Netflix Reels Them In

'Seaspiracy' documentary slamming the seafood industry goes viral
Gina Acosta
Executive Editor
Gina Acosta profile picture
    Ahead of What's Next

    Monthly column delving into new trends affecting the grocery and food industries.

Netflix Reels Them In

It’s always a good day when you can fly to a great city to talk to the CEO of one of America’s great grocery companies.

That’s what I did in late March, when I went to Philadelphia to talk to Nick Bertram, CEO of The Giant Co., about his stunning new urban flagship there.

Touring the store with him and his team, I listened as they talked about hot categories, one of them being seafood.

U.S. retailers have posted record seafood sales across the fresh, frozen and shelf-stable categories over the past year as consumers have cooked more at home during the pandemic. Frozen seafood sales in 2020 soared 35% to $7 billion, fresh sales rose 24.5% to $6.7 billion, and shelf-stable rose 20.3% to $2.9 billion, according to 210 Analytics Principal Anne-Marie Roerink and IRI Worldwide.

“This [seafood] category is on fire,” Roerink said at the time the figures were released.

Well, maybe not for long.

A week after I got back from Philly, my phone started blowing up with texts about, yes, seafood.

“Today’s the last day I’m eating salmon.”

“The only ethical thing to do is to stop eating fish.”

“Sustainable seafood is a lie.”

My friends were sending me Twitter reactions to the No. 4 movie on Netflix: “Seaspiracy.” Haven’t heard of it? Comments about the movie have flooded Facebook and Instagram, too. The New York Times wrote a generous review. Even Vogue magazine, not exactly known for its extensive coverage of the food industry, published a column titled “Seaspiracy Will Change Your Thoughts on Seafood Forever.”

The documentary debuted on Netflix on March 24; four days later, it was one of the Top 5 titles watched on the platform in 32 countries.

Netflix’s official synopsis of the film reads: “From the co-creator who brought you the groundbreaking documentary ‘Cowspiracy’ comes ‘Seaspiracy,’ a follow-up that illuminates alarming — and not widely known — truths about the widespread environmental destruction to our oceans caused by human behavior. Filmmaker Ali Tabrizi initially set out to celebrate his beloved ocean, but instead found himself examining the harm that humans inflict upon the vulnerable seas. From plastics and fishing gear polluting the waters to the irreparable damage of bottom trawling and by-catch, to illegal fishing and devastating hunting practices, humanity is wreaking havoc on marine life and, by extension, the entire planet. What Tabrizi ultimately uncovered not only challenges notions of sustainable fishing, but will shock anyone who cares about the wonders of ocean life, as well as the future of the planet and our place on it.”

If that doesn’t sound terrifying, it should: I watched the movie and it was a bloody one-and-a-half-hour indictment of the commercial seafood industry.  

Tabrizi takes viewers all over the world on a visual journey accompanied by scary music and images of slaughtered marine mammals and deforested seabeds, and where he ends up is: “Sustainable wild caught seafood” is a fraud; “dolphin safe” labels are lies; farmed seafood is no better; and the only way to save the oceans — and humanity — is to stop eating seafood, period. The film even takes on the leading seafood certification group, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), and alleges that its labeling — used by many food retailers, including Whole Foods Market and Publix Supermarkets — is a financially motivated scam. MSC has posted a length rebuttal to the film on its website, saying, "While we disagree with much of what the 'Seaspiracy' documentary-makers say, one thing we do agree with is that there is a crisis of overfishing in our oceans. However, it is worth remembering that while veganism is an entirely legitimate choice for many people, millions more around the world rely on seafood for their protein needs. With the global population set to reach 10 billion by 2050, the need to harness our natural resources more responsibly is more urgent than ever. Sustainable fishing has a vital role to play in securing those resources." I would encourage readers to go to their website and read their full response.

There’s no question that the aim of this film is to shock and scare viewers into switching to plant-based diets.

So now grocers, who have attracted so many new consumers to the seafood category over the past year, will have another obstacle to keep those shoppers engaged: Netflix. Food retailers hoping to keep their seafood sales jumping would do well to educate shoppers even more (than they are already doing) about where their fish comes from. With damaging publicity like “Seaspiracy,” grocers who offer maximum transparency about their seafood supply chains are more likely to keep consumers coming back for more.

Gina Acosta is executive editor of Progressive Grocer. Please e-mail her with questions, comments or ideas for columns at [email protected]