Into the Ocean

Seaspiricy, supermarkets and confusion

Into the ocean

As I sit, warm and snug with a cold wind pressing at the windows, I can stretch my neck and see the sea in the distance. Right now the tide is high and there is little sign of the warm, welcoming sandy beaches that we’ve often walked along. Instead, it’s a pale, grey sea, tipped with flurries of angry white foam, whipped up by the chilly start to April we’re experiencing. But even in these inclement days, there is something comforting in living near the sea. It satisfies an elemental urge somewhere deep within us. We know the sea, we came from it. It is wired deep within as a source of food and adventure. However, that doesn’t mean we respect it.

All of which leads us in meandering fashion to Seaspiricy. The Netflix documentary about the fishing industry seems to have caught the imagination and interest of plenty of people over the last 7 days and, to be honest, after hearing quite a bit about it, we felt we needed to see what all the fuss was about. Plus, who wants to work outside in that wind, eh?

For those of you who had other things to do with your Easter weekend, Seaspiricy is a 90 minute long documentary made by a young film maker called Ali Tabrizi and directed by the man behind 2014’s Cowspiracy. It is breathless in places, always passionate and filled with honest, courageous reporting. Its also flawed and accused of misrepresenting some of those who appear in the final edit.

The main thrust of the film is that the fishing industry and those who supposedly monitor them for sustainability accreditation are engaged in a conspiracy of silence. A pact that leaves both sides of the equation making money and the system that underpins global fishing untouched. Ali Tabrizi spends large parts of the first half of the documentary railing against the slippery, undefined nature of the word ‘Sustainability’. As this blog has talked about before, there is no one industry wide definition of sustainable. However, that doesn’t mean that all such labelling is meaningless, it means we need more context and more information when we see such terms used.

Other parts of the film focused on issues such as Piracy off the coast of Africa and how it has been driven by commercial fishing fleets from across the globe displacing local subsistence fishermen how slave labour is used to horrific ends in Thai fishing fleets and the ecological impact of fish farming on a commercial scale. These parts were hard hitting, bravely filmed and hard to argue with. There was nothing sustainable or humane about these fishing practices.

But I’d rather swim ashore

Watching Seaspiricy provoked plenty of questions. How sustainable is the fish we see in our Supermarkets? The film went hard at the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) who’s blue tick logo is a reassurance to many consumers when buying fish. But we didn’t even know how much of what was readily available met even that disputed criteria.

So, we did what any sane person would do on a Bank Holiday Monday; we went for a road trip.

In total, for the benefit of enlightening both ourselves and you, dear reader, we visited seven different large scale food retailers and the results were really, really mixed. Most of the seven had at least some MSC accredited fish and what wasn’t labelled with a blue tick was often marked as ‘responsibly sourced’ or ‘sustainable caught’. The problem was, there was no information as to what that actually meant. However, one retailer (we’re not in the business of naming and shaming this week, maybe some other time), had no MSC labelled fish at all and very little that even claimed the vaguer standard we saw elsewhere. That was shocking. There was no way of knowing that most of that fish hadn’t been the result of some of the most shocking practices exposed by Seaspricy.

All of this left us feeling a bit side swiped. We’ve been around the food industry long enough to know that there is a lack of information available to the consumer at the shelf edge to help them make good, ethical decisions but sometimes it takes a fresh look to notice how blinded we are by conflicting and confusing messages when we try to do the right thing. Very few of us are going to catch our own fish, on shore, far away from the realities of life on a commercial fishing vessel, we’re at the mercy of what the big retailers decide to tell us.

Where is the Coastguard?

So, what can we have faith in when buying fish from larger supermarkets? Is there anyone really keeping a watch on our oceans?

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) standard is the most widely used mark to denote sustainable fishing practices. They have issued a statement in response to the claims made in Seaspiricy which you can read here. It’s an important opportunity for some balance as they didn’t interact with the makers of the film despite requests for an interview.

Any fish we buy which has the MSC blue tick on it must have met their Fisheries Standard. That is made up of three key parts; Sustainable fish stocks, Minimising environmental impact and Effective fisheries management. These criteria are independently assessed by outside organisations not by the MSC themselves and have resulted in notable improvements. MSC themselves state that these criteria do raise standards and often organisations fall short of the required level when first assessed and have to work to gain the blue tick.

That is all good but it’s worth noting the omissions. There is not monitoring on every singe ship that belongs to a fishery that gains MSC certification. Plenty of unsustainable practices could be going on out of sight. It’s not also that clear how often follow up inspections take place. It’s clearly not a fool proof system but we, as consumers, need to understand that we will never reach a place where every boat is verified, every time it sails. It is up to us if we’re comfortable with that. It’s also important to note that whilst fishing practices that use explosives or poisons can’t reach MSC standards, large scale bottom trawlers can and that has ecological impacts, depending on the type of equipment used.

The other vaguer standard we’d seen on our travels, ‘responsible sourced’ and the like, is the product of a voluntary industry code, the Sustainable Seafood Coalition. Most of the large retailers are signed up to this body, with two notable exceptions; Asda and Aldi. All members of this organisation must commit to two codes of conduct covering the sourcing of fish and environmental standards. These agreements, written by the members themselves, aim to provide ‘confidence that the seafood they are buying meets or exceeds minimum standards of responsibility.’

The details of the two codes are long and not that easy to unpick. In short, the businesses who have signed up to them are required to be able to provide evidence they are following the practices laid out in the agreements. They are able to use either internal or third party audits to do so, but must have rigorous risk assessments in place. The codes state that parties to the agreements should be able to trace all fish back to an individual fishery or farm and it does seek to tackle some of the issues raised in Seaspiricy; for example members risk assessments should ensure ‘Appropriate measures are in place to control waste (such as pond sludge and deceased fish)’ in fish farms.

Anyone who has seen the grim scenes from Salmon farms in Scotland would welcome that being effective.

Floating up and down

I’m sat, quietly, legs folded underneath a blanket, back in room where I tend to write. The worst of the wind has passed, as have a few days since our film watching and supermarket dash. Walls of books cocoon me and a thick curtain blocks out the night. What it doesn’t do is cut out the confusion we’ve felt all week.

Seaspiricy is a conflicting, difficult watch. There is plenty in there to agree with and there is more than enough to quibble with, pick holes in and get exasperated by. It is, after all, an entertainment piece at heart. But the questions it raised in our household and the difficulties we’ve had finding good answers has left us a little discombobulated. The information we’ve surmised above is just a small part of what we’ve waded through in the last few days. A lot of the big supermarkets have detailed corporate sustainability reports filled with extensive claims, most of which lack any context and the sort of agreed phrasing that would make for easy comparisons. All seem to be moving in the right direction on fish and meat sourcing as well as wider environmental issues. We’d need weeks to work out if that was actually true and how each compared to the other.

To be cynical, much of that confusion is probably deliberate, no business is going to present itself in anything other than the most flattering light. But it doesn’t help the consumer to make good decisions. If the shelf edge lacks information to allow us to make informed choices, the detail buried in reports of the supply chain gives us an overwhelming fog of data that often seems better designed to obscure than shine a light on what it really happening.

Seaspiricy left us knowing that once again, we needed to take more responsibility for knowing how our food is sourced and where it really comes from. It’s a simple anchor of decency to stay moored to. If only it was easy to put into practice.

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