Fishing boats in Gansbaai harbour. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Fishing boats in Gansbaai harbour. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

If you’re one of the many Netflix subscribers who have watched Seaspiracy, you’re probably rethinking that extra piece of sashimi. That is, if you’re still considering eating seafood at all.

The documentary film follows director and ocean enthusiast Ali Tabrizi as he sets out on a journey to identify the major culprits responsible for the devastation of our marine resources. Pointing fingers at everyone from the commercial fishing industry and ocean conservation groups to your local fast-food outlet and governments, he concludes that sustainable fishing simply isn’t possible and suggests the most responsible thing we all can do to protect our oceans is to stop eating seafood.

While the filmmaker does highlight some important issues — in fact, he jumps from topic to topic with such haste that it’s hard to keep up — this final call to action is too simplistic, is rooted in privilege and fails to address a far more important fishery subsector. This “cancel culture” approach overlooks how eliminating demand could affect communities where seafood is a vital source of food and income.

Fish and fish products are some of the most traded food items in the world, supporting the local livelihoods of countless fisherwomen and men. In Africa alone, marine and inland fisheries are estimated to contribute to the food security of 200-million Africans and the income of 10-million engaged in after-catch commercial activities.

These days, fisheries and seafood systems have become incredibly complex. This is why we need to look at the issue more holistically. It is a multifaceted sector that requires contextualised and multipronged solutions because there are so many ecological, economic and social issues that must be considered.

Yes, the globalised commercial fishing industry exists because of unabated consumer demand for convenient and trendy seafood products, but eliminating demand should not be seen as a panacea to save our oceans. It is also impossible. In fact, the conversation about sustainability should start with a focus on responsibility, provenance and local food systems. As consumers, we need to go back to the source and start asking real questions about where our fish comes from, how it was caught, who caught it, and how it was transported across the globe — or not.

In the SA context this could mean forgoing those salmon roses or that imported squid in favour of the local “catch of the day”, whatever it might be. Moreover, there is a real need to support the country’s small-scale fishers, and what they catch, seasonally. By doing so we’ll be eating what the ocean has to offer at any particular time and supporting our local coastal communities.

For consumers, rethinking their approach to the purchase of seafood and joining the ever-growing movement to co-develop a more sustainable and ethical food system is made easier thanks to tech-enabled initiatives like Abalobi (www.abalobi.org). But it’s not just about throwing technology at the problem.

The Abalobi platform and its interconnected apps were co-developed and tested by the small-scale fishing communities themselves, and include features that foster transparency and accountability across the entire value chain. Embedded within a community development approach, these technologies have the potential to trigger a journey towards sustainability that Seaspiracy claims doesn’t exist.

That journey starts by securing traditional fishing rights, recognising low-impact fishing methods, improving safety at sea, or reconfiguring the supply chain. The Abalobi digital marketplace tools specifically make it possible for fishers to connect with a far broader range of buyers by selling their catch directly, and for a fair price. Consumers can ascertain the provenance of their seafood through a QR code that accompanies each fish, and observe complete pricing transparency. That is, they can see via the app the exact portion of their purchase that ends up in the fisher’s pocket (generally about 80%).

Rather than eliminating seafood from our menus, it makes far more sense to celebrate the many small-scale fishers along our coastline as stewards of our oceans, providing what the sea has to offer on any particular day (see www.fishwithastory.org). This approach can certainly foster sustainable resource utilisation and social justice, as well as ultimate resilience in the face of climate change.

Consumers can make responsible choices, but we need to rethink our relationship with seafood. At the heart of it all there is a dire need for us all to reconnect with who is catching our fish.

• Dr Raemaekers is fisheries researcher and co-founder of technology NGO Abalobi.

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