Conversations with Lucy and Ali Tabrizi, directors of Seaspiracy, show how local traditions can be used to justify continuation of business-as-usual drastically damaging marine ecosystems
Shining a light on what goes on at sea – Seaspiracy
It all began with an investigation into the systematic slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, carried out as a form of pest-control due to the cetaceans eating too many fish in the area. The couple then researched the lucrative trade of species such as bluefin tuna and sharks, uncovering various marine crimes; ranging from slavery at sea to illegal fishing in West African waters. Seaspiracy, the Netflix documentary by Ali and Lucy Tabrizi, was criticized in the media due to perceived inaccuracies. Ali Tabrizi explores, «the film has been well received around the world, but a documentary like Seaspiracy was bound to get some criticism. The main critique we’ve seen has been focused on one fact in the film, which demonstrates that if current fishing trends continue, we could see virtually empty oceans by the year 2048. This became a scapegoat, which some used to discredit the entire film. The study has never been retracted and has been cited well over 3,000 times. The study was very Euro-centric and excluded African and Asian waters which have seen massive levels of depletion. This has led experts in ocean conservation, such as Captain Paul Watson, to believe that 2048 is an optimistic prediction, and that fish populations could collapse much sooner. Whether the year is 2048, 2058 or 2068, we are going in the wrong direction for our oceans, and this splitting of hairs is creating a distraction which only serves to allow business as usual». Ali explains how some of the criticism of the film originated from people within the fishing industry, or from scientists whose pay-checks come from the fishing industry. This is not surprising and is very similar to what happened with the Exxon scandal in the U.S., where Martin Hoffert – a former Exxon funded researcher – disclosed how scientists were paid by the oil company to claim that the inquiry, regarding whether fossil fuels were having an effect on global climate, was inconclusive.
Overfishing deniers seem to fall into the same category as climate-change deniers, but why would one deny that the fishing industry is destroying marine life in the face of so much evidence? On an individual level, Lucy Tabrizi believes many people are reluctant to modify their habits: «the biggest barrier is getting enough people to care about the cause, so as to revise their habits. You need to reach enough numbers to create a tipping point that achieves tangible change; after that industry follows». Ali adds, «perhaps the most powerful thing we can all do every single day to protect the ocean, and the rest of the living world, is to adopt a plant-based diet. When we’re discussing the impact that our food choices have, many of us feel uncomfortable as it involves taking on personal responsibility and changing the food we eat. When we’re talking about the shift to a plant-based diet, that can take real effort when you first begin but, fortunately, vegan alternatives are becoming cheaper and more available».
Underwater gold and the economics of extinction the tuna business
On an institutional level, the reluctance to change may be linked to the fact that the fishing industry is highly profitable: in 2018 it generated 271.61 billion US dollars and by the year 2025 it is predicted to reach 376.48 billion US dollars. As highlighted in Seaspiracy, bluefin tuna is one of the most lucrative species of fish in the world, with the most expensive specimen being sold at 3.1 million US dollars to a Japanese sushi tycoon in 2019. Its monetary value in certain markets can be linked to its rapidly declining stocks: due to its scarcity, in some countries the value of the flesh of bluefin tuna can be compared to that of gold. This shortage is further exacerbated by the fact that tuna cannot be farmed. Unlike salmon, tuna larvae are nearly impossible to raise from scratch. Scientists have been experimenting in this sector, but there are a wide range of problems. Firstly, it is very hard to produce tuna eggs in captivity and even more difficult to hatch the juveniles. For example, in 2011 a lab in Japan was recorded to have 1 billion eggs available, however only 200,000 fingerlings were born. Hatching is not the only complication; when kept in close quarters, bluefin tuna are exposed to a number of mortality risks ranging from cannibalism to death due to wall collisions caused by low retinal development. Lucy Tabrizi explains, «they have tried to farm bluefin tuna, but it’s proving extremely difficult. They’re one of the largest commercially caught fish so they are sought after, and the global appetite for sushi and its status as a luxurious species does not help. Of course, scarcity is part of it, there is actually a name for that: it’s called the economics of extinction, where the less available a species is, the more its value goes up» – highlighting how declining wild stocks due to overfishing is pushing the price of bluefin higher each year.
A traditional way to fish tuna the Italian Tonnara
Bluefin tuna is not just popular in Japan. The eastern Atlantic bluefin migrates through the Mediterranean each year, where it comes to spawn its eggs. In Italy, a longstanding traditional form of tuna fishing has developed called la Tonnara. La Tonnara is an annual event which revolves around bluefin tuna migration during the months ranging from April to September. It is an ancient method of fishing – probably brought over by the Phoenicians to Spain and Sicily during the period of Ottoman influence – that consists of the construction of a complex labyrinth of nets that culminate in a death chamber, where the catch was traditionally slaughtered in a practice called mattanza. Bluefin tuna migrate along a well-worn path and as the fish navigate, the wind and currents push them along their way until they eventually become entangled in the strategically placed nets. Today, the tonnare in Italy are heavily regulated. Due to overfishing, bluefin tuna has been classified as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and as a result the European Union has taken steps to protect it. Every two years assessments are made on its quantities and, on this basis, quotas are assigned to different European countries and different fishing organizations within those countries. As a consequence, many of the traditional tonnare have disappeared after being unable to secure quotas – such as is the case in Favignana, Sicily – or have resorted to catching different species of fish – as is the case in Camogli, Liguria. Today, the largest, most long standing and last surviving tonnara in Italy is held annually in Carloforte, Sardinia.
The last surviving tonnare from Camogli to Carloforte
To take a closer look at the Italian tonnara tradition and its impact on bluefin tuna, we visited Camogli and Carloforte, investigating the intricacies of this lucrative business. The locations have had two very different experiences. Carloforte is the last Italian tonnara to be allocated with tuna quotas, while Camogli has maintained its fishing method, but captures different species: such as amberjack, swordfish and sea bream. It is hard to control what species you catch in such a complex chamber of underwater nets that can be up to five kilometers long, and although Camogli has no quotas, it is inevitable that they capture some specimens of tuna by mistake. A seventy-five-year-old fisherman, who has been participating in the tonnara for over fifty years says, «there is a lot of tuna here, but we can’t fish them because we don’t have quotas. Last week, we had to release almost a ton of live tuna, but if by mistake you pull up a dead one, you must come to the port authority’s office and fill out various forms to declare it as accidental bycatch. Then you have to keep it in the fridge, and eventually someone will come and pick it up and donate it to charity. We prefer to drop them dead on the seafloor, unfortunately. Some people secretly take them, but you have to cut them into pieces, hide them and that’s not good. This way you feel like you’re going to steal, not going to work. Yesterday, and the day before yesterday, we let a few go. The smallest was fifty kilograms, but sometimes we catch the 400 kilogram ones, and that has a value that makes it difficult to just let go».
A younger fisherman of forty-five-years-old, who has been active in the tonnara for the past fifteen years adds, «the state protects tuna to give it time to replenish, but this leads us to sink the tuna we catch accidentally. There is a slow and complicated bureaucratic process in the harbor master’s office so, if we catch bluefin which later dies in the nets, we sink it to the seafloor. If you get caught with a dead tuna on you, you get a 10,000 euro fine but you can only sell the fish for about 1,000 euros, so it really isn’t worth the risk in the end». This situation is a result of a combination of individual indifference, demotivation, slow paper-based bureaucratic processes, and lack of monetary incentive – because there is no economic return for donating bluefin bycatch, fishermen feel unmotivated to do the extra work for nothing. It is clear by the wasteful result, that the legislation is not efficient. And so is the method of fishing – during a tonnara it is impossible to control what swims into your net and Camogli has a high rate of bycatch. The number of accidental captures of non-commercial or protect- ed species has been diminishing in the last twenty years; not because fishing methods have become more efficient, but because of lessening quantities of marine life.
In Carloforte, Sardinia, on the other hand, the main capture is bluefin tuna, as they are allowed a percentage of the Italian tuna quotas and can capture and sell the species legally. The tonnara is carried out according to the same structure in which it was set up in 1654 and remains a private family business to this day. The Rais, or the director of the tonnara is selected by the family, who closely oversee the fishing efforts and tell us more about the process: «there are about thirty or thirty-five people that work here. We clean the fish and can the tuna in oil ourselves – we do everything here ourselves. During the Sixties we had to stop because an aluminium factory opened and kept dumping it’s waste directly into the sea. The color turned from blue to brown. Then the boss took them to court, and in the Nineties we started up again». Other than pollution, this forced break may have also been due to declining catches. A local fisherman who is not part of the tonnara but who regularly casts his nets in the Carloforte area claims, «there are less and less fish. Imagine, each fisherman brings twenty-five nets, and each of those nets is 200 meters long. The fish don’t stand a chance; especially now that they have eggs and it’s their reproductive season».
Local livelihood or lucrative business? Tradition and its complexities
The Italian tonnare are part of a century-long tradition, and because of this they continue to operate to this day. The word tradition can be tricky, as it is sometimes used to justify practices which are outdated. Oftentimes, it can mean blindly continuing with actions of the past, without taking into consideration the reality of the present. In the words of Ali Tabrizi, «the word tradition, like the word sustainability, is often used to hide unethical actions behind. Tradition has served us in many ways and for centuries as a way of passing down knowledge, but today many traditions are standing in the way of human progress». Lucy Tabrizi enriches this claim, adding, «tradition is like peer pressure from the past. That’s not to say there is no value in tradition. We need to be aware of our roots and where we come from, but we should not use tradition as a shield or excuse to continue with business as usual, when other metrics – like our environmental footprint or whether our actions are ethical – should be considered as well». la tonnara is a good example of using past practices as a way to inform new ones, as the method has modernized and deviated from tradition in many ways. In Sardinia, the Rais explains, «in the past we used large rocks to hold down the nets, today we use metal chains. In the past we used to make the nets ourselves with coconut string during winter, today we use nylon. In the past we used large blocks of cork to keep the nets afloat, today we use plastic footballs. In the past we used to row out to sea, now we have engines. We modernized about twenty-four years ago. I like it better now – it’s less work and more gain». Another tradition which is disappearing is that of the mattanza, or the slaughter of the tuna trapped in the death chamber with harpoons, which was the highlight of the tonnara. «In Carloforte we do two kinds of sales: either we separate the live tuna and send them to Malta to be farmed and fattened up or we make our own canned tuna and bottarga and sell them locally to restaurants on the island. We used to carry out three mattanze a week, where we would kill up to 1,000 bluefin in one go, working from dawn to dawn, but now a lot of the fish are sold alive».
It is not just Carloforte that has altered the process of the tonnara
Camogli has also changed some of the pillars of its practice. In the past, to participate in the tonnara, both of your parents had to have been born in Camogli as it was a treasured local tradition that prohibited the integration of foreigners. At the time, nets were made with lisca; a local kind of grass collected in the area. At the end of the season the nets were cut loose and sunk, becoming food for the fish. Today, you do not need to be born in Camogli to take part and the nets are made with nylon. «It’s no longer true that both your parents need to have come from Camogli, that tradition has disappeared. Now even Romanians come and work in the tonnara, especially lately because it is hard to find people who want to participate», says the seventy-five-year-old fisherman. It is evident that the tradition of capturing bluefin tuna in Italy is still alive, but what has changed are the methods and practices used to achieve this. The tradition seems to be meaningful only when justifying its continuation. Under closer examination, many of its pillars have been modified in order to make the process easier and more lucrative. These deviations from traditional methods have increased the profitability of the business: the use of man-made materials for the nets means that the fish stand no chance of escape, where in the past man and fish faced a fairer fight; the use of foreign labor over local inhabitants also veers significantly from the very essence of the ritual, exhibiting how the priority has changed from maintaining local traditions to monetary gain. Perhaps the largest break from tradition is the business of tuna farming, which is made possible thanks to the trade of live tuna captured during the tonnara and transferred from Italy to Malta in large sea cages. While previously, in both Carloforte and in Camogli, the catch was consumed locally and shared amongst neighboring municipalities, today – for the bluefin tuna captured in Sardinia – this is not the case. Carloforte’s web of nets culminates in a death chamber that can alone reach fifty meters in diameter and thirty-eight meters in depth, but is still not as deadly as it once was. In the past, tuna was routinely slaughtered and refined on the island.
Malta: where much of the catch is sold alive to fish farms
Upon capture, the tuna is transferred to open water cadges and fattened up following the feed-lot strategy commonly used in pig and chicken rearing. When the fish reach the desired weight, they are killed and sold around the world, often at higher prices than their wild-caught counterparts due to their increased size, weight, and fat percentage. The Rais says, «a tuna that leaves Carloforte weighing 100 kilograms will end up increasing its weight by forty-five percent or more in Malta». This means it can be sold at a forty-five percent higher cost, especially in Japanese markets where fatty tuna is considered to be a delicacy. Tuna tend to be quite lean as they can swim up to 200 kilometers per day, so their fat is considered to be a particularly luxurious product. However, this practice is dangerous when it comes to decreasing wild tuna stocks: the semblance of farming bluefin tuna is a mere illusion. Far from being spawned in captivity, it simply means that wild specimens of reproductive age are removed from the ecosystem, interfering with breeding patterns and forcing collapse from the bottom up. Today, industrial fisheries which, in Italy, are allocated eighty-eight percent of the countries bluefin quotas, are combing the seas removing their total allowable catch from the top down and further exacerbating the situation. Of course, the tainting of local traditions can be traced back to the profitability of bluefin on global markets. This trend, which has led to their sale across borders, is directly contributing to decreasing numbers of wild bluefin, as well as encouraging illegal tuna trafficking between Spain, Italy and Malta in efforts such as Operation Tarantelo, which was uncovered in 2018.
Reframing bluefin as wildlife rather than delicacy tuna are the tigers of the sea
After visiting Carloforte, the excitement of participating in a tonnara was undeniable. The comradery, the adrenaline, the sense of belonging, and the joy of being at sea all ensure that the fishermen taking part do not want to give up their way of life, clinging to tradition with all their might. It also became clear that tradition has little to do with the reason fishermen are so dedicated to catching tuna; rather, it is due to the lucrative returns. Although tonnara style fishing is not as harmful as industrial fishing, it promotes the business of tuna farming which removes reproductive specimens from the sea and grants the illusion that they can be sustainably farmed and consumed. It also promotes the notion that it is ok to eat large numbers of bluefin, while a scientific paper published in 2003 estimated that only ten percent of large ocean fish were left due to industrial fishing and today the situation has worsened still. This leads one to question whether humans in the Global North, who rely on a variety of different protein sources, should even be eating marine life to begin with. As Lucy and Ali Tabrizi claim in Seaspiracy, the best thing we can do for fish is to simply not eat them, especially in the case of bluefin tuna. Both tigers and tuna are classified as endangered species, and while tiger populations have been growing over recent years – with the illegal tiger skin trade in rapid decline, thanks to the public boycotting of fur – bluefin numbers are plummeting. This highlights how human consumption habits have a lot to do with how we perceive animals and their numbers.
Our great-grandmothers would wear fur for its status and its imagined abundance, all the while drastically decimating tiger populations. Today, fur is used very little and tends to be generally frowned upon, however, tuna can still be found in supermarkets and all-you-can-eat sushi restaurants across the globe. Though they may seem very different, tuna and tigers actually have a lot in common – they are both agile, apex predators that help keep the food chain in check and their disappearance would lead to drastic changes in food chain hierarchies in the wild. While many people eat beef, pork and lamb; most people would not eat a cat – let alone a tiger, as an animal that is viewed as a precious part of the ecosystem. Just like with tigers, a shift in perception must take place when it comes to bluefin tuna; a species that needs to be reframed as wildlife rather than food source.
Is a 2021 documentary film about the environmental impact of fishing directed by and starring Ali Tabrizi, a British filmmaker. The film premiered on Netflix globally in March 2021 and garnered immediate attention in several countries.