‘Seaspiracy’ Dives Deep Into ‘Bycatch’ and ‘Dolphin-Safe’ Tuna Scandals

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5 min read

Here’s one of the most shocking things that folks (including the film’s own director) are learning from Netflix’s Seaspiracy: If you wouldn’t eat shark fins or dolphins, you shouldn’t eat tuna or shrimp. The reason why? One word euphemism—“bycatch,” a speciesist term implying that one animal should die for humans to eat and another should be discarded back into the ocean (oftentimes dead), even though all animals deserve to live peacefully in their homes.

What Is ‘Bycatch’? and Why Is ‘Bycatch’ a Problem?

The fishing industry clings to the term “bycatch” just as the meat industry tries to maintain that it “harvests” animals (although in reality, we know they’re being slaughtered) and hunters attempt to use “game animals” and “the ones whose heads I want to hang on my wall” synonymously. Really, “bycatch” is the fishing industry’s shady, trivialized way of referring to the hundreds of thousands of its invisible victims: the dolphins, sharks, sea turtles, whales, octopuses, rays, seals, birds, and other “nontarget” species who are caught or become entangled in fishing nets—like those targeting tuna or shrimp—and are discarded, left to die.

“One of the most shocking things that most people don’t realize is that the greatest threat to whales and dolphins is commercial fishing. Over 300,000 whales and dolphins are killed every single year as ‘bycatch’ of industrial fishing,” Sea Shepherd Captain Peter Hammarstedt points out in the film.

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“[U]p to 40% of all marine life caught gets thrown right back overboard if it’s ‘bycatch,’ and most of them die before they even hit the water,” says Seaspiracy director Ali Tabrizi.

You’ve likely heard of the annual dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan. After watching Seaspiracy, you’ll realize that Taiji is just the tip of the iceberg—if you eat fish, you’re funding dolphin slaughter, too. According to Seaspiracy and Sea Shepherd, for at least the last 30 years, up to 10,000 “bycatch” dolphins have been killed every year off the French Atlantic coast—that’s more than 10 times the estimated 740 dolphins who were reportedly killed in last year’s hunt in Taiji. (Now extrapolate from these statistics and consider what the international scale must be.) So if you shed tears for the majestic cetaceans slaughtered in Japan’s infamous killing cove, examine your conscience and extend your compassion to all dolphins and all other animals: Please, stop eating fish.

Fishing nets—especially trawl nets—don’t discriminate: Tuna, shrimp, dolphins, and sharks are all caught and killed in them. Like dolphins, sharks are threatened (including with extinction), all because of some humans’ penchant for eating other fish. “[E]ating fish is just as bad if not worse than the shark-finning industry, because the shark-finning industry is strictly held in Asia, whereas everyone around the world is eating fish,” says shark activist Paul de Gelder in Seaspiracy. According to Tabrizi, “[A]t least 50 million sharks are caught in nets” as “bycatch.”

“Bycatch”: There’s nothing accidental about it.

The fishing industry’s way of dealing with “bycatch” is whitewashing on top of whitewashing:

“The [fishing] industry will call ‘bycatch’ ‘accidental take,’ but there’s nothing accidental about ‘bycatch.’ It’s factored into the economics of fishing,” Captain Hammarstedt says.

Then, the industry gets others to bluewash for it. Enter “dolphin-safe” labels.

Is ‘Dolphin-Safe’ Tuna Really Safe?

To understand “bycatch” and the internationally recognized “dolphin-safe” seafood label, Seaspiracy turns to a fishery in Iceland: Within one month, this “one little fishery in one little part” of the country caught 269 harbor porpoises, roughly 900 seals, and around 5,000 seabirds, all as “bycatch.” Imagine this carnage on a global scale. And it gets worse—Tabrizi discovered that the very same fishery had been awarded for its “sustainable” fishing practices. So he did what any vigilant documentarian would do: He took a deep dive into the scandal.

“What about sustainable labels, things like ‘dolphin-safe’ tuna?” Tabrizi asks Captain Hammarstedt.

Just like “organic,” “free-range,” “cage-free,” and other deceptive buzzwords falsely used to market meat, dairy, and eggs, Captain Hammarstedt confirmed what most of us likely knew all along: There’s no such thing as “dolphin-safe” tuna. “[W]e realize that labels often obscure what’s really happening at sea,” Hammarstedt—who is uniquely privy to what’s really happening on fishing boats—told Tabrizi. In one instance, Hammarstedt’s colleagues apparently encountered tuna fishing vessels that had slaughtered 45 dolphins in order to catch eight tuna—these vessels were supplying “dolphin-safe” canned tuna.

In one particularly cringeworthy Seaspiracy interview, Mark J. Palmer of the Earth Island Institute (the organization behind the “dolphin-safe” logo) confesses something shocking and extraordinarily candid to Tabrizi about the authenticity of “dolphin-safe” tuna. Palmer admits to a mind-blowing conflict of interest between the companies and organizations that dole out “dolphin-safe” and related labels and the very fishing operations that they’re meant to be watchdogging. To catch the interview that’ll surely change your mind about eating fish, you’ll have to queue up the popular new release on Netflix.

The only truly dolphin-safe and tuna-safe product is one that says “vegan.”

For anyone googling “how to reduce bycatch” or “what brands of tuna are safe?” just watch Seaspiracy—it’s the film that’s finally talking about the whale in the room (that there’s no such thing as “dolphin-safe” tuna or sustainable fishing). Your spicy tuna roll or shrimp cocktail will always cost dolphins, whales, sea turtles, and other animals their lives—not to mention, the equally remarkable and deserving tuna and shrimp are killed. That’s the bad news. The good news is that brands like Vegan ZeaStar, The Plant Based Seafood Co., New Wave Foods, Good Catch, and Cavi-art (a PETA Business Friend) are revolutionizing seafood with their vegan fish options.

Longtime favorites such as Gardein’s Golden Fishless Filets and Crabless Cakes as well as Quorn’s Vegan Fishless Sticks are also as delicious as they are (truly) dolphin-safe, and they’re widely available at supermarket chains and other stores around the world.

Seaspiracy is not to be missed. Host a watch party that’ll have your invitees ditching fish and going vegan faster than you can say, “‘Bycatch’ is baloney.” Use Teleparty (formerly known as Netflix Party), Houseparty, or Zoom (sign into your Netflix account, click the “Share Screen” button on Zoom, and press play) so that you and your viewing buddies can chat along during the film. Click below for more ideas:

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