How to Watch Seaspiracy and Other Food Documentaries in a Critical Way

Men with nets on a fishing boat

Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • The popular Netflix film ‘Seaspiracy’ encourages people to stop eating seafood completely, but it’s gotten pushback from some experts.
  • The documentary highlights that it’s important to look beyond a film’s claims when making decisions about what to eat.
  • Dietitians share some tips for how to interpret documentaries in a more meaningful way.

From Food Inc, to Forks Over Knives, to Super Size Me, food and nutrition focused documentaries have become massively popular—and influential—over the course of the past 20 years.

And it's understandable, they serve as riveting exposés of some of the darkest aspects of the food industry and debunk long-held assumptions about personal nutrition. It's easy to get wrapped up in the ethos of a documentary, but it's important to be wary of sensationalism and to take the nutrition advice of these films with a grain of salt.

One such film currently trending is a Netflix-produced film, “Seaspiracy,” which has documentary filmmaker Ali Tabrizi traveling around the world, from Japan to Scotland to the African coast, to uncover corruption and environmental damage caused by overfishing.

Both Tabrizi and the experts he interviews all come back to one main strategy that people can do to help right the situation: Stop eating seafood.

The film certainly has compelling evidence of how overfishing is decimating ocean life but is it enough to make you swear off most fish forever? The answer isn’t so clear-cut, some experts have noted, and the way you respond to this film should inform how you approach any food-related documentary, they suggest.

Seaspiracy Critical Reaction

One of the most dominant criticisms of the film is that it asserts there is simply no such thing as ‘sustainable fishing,’ and that both wild-caught and farm-raised fish present an ecological disaster.

Blog posts that fact check the film—such as the University of Washington’s Sustainable Fisheries site—dig deep into the statistics cited by Tabrizi and find misconstrued research, inflated and misleading numbers, and older information that ignores new data.

That’s not to say overfishing and pollution aren’t significant problems and need to be addressed in a more systemic and even aggressive manner, but scaring people away from eating seafood instead of highlighting and rewarding fisheries that do responsible work is short-sighted, believes Kelly Harrell, Chief Fisheries Officer at Sitka Salmon Shares in Alaska.

“There are very real issues in industrial fisheries that represent large problems with fishing,” she says. “But to say stop eating fish is like saying you shouldn’t eat broccoli anymore because there are problems in industrial farming.”

Parallel with Sustainable Agriculture

Even more accurately, it would be like saying “don’t eat meat,” which has been the message of some documentaries like “Cowspiracy” and several others.

That approach shuts out farmers and ranchers—usually small-scale operations that emphasize humane treatment and sustainable practices—who should be seen as an example of regenerative agriculture, believes Diana Rodgers, RD, a filmmaker whose documentary, “Sacred Cow,” looks at the moral, environmental, and nutritional quandaries of raising and eating animals.

Diana Rodgers, RD

Ethical meat-eaters and those eating meat are actually on the same team. They want a system that isn’t extractive and works with nature instead of against it.

— Diana Rodgers, RD

“Grazing animals are critical to the health of the land, so in saying we shouldn’t eat meat because it’s environmentally disastrous, it feels like we’re arguing about the wrong thing,” she says.

Rodgers continues, “Ethical meat-eaters and those eating meat are actually on the same team. They want a system that isn’t extractive and works with nature instead of against it. We need to have a more nuanced conversation about the role of regenerative agriculture, instead of a black-and-white mandate to stop eating animal foods altogether.”

Harrell believes that’s the same approach people should take toward seafood as well. Sitka Salmon actually doesn’t use the word “sustainable” since they believe the term has been co-opted in negative ways. Instead, they emphasize responsibility and low-impact fishing.

Much like small-scale farmers, they’re up against major, industrial operations that embody all the problems that “Seaspiracy” highlights. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t making an impact.

“The only way to stop resource depletion is to understand the critical role that responsible fishermen play as stewards of the ocean,” she says. “Those of us who’ve been working for decades in conservation know what works, and that should be recognized.”

Better Ways to Watch

Although some of the stats in “Seaspiracy” have gotten considerable pushback, the documentary does some important work in highlighting that there’s a problem with overfishing that needs to be addressed.

That larger goal is similar to other food documentaries that make big claims and prompt awareness of significant issues—but many experts suggest that’s a starting point for viewers. Doing more research, particularly looking at studies and experts that are cited, is an important step in using this information.

“First, make sure the documentaries actually reference real studies,” says Alexandra Soare, RD, dietitian and food scientist. Phrases like, “research indicates” or “many scientific studies say” should raise a red flag, she suggests.

When actual studies are included, Soare says to check for conflicts of interest, such as whether a specific food-related organization sponsored the study. That approach also applies to the film’s producers.

“Would the people involved benefit in some way from the angle the documentary is taking?” she says. “In general, having a critical mindset can help you determine if the documentary is objective.”

Use a Critical Lens

Another way to view a food-related documentary with more objectivity is to determine if multiple sides of an argument are presented. For example, a frequent criticism of “Seaspiracy” is that no fishermen or representatives from responsible fisheries were interviewed.

Kelsey Pezzuti

If a documentary doesn’t provide a balanced point of view, chances are it’s heavily biased. You can usually find opposing research for every single research study.

— Kelsey Pezzuti

“A food documentary should show you both sides of the argument,” says dietitian Kelsey Pezzuti, RD, of Kelsey and Cooper’s Kitchen. “If a documentary doesn’t provide a balanced point of view, chances are it’s heavily biased. You can usually find opposing research for every single research study.”

If a documentary takes a hard-line stance that pushes you to eliminate certain foods or food groups, that should prompt a more critical view, Pezzuti believes.

If you do decide to make changes based on what you’ve seen and researched, it’s a good idea to take small steps in making the shift, and to do what’s right for you, suggests dietitian Aderet Dana Hoch, RD, of Dining with Nature.

“If you try to drastically change your lifestyle all at once, you will have a more difficult time sticking to it,” she says. “Also, with films like these, there can be pressure to get swept up in the ‘fight.’ Remember to make decisions that are best for you."

Sometimes, it’s not about eliminating a food or item from your life, but rather, being aware of where this food or item came from and the story behind it. Don’t sacrifice your health in order to make a statement, Hoch emphasizes.

What This Means For You

Food documentaries often rely on dramatic storytelling and can make some sweeping claims, but experts suggest they should only represent a starting point for making your own decisions about what's on your plate.

By Elizabeth Millard, CPT, RYT
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance journalist specializing in health, wellness, fitness, and nutrition.