science (remember Callum Roberts?) who explain what overfishing is doing to the ocean and people who depend on it. The film still focused heavily on Japanese and Chinese fisheries, particularly at the beginning, but eventually spread blame more equitably. Specifically, the film focuses on the bluefin tuna industry where high prices of the fish drive fishers to catch as many as possible. It then moves into demanding restaurants take responsibility for sourcing only sustainable fish options for menus. Finally, it provides concrete solutions on how to improve the fish populations, through regulations, transparency, consumer education, and marine protected areas.

How to Help: Buy local fish where possible. Use seafood guides, such as Seafood Watch to inform your seafood purchases. Ask questions at restaurants or grocery store. Don’t buy imported seafood if possible (especially not imported shrimp). Pressure your lawmakers to reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Act (US fishery policy). Support the 30×30 policy for expansion of marine protected areas. Follow thought-leaders in the field: Dr. Ayana Johnson (who is championing the Blue New Deal), Dr. Daniel Pauly, and Dr. Ray Hilborn to start. Knowledge is power and knowing where your fish come from and how they were caught is a huge way to improve fish populations in the future.

Why it’s better than Seaspiracy: This film basically has all of the same statistics and information Seaspiracy does, except those data were up to date at the time rather than Seaspiracy using 15-year-old information. Additionally, it provides all the scientific information in context and does not try to mislead the audience. The thing I find funny about Seaspiracy, is that it spent a lot of time criticizing NGOs, like Oceana, for not supporting reducing consumption of fish, when End of the Line has multiple Oceana board members in it and also tells people to reduce their consumption of unsustainable fish. The difference is that End of the Line is also providing people with reasonable solutions that led to regulations on Atlantic bluefin tuna and expansion of marine reserves. While explaining the seriousness of overfishing, it managed to listen to the science, criticize unsustainable practices and demonstrate more sustainable solutions.

Rating: 10/10

Chasing Corals: Netflix

Review: One billion people directly depend on coral reefs for their livelihoods, either through fishing or tourism. Chasing Corals is a visually stunning film dedicated to showing the masses how climate change and ocean warming is impacting coral reefs globally. The documentary is split between showing the plight of corals and documenting the hardships of building the equipment to capture this plight, including one very dangerous open water swim in a lightning storm (don’t try that at home). The documentary makes an impassioned case for why we need to act urgently to protect the corals we still have and hopefully reverse damage that has already been done. This film has some white savior-ism, with it’s primarily white and male cast. However, I found that they do contextualize the necessity for coral reefs appropriately, explaining that, without them, people will be malnourished and cultures will be degraded.

How to help: To save coral reefs we are going to need massive international shift in governance to reverse anthropogenic climate change. Overwhelming? Best steps to save coral reefs is to reduce your carbon footprint, by investing in green technologies, electric vehicles, and eating less meat. The film’s website has an action guide and many other resources.

Why it’s better than Seaspiracy: This film delves deeper into the science of coral reefs and global climate change, while Seaspiracy only briefly touches on the topic. Seaspiracy implies that the solution to corals dying is to stop eating fish. I wish it were this easy. The primary reason for corals declining is due to rising ocean temperatures and the only way to stop that is to reduce or end our dependence on fossil fuels. As you can see, transportation (cars, primarily) and electricity production are a large part of US emissions, which means the best action you can take is to switch to an electric car, put solar panels on your home, and petition the government to invest in clean energy.

Rating: 8/10

Sharkwater: Vimeo (Free)

Review: Sharkwater is an oldie but a goodie. It is an environmental activist film by Rob Stewart that was released in 2007 and spends time discussing the misconceptions people have about sharks and the root of our fears. Turns out, our fears about sharks are unfounded and sharks are not the killing machines that media often portrays them to be. Sharks are vital to a functioning marine ecosystem and, plot twist, humans are the killing machines hunting sharks. Humans fish for sharks and there are sustainable and unsustainable ways to do this. One of the most unsustainable ways that sharks are harvested is through the process called finning, which legally is when the fisher cuts the fin entirely off the shark and retaining the fin but throwing the rest of the body back to sea. There is a lot of good shark advocacy that came out of this film, combined with great work by scientists, policy makers, and fishers, that have resulted in better fishing methods to reduce shark bycatch or ban shark finning. That means, that if you watch this film, please keep in mind, that while sharks still have many conservation issues facing them and finning is still a problem in parts of the world, some of the data cited in this movie is at least 15 years old. Here is a recent story on finning in the Galapagos.

How to Help: This is more complicated since shark finning is already banned in the US and many other countries. You can support a shark fin trade ban if you agree with that, though some scientists do not support them. You can also push companies on this list who still carry shark fin to stop doing so. Additionally you can support Project AWARE or Shark Stewards, which help shark conservation. Minorities in Shark Science (MISS) seeks to bring diversity into the field of shark science and run workshops for women of color to get hands-on field experience. Finally, for more shark information you can follow Dr. David “Why Sharks Matter” Shiffman and MISS Elasmo on twitter.

Why it’s better than Seaspiracy: Ali Tabrizi basically took the entire format of Sharkwater and used it for Seaspiracy, starting with his younger years enjoying Seaworld to joining Paul Watson on Sea Shepherd expeditions to illegal fishing corruption. I think that there is valid criticism about Sharkwater as well, however, Rob Stewart had more credibility speaking about this issue given his years studying shark conservation. Shark fins are a commodity in China and sometimes this leads to anti-Asian sentiments when discussing fishing management. Even though there were some colonial science ideologies portrayed (especially from Paul Watson), I appreciated the clip of the Chinese bride explaining why she also disagreed with shark fin soup and when Costa Ricans were rallying against their own shark finning industry. Tabrizi never gave any local individual the opportunity to be a protagonist. This film is very pro-conservation and not pro-fishery, but it still managed to make a well rounded and nuanced argument.

Rating: 7/10 (Older film with some outdated information- Sharkwater Extinction is the Sequel).

A Plastic Ocean: Netflix

Review: I absolutely loved this film. It starts with photo journalist, Craig Leeson, wanting to capture the magnificent blue whale on camera. But in addition to seeing a pygmy blue whale, the Leeson crew finds itself in a soup of plastic. It explains how 80% of plastic in the ocean comes from land-based sources rather than being dumped at sea. Craig Leeson and Tanya Streeter interview numerous experts who study the bottom of the sea and birds that fly high in the sky to learn that plastic waste is everywhere. Plastic breaks down in a process called photodegredation, which just means that it turns into tiny pieces that then get integrated into the food system. One of my favorite parts of the film is that they interview local people and display locally grown solutions to plastic waste instead of demonizing less developed nations for littering. The film provides both bright spots around the world and solutions for American consumers to reduce their plastic pollution.

How to Help: REDUCE! REUSE! RECYCLE! Then write to your legislators to make companies responsible with a cradle to grave policy for plastics, which would incentivize companies to produce less waste (something that is already enacted for hazardous waste). Support organizations like Plastic Oceans or Plastic Ocean Project.

Why it’s better than Seaspiracy: A major critique of Seaspiracy is their attitude toward plastic waste, specifically single-use plastics. Plastic pollution is a huge problem and we as consumers should care about reducing our use of a product that generally has a 10-minute use but a 500-year lifespan. A Plastic Ocean raised proper awareness on the issue of plastic waste at the consumer level. While 40-50% of plastic sampled at the surface of the ocean is derived from fishing boats, 70% of plastic in the sea sinks to the bottom. Therefore, fishing nets may be overrepresented in sampling due to floats attached to them. It is possible to care about both overfishing AND plastic pollution and understand that we need personal responsibility and institutional change for both. Also, this movie engages far more with stakeholders and treats people as equals in the story instead of stories to exploit.

Rating: 10/10

Ocean Optimism

Something that most of these movies have in common is the sense of “Ocean Optimism.” That is a term coined by Dr. Nancy Knowlton that encompasses the idea that humans are more likely to act when there is hope instead of gloom and doom. While all of these movies talk about serious ocean issues that require real action, they also end with a glimmer of hope that there is something that can be done to solve these problems. This is another reason why I prefer these documentaries to Seaspiracy.

This blog was originally posted on Sara’s website.


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