‘Cherry-picking facts and selective quotation’

Hidden catch: The documentary accuses the fishing industry of destroying the oceans. © Netflix

Is Seaspiracy right about fishing? A shocking new Netflix documentary about the horrors of the fishing industry is causing controversy – and kicking up a new debate over facts.

Dolphins tangled in fishing nets. Dead fish tossed, unused, back into the sea. Beached whales with ropes and netting clogging up their stomachs. These are just some of the harrowing images featured in the new Netflix documentary Seaspiracy.

The documentary, directed by British film-maker Ali Tabrizi, paints a grim picture of the world’s oceans. It warns that we are catching fish much faster than they can be replenished – and that endangered marine life is falling victim to unethical industrial fishing practices.

It also draws attention to the human rights abuses that plague the fishing industry, coining the phrase “blood shrimp” to describe the harm caused to human beings by the world’s appetite for fish. At its conclusion, it claims that to save the oceans, human beings need to stop eating fish entirely.

But over the weekend, the film received a wave of criticism. Experts complained that it is riddled with inaccuracies and criticised its call for people to stop eating fish altogether.

Critics of the film have focused especially on its claim that the oceans will be “virtually empty” by 2048 if we continue fishing at our current rate. This claim is based on a study from 2006, using data that most experts think is out of date.

Others have pointed out that many of the world’s poorest communities are reliant on fish for their diet. They claim that calling for everyone to stop eating fish is unhelpful and Eurocentric.

But some think this is mere nitpicking. They argue that even if some of the details in Seaspiracy are inaccurate, its overarching point is still true: the oceans are being overfished.

And for some, it points to a broader problem with fact-checking in journalism. After Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election, many people worried that the world had entered a post-truth era, in which politicians deliberately blur the line between truth and falsehood.

Newspapers responded by setting up their own fact-checking services. Their aim was to restore the distinction between truth and lie, and ensure that voters would not be taken in by lies spread by politicians and media.

Originally, these fact-checking services focused on simple, factual claims that could only be true or false. But increasingly, fact-checkers began to apply their methods to politicians’ opinions as well. Instead of just verifying that the claims they make are true, they insist that people’s ideas and views are also intrinsically true or false.

This, some argue, is what has happened to Seaspiracy. They think the documentary’s critics have an ulterior motive: by fact-checking its minor details, they can distract people from its overarching argument that the fishing industry needs to be reined in.

Is the Netflix documentary Seaspiracy right about fishing?

Fishing expedition?

Yes, say some. Even if some of its specific claims are based on inaccurate or outdated information, the thrust of its argument – that fishing stocks are being depleted much too fast – is both true and important. Many of those claiming that it is wrong are companies and organisations that are themselves responsible for overfishing, because they want to avoid accountability.

Not at all, say others. The documentary is too simplistic in its analysis and its recommendations. While the fishing industry does cause human rights abuses and environmental problems, these can be solved by regulation: it is not necessary for everyone to stop eating fish, and it is wrong to tell people who rely on fish in their diet and livelihoods that they must no longer catch or eat it.

You Decide

  1. Knowing what you do about the damage caused by fishing, will you stop eating fish?
  2. Is there such a thing as objective, unbiased “fact-checking” – or is it always ideological?

Activities

  1. Organise a class debate on the question of fishing. One side will argue that eating fish should be banned, and the other will argue that it should not.
  2. Write down a list of facts and give them to the person next to you to “fact-check”. Then discuss which facts were easy to fact-check, and which ones were difficult. What made the difference?

Some People Say...

“Save your plastic bags by all means, but if you really want to make a difference, stop eating fish.”

George Monbiot (1963 – ), British journalist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that the world’s oceans are being overfished, and this is bad for everyone. The world’s total stock of fish has fallen by around one million tonnes a year every year since 1996. Since these numbers are based on the fishing industry’s own reports, the real number could be much higher. Fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly states: “It is almost as though we use our military to fight the animals in the ocean. We are gradually winning this war to exterminate them.”
What do we not know?
There is some debate over whether or not fishing can be made sustainable. Ali Tabrizi argues that it is impossible to regulate the fishing industry properly because no government can supervise what is taking place 100 miles from its coastline. That means fishing boats can easily ignore regulation. But others think we can solve this problem by forcing boats to carry GPS trackers and video cameras. And more of the world’s oceans could be turned into protected areas while stocks replenish.

Word Watch

Endangered
An endangered species is one likely to become extinct in the near future. It can be separated into categories, each one more urgent than the last: vulnerable, endangered and critically endangered.
Blood shrimp
From the phrase “blood diamonds”, referring to diamonds traded out of conflict zones at the cost of huge human suffering. The implication is that a product is fundamentally unethical.
Eurocentric
An idea that assumes what is true for the Western world must be true for everyone. Eurocentrism tends to raise Western habits and ideas above those of the rest of the world.
Nitpicking
Finding fault with the smallest details of something, instead of engaging with its broader merits.
Overfished
When a fish stock is depleted faster than new fish are born, meaning that in the long term the number of fish available declines.
Post-truth
The theory that in the modern era, politicians prefer to appeal to people’s emotions rather than their reason because it allows them to win support more easily.
Ulterior motive
A concealed reason for doing something. The word “ulterior” originally meant “beyond”.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.