Sustainable fishing labels on seafood products are assumed to guarantee responsible and sustainable food. A new documentary by filmmaker Ali Tabrizi, Seaspiracy, challenges that assumption. Tabrizi’s movie proposes that sustainable seafood guarantees don’t add up to much at all because they can’t – current claims are impossible to guarantee. This is a tale of systematic failure in preserving our ocean ecosystems. Many people who watch Seaspiracy ask themselves: does a Seaspiracy mean seafood will disappear by 2048? The main message in the documentary is that sustainable fishing, regardless of the source, is impossible to guarantee. The suggested solution is that we all have to stop supporting the fishing industry, full stop.

Considering the size of the industry alone, that’s a tall order. Yet, the argument that consumers cannot trust sustainable fishing labels at face value does hold water. Could there be another way to handle it? In contrast to Seaspiracy’s conclusion, new ways and projects are specifically designed to verify sustainability claims. Like corruption, for one. The verification challenges are timeless and formidable, yet these aren’t unsolvable problems. More importantly, if delivering proof of sustainability claims is surmountable, who is accountable for schemes that deliver transparency in the seafood industry? None of these questions have simple answers. What is simple, though, that we have the tools and technology needed to support and improve sustainability claims.

What seems to be lacking is a willingness to respond to demand, improving transparency. Real verification systems are positioning to shake up seafood and agricultural industries. Big industry changes are hardly ever enthusiastically accepted. Still, the time has never been better for brands that harvest and sell seafood to track and report on their sources and methods of capture. That’s a reason to celebrate, even considering the urgency by Seaspiracy. Seaspiracy has its detractors, and the points those critics make are worth considering. There is a lively controversy, which points to good points from fans of the film and the merit of what critics are saying.

Either way, there is new attention on the difficulties present when consumers want to verify sustainability claims. This is an opportunity for companies that are using or are only just starting with connected packaging, particularly with goals around consumer engagement.

What is Seaspiracy about?

Seaspiracy Director Ali Tabrizi says that the first thing to pique his interest in the oceans is large mammals, marine creatures. Almost immediately from that point, the film becomes very grim. Or at least serious, around the topic of dolphin and marine mammal cullings. At least two major countries are implicated in marine mammal culling. The ensuing investigation leads to questions about organizations that claim to be shining a light on and addressing dangers to these same creatures and our oceans in general. The scenes of captivity schemes filmed in Japan draw an unbroken line between violence, fishing practices, and finally, the ocean’s plastic pollution.

At just about every step, Seaspiracy reveals corruption and gross negligence. It’s all meant for us to ask ourselves: do we know that simply eating seafood has the potential to destroy our entire planet?

Is Seaspiracy true?

In 2006 National Geographic cited a study released (the same year) in Science, a respectable science research journal. The study estimated a threat so significant to marine ecosystems that seafood species would “disappear” by 2048. It was an alarming statement to some, especially in the fishing industry, yet most people sleep through it. Here is the relevant excerpt from the study:

“This trend…projects the global collapse of all taxa currently fished by the mid-21st century.”

Excerpt from the 2006 study Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services published by Dr. Boris Worm et al.

Ali Tabrizi paraphrases the same study and this specific statement in Seaspiracy as the catalyst for emphasizing the urgency of the problem within our oceans.

“Perhaps one of the most shocking facts of all came from one of the world’s leading fisheries experts, estimating that if current fishing trends continued, we will see virtually empty oceans by the year 2048.”

Ali Tabrizi, Director of Seaspiracy

Seaspiracy lays out the argument that to prevent an ecosystem collapse, we must stop plastic pollution from abandoned fishing equipment. We need to end commercial fishing, and we need to eliminate industrial fish farming. The most direct way to accomplish those things is a boycott of the fishing industry altogether. One seafood replacement option, a plant-based diet alternative, New Wave Foods, features in the film. But otherwise, the film recommends to cut it out altogether. This is because they demonstrate through scenes and interviews worldwide that there is no way for fishing to be sustainable.

Criticism of Seaspiracy

Ironically, one of the documentary’s top criticisms comes from the same 2006 study that Tabrizi references in the film. The most obvious point is that the 2006 study is already 15 years old, and the data it is based on is already at least 20 years old (in 2021). Doctor Boris Worm is the lead researcher on the team to publish the 2006 study. In 2009, the same Dr. Worm published an updated study, prepared in cooperation with a critic of his 2006 study’s conclusions, that cites improved fish stocks and draws attention to the effect of new efforts to rebuild fish populations.

Chart from Dr. Boris Worm et al’s paper from 2006 showing species collapse by the mid 21st century

With the sudden popularity of Seaspiracy, Dr. Worm also had a chance (2021) to comment on his original study and the Seaspiracy attention. He states that the original study never made the claim that Seaspiracy makes. Instead, Dr. Worm makes the correction that his research extrapolates that seafood fish stocks would “collapse,” which is defined as being at a level 10% of the unfished biomass. Despite the merit of the distinction that collapse is not extinction, it is arguably not a far and away better conclusion.

To that point, Dr. Boris Worm published a more recent study for Seaspiracy critics and fans to consider when considering the documentary. In 2018 Dr. Boris Worm and his research team published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America called “Averting a Global Fisheries Disaster.” Here is an excerpt from the study that seems to take us right back to the urgency that Seaspiracy is promoting:

“The authors calculate that, under current management, 88% of stocks would be overfished and well below their target biomass in 2050.”

Excerpt from the study Averting a Global Fisheries Disaster published in 2018 by Dr. Boris Worm et al.

All angles and different parties are to be considered when looking to conclude the call to action in Seaspiracy. Depending on how you want to look at the criticism and central claim of the movie, you’re invited to make your own conclusion. Some claims are more difficult than others to tread lightly, though. The story about sustainable seafood certifiers and verifying sustainable fishing leads to dark places, including stories of inspectors being thrown overboard. Many will also issue the source of funding for certification bodies being the seafood/fishing industry itself.

It’s no surprise that whether in the fishing industry or outside of it, brands have been trying out ways to ensure transparency to communicate the sustainability efforts they are investing in. This is the only route to a successful relationship with loyal consumers. Increasing transparency to eliminate doubt in certification organizations like the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) or Dolphin Safe labels is the only way to exist. Done correctly, it wouldn’t matter that the fishing industry is funding sustainability certifications of their products.

In fact, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that it’s those companies that should be accountable for verification services. After all, it’s in their interest that customers trust them. The alternative may be what Ali Tabrizi and Seaspiracy are seeing exciting reactions around: more people may stop buying seafood as they look on sustainability labels with extreme contempt.

What is MSC? 

“Fish and seafood with the blue label come from a fishery that has been independently assessed on its impacts to wild fish populations and the ecosystems they’re part of. All along the supply chain, MSC-certified products are separated from non-certified {products}. They are clearly labeled so they can always be traced to a certified sustainable source.” 

excerpt from msc.org

Certifying organizations like MSC seek to inspire confidence in consumers. Their mission is to empower consumers to become aware that their food is at least obtained at the cost of some unsavory activity. For example, when news hit that tuna fishing was creating dolphin deaths, some people naturally wanted to know that the tuna they were buying did not result in dolphin deaths. Dolphins, it turns out, are beloved by people that have yet to even met a dolphin. Dolphin Safe labels intend to assure consumers that even if one dolphin is accidentally caught or killed, that the fishing vessel cannot provide its catch to a brand to carry the label. That’s still the claim they exist by.

“What they’re doing is taking the Captain’s word for it,” explains Ric O Barry, Founder of Dolphin Project, a non-profit and charitable organization dedicated to the welfare and preservation of dolphins. “Once you’re out there in the ocean, how do you know what they’re doing?” asks Mark J. Palmer of Dolphin Safe Tune/Earth Island. “We have observers onboard, {sometimes, and bribing goes on}… Nothing can guarantee it’s dolphin-safe.”

If a guarantee can’t be guaranteed, what is the next step for consumers and brands?

A better supply chain with connected packaging

Connected packaging technologies and verifying actor organizations like Sourcemap* use supply chain mapping by combining top-down supplier discovery, supply chain benchmarking, and bottom-up digitization for supply chain transactions. In addition, companies like Work Ahead, and specialists on investment outcomes in sustainability like True Footprint, are a new solution for legacy arrangements that predictably turn contentious.

A label alone is not the answer to transparency. It’s not enough for stewardship of accountability. Eventually, someone will always take the time to dig deep and research claims. Innovations like using connected packaging with specialized QR codes can be the gateway tool for securely monitoring and recording every supply chain step. This, in turn, makes each product a potential access point for proof of claims such as those made around sustainability. And in this case, sustainable fishing. Secured QR codes go even further as a way to verify the authenticity of products. Verifications also become more like because independent verification is performed by just using off-the-shelf mobile phones. This is the strength of connected packaging and digitalization.

Digitalization of products requires a mechanism to make connected packaging schemes possible. That mechanism is a tag. Tags can be QR codes, including unique and secured QR codes, NFC (near-field communication), and RFID (radio-frequency ID) tags. These tags are applicable at any stage of production as required. For great cost benefits, ease of implementation, and relevance all the way through to the point of consumption, QR codes are ideal. If fast, large volume inventories are a requirement, RFIDs can play an especially effective role. Whatever the particular connected packaging mechanism used, the result can be granular clarity into what brands are doing to get the product to the end consumer, complete with the possibility for engaging stories about products and verifiable sustainable claims.

How do we improve seafood traceability?

Let’s consider aquaculture (fish farming) and how digital monitoring can improve the verifiability of sustainable fishing claims. Human observers are the most common way to collect data and provide reports to management in aquaculture. Human observers are vital for the efficient management of fisheries, yet complete and accurate coverage of fishery activities is not likely by just using human observers. Implementing sensor devices, along the lines of the product by Logmore for logistics monitoring and other modern verification schemes, including live feeds, can be shored up to create verifiable sustainability claims, almost regardless of the criteria.

For open sea fishing, supply chain mapping can provide continuous coverage of all fishing and vessel activity. The implementation of supply chain mapping (including electronic monitoring), can reduce or perhaps even eliminate the occurrence of undesired activities on ships and help deter illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) products from entering the supply chain.

“Vessel owners and crew can be incentivized to accurately track and report catch, bycatch, and fishing efforts and demonstrate compliance with RFMO rules, fishing company regulations, and seafood sourcing policies.”

Pew, 2021

Scantrust QR codes and Sourcemap supply chain mapping is a traceability solution worth looking into for seafood companies. By using supply chain mapping, all the reputable fisheries that a brand buys from can be monitored. Those sources are then held accountable for enforcing fishing regulations and sustainable fishing practices.

This technology is currently in use in other industries like the cocoa industry to combat deforestation

“Having visibility on the entire Ferrero cocoa supply chain is essential for two reasons. The starting point is to be able to identify risks in our supply chain, for example on deforestation, and to address these risks when identified. Visibility also enables us to engage in a more constructive way with our suppliers and other key stakeholders in our direct supply chain. And by doing so we are also able to further strengthen our contribution to the collective effort of governments, industry, civil society and other stakeholders to create a responsible cocoa supply chain.”

Olivier Zwolsman, Ferrero Cocoa Sustainability Manager. Excerpt from Sourcemap, 2021

Conclusion: will seafood be gone by 2048?

Documentaries like Seaspiracy, or the Cove, create controversy at least as much as it creates awareness. In that situation, most viewers fail to fact-check, if even for lack of motivation. Objectivity is assumed by the viewer but not required by the filmmakers. This is not unlike sustainable seafood labels. Eventually, though, someone checks. And in the age of social media, the worst results are the most viral. This is also where brands can take control of their supply chains and put transparency to work for them. 

A verified supply chain using smart and connected packaging puts the story of how brands protect their customers front and center. It becomes a way for the most educated consumers the world has ever known to trust what brands tell them. This is fast becoming a mandatory part of how brands provide the best possible product.

Connected packaging using QR codes and verifiability from supply chain mapping is the way to improve transparency in the fishing industry. Brands with these tools will act earlier on and reduce the problems with consumer trust by eliminating many of the problems in providing sustainable and ethically sourced food. 

It’s hard for people to even think about giving up something they love or need to survive. Despite its undeniable challenges, fishing is part of humanity. Many organizations worldwide focused on bringing transparency to fishing practices. This includes the environmental effects and the current state of the marine ecosystem. But they need to do better. Imagine standing in the supermarket and scanning a connected packaging QR code on a can of tuna. Then immediately knowing where it came from and what it took to get there and then to be sure that you can believe what you’ve just read and seen. Technology means we can do that and both ensure that we sustain sea life and, in doing so, do all of humankind a favor.

*Sourcemap is a Scantrust partner for supply chain traceability and consumer engagement experience.