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The Impossibility of Sustainable Seafood

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.

By Cassandra Dennis

In the recently published Netflix documentary, Seaspiracy, the largest contributor to the destruction of our oceans is named as commercial fishing, generating discourse around the ethics of seafood, and the neoliberal, neocolonial resonance of the fishing industry’s unwavering dominion over marine wildlife. Through its contribution to plastic pollution in the ocean, accelerating extinction down the food chain through eradicating sea organisms’ food supply, and destroying developing economies through the extraction of wildlife from foreign shores, large-scale industrial fishing is largely conducive to environmental degradation and directly at odds with efforts towards sustainability.[1]

Keeping the ecosystem of the sea alive is necessary for the survival of the ocean and in turn the survival of humanity. Industrial fishing for marine life positions humans in direct competition with other organisms for prey, disrupting the food chain and causing species’ extinction down to the smallest sea creatures. The vision of the ocean and its marine food webs as an opportunity for exploitation is a typically anthropocentric perspective, which has the pernicious effect of continued ecological damage and depreciation of marine life. The extraction of fish, such as tuna, continues the death sentence for other species, like dolphins, which are slaughtered as by-catch from fishing for target species; the industry signals the exhaustive, unnecessary, and unintended death of boundless numbers of sea organisms.[2] The largest cause of death and decline to marine life being the fishing industry demonstrates its hostility towards the health of the ocean, though the extent of commercial fishing’s destructive impact does not end here.

Popular narratives concerned with alleviating the crisis of marine debris are typically framed in terms of what the individual can do to reduce plastic consumption. In reality, the majority of plastic pollution in the ocean can be accounted for by waste caused by commercial fishing; rather than plastic straws causing the most ecological damage, abandoned fishing gear (an annual 640,000 tonnes of discarded nets, lines, and traps) is principally responsible for threatening the lives of endangered wildlife, entangling coral reefs, and littering the deep seafloor.[3] This reluctance to confront economic power, displacing our attention from systemic problems and centering the micro-consumerist actions of the individual as the primary agent in reducing environmental degradation, is symptomatic of the attempt by neoliberal capitalism to locate responsibility for decision-making away from democratic government onto the individual.[4] Deflecting blame for the crisis in our oceans onto the individual consumer serves to protect the interests of an industry whose financial survival depends upon the destruction of our seascapes. To protect the ecosystem of the sea and reduce the impact of marine debris on the biosphere, reducing seafood consumption in order to diminish the economic might of the commercial fishing industry is the most productive way an individual can act.

Echoes of the Western colonial project resonates profoundly through the use of illegal fishing vessels to extract marine wildlife from the shores of the West African coastline. Whilst discarded fishing gear is particularly prevalent from unregulated, unreported, and illegal fishing, plundering resources from developing economies additionally contributes to food insecurity in these regions, depriving locals of an integral food supply.[5] 40% of fishing conducted along the 5,500km coastline of west Africa is done so illegally.[6] The seven million people who rely on catching, selling, and processing fish in this region for their livelihoods are harmed by the lack of monitoring and enforcement of fishing laws which ought to prevent vessels from stealing fish and plundering African resources in what is essentially an exercise in transnational organised crime.[7] As overfishing by powerful nations threatens to deprive local people of their subsistence, the colonial echoes of the fishing industry resound; the mass extraction and exploitation of sea organisms have profound implications for human as well as non-human animal life.

The myth of sustainable seafood is ultimately deconstructed by a recognition that the large-scale extraction and commodification of marine life for commercial gain is fundamentally oppositional to efforts towards sustainability. The contribution of the industrial fishing industry to the crisis of marine debris, the degradation of developing economies through fishing by illegal vessels on foreign shores, and the unintended exacerbation of species extinction through bycatch from fishing for certain target species collectively evince the fact that seafood is an environmental desecrater.


[1] L Wills, The Most Dangerous Single Source of Ocean Plastic No One Wants to Talk About (Sea Shepherd, 2019) <> accessed 7 April 2021. [2] EU Takes Action on Dolphin By-Catch (Blue Planet Society, 2020) <,probably%20died%20in%20fishing%20nets.> accessed 7 April 2021. [3] S Laville, Dumped Fishing Gear is Biggest Plastic Polluter in Ocean, Finds Report (The Guardian, 2019) <,-This%20article%20is&text=More%20than%20640%2C000%20tonnes%20of,as%2055%2C000%20double%2Ddecker%20buses.> accessed 7 April 2021. [4] G Monbiot, Seaspiracy Shows Why We Must Treat Fish Not as Seafood, but as Wildlife (The Guardian, 2021) <> accessed 7 April 2021. [5] N Munshi, The Fight for West Africa's Fish (Financial Times, 2020) <> accessed 7 April 2021. [6] Ibid. [7] Ibid.

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