How ‘Seaspiracy’ Is Killing the Health Halo Around the Pescatarian Diet

The film exposing the fishing industry is changing how people see seafood.

If you’ve ever been to dinner with a vegan, or are one yourself, you may have heard this a few times from others seated at the table: “I’m vegan, too! Well, I eat fish.” 

It’s a confusing one. Pescatarians have long positioned themselves adjacent to vegans. But how did a diet that includes animal products get so lumped in with a diet that is by definition, animal-free? Is it that fish-eaters see fish as less sentient or feeling as say a pig or a cow? Is it the myth that animal products are essential for a healthy diet? The Netflix documentary “Seapsiracy” seems to be clearing up the confusion.

The film is now in Netflix queues all across the globe. It’s the number-one viewed film, not just documentary, today in Hong Kong, UK, and Singapore; number two in Australia; it’s number three in the U.S., Canada, Germany, and Iceland.  

A growing list of celebrities are endorsing it, a number that’s expected to continue to climb. But despite its success, it’s also earning criticism and pushback. There are accusations that comments were taken out of context or misrepresented. But the film’s impact is still likely to outweigh its flaws.

The documentary is full of head-spinning statistics. It’s hard to grasp just how massive the world’s oceans are. And this magnitude has always been part of the problem — this seemingly endless cup we’ve plundered, though, doth runneth over with exploitation, murder, and environmental disaster. The film notes we’re literally running out of fish, yet endangered species like the Bluefin tuna, protected whales and dolphins, and apex predators, are still plucked out of icy waters at every possible opportunity.

Photo by Jakub Kapusnak on Unsplash

The Pescatarian Diet

Nearly 100 years ago, a Japanese man named George Oshawa developed the macrobiotic diet based on the foods eaten by Zen Buddhist monks. He claimed it cured him from tuberculosis. The diet was also largely a response to refined sugar making its way into Japan, bringing health problems along with it. The diet’s focus is balance, eating with the seasons, for example, and avoiding overly processed foods.

By the 1960s and 1970s, the macrobiotic diet had become widely popular amongst the counterculture; it led in part to modern veganism and the demand for organic foods in the West. Restaurants like Souen in New York City and M Cafe in Los Angeles have kept the diet alive, offering menus that cater to vegans and pescatarians alike. The diet also includes celebrity followers such as Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow, Julia Roberts, and Sting. As much as four percent of the population in the US identify as pescatarians, about the same as those identifying as vegan.

While Buddhist monks typically abstain from animal products, Oshawa, having grown up in Japan, consumed fish, as do most Asian cultures. Dairy is traditionally absent from Asian diets, so the macrobiotic diet was nearly vegan by default. Even eggs were generally not recommended.

Nowadays, though, macrobiotic or not, it’s those essential fatty acids in fish that give them the health halo — the omega 3,6, and 9 fats that are associated with healthy brain and heart function, healthy skin and joints have made fish a top recommendation by heart and brain doctors across the globe. It’s why singer Miley Cyrus, who had been vegan for years, says she went back to eating fish. It was to help combat her brain fog, she said.

But fish don’t make those fats all on their own. Like us, they get them from outside sources. Their sources come from algae, something that’s far more sustainable and accessible to humans now via supplements than ever before. And algae oil may also be more healthy than fish.  

The belief that we need fish for protein or essential fats mirrors the longstanding protein myth that to be as strong as bull you must eat one. But cattle get their strength from plants; fish, it turns out, get their sheen and dexterity from algae.

Pescatarians also face more serious health risks, some of which are touched on in the film. These are mainly heavy metals that come from our pollution and plastic. These chemicals leach into the food system, concentrating in the fat of fish. As big fish eat smaller fish, they accumulate more of the toxins. This puts frequent fish eaters at risk of heavy metals. It’s why pregnant women are advised to avoid seafood.

Photo by Claudio Guglieri on Unsplash

Animal Sentience

Is it ethical to eat fish?

Take Sylvia Earle, the marine biologist who features prominently in the film. She’s a lifelong hero of the film’s 27-year-old star and director Ali Tabrizi. Earle, who has studied marine life for six decades, makes a solid case for fish sentience, speaking to the intricacies of fish bodies and movement, and their abilities to feel in ways humans and other animals can’t. She eschews eating fish and all animals, she says.

There’s a gripping scene in the film where fish watch their kin being slaughtered; they hover in proximity and witness from behind a glass aquarium wall, seemingly aware and concerned.

While “Seaspiracy” doesn’t touch much on octopuses, the brilliant film “My Octopus Teacher” takes care of that. In that 2020 documentary, also on Netflix, a friendship built on memory and trust forms between a filmmaker and a mollusk. Octopuses have been cited as one of the most intelligent animals on the planet, capable of using tools, solving puzzles, and even bonding, despite being solitary hunters.

While whaling has long been banned in much of the world to protect these endangered and intelligent species, there are sticky workarounds that have allowed for countries, namely Japan, to continue to hunt whales. Sharks, too, are being slaughtered at alarming numbers — at least one hundred million a year versus the few shark attacks on humans each year. Many are caught for their fins — a delicacy of status throughout Asia — many millions more fall victim to bycatch, caught in nets targeted at other species.

“Seaspiracy” also demonstrates how we’ve ignored the complex food chains underwater. The more we kill off apex predators like sharks, the quicker problems develop across the world’s oceans, with populations spiraling out of balance. It’s like the naturalist John Muir famously noted: when we tug on anything in nature, we find it connected to everything else.

Photo by Aurélien Lemasson-Théobald on Unsplash

The End of Fish

But it’s not just the ethics of fishing that are creating dilemmas for pescatarians. Fishing is destroying the oceans in ways that threaten our oxygen supply and our much-needed carbon sequestration. And for billions of people, it’s also still a food source. It’s a catch-22, though: People need to eat fewer fish now in order to continue eating them in the future.

And because the oceans are such massive carbon sinks, an “environmentalist pescatarian” is an oxymoron, the film points out. Despite the enormous impact land animals raised for food have on the environment, the industry pulling 2.7 trillion fish from our oceans every year is far and away the biggest emissions culprit.

“Seaspiracy” explains the plastic connection, too: the majority of plastic in the oceans isn’t single-use straws or even the billions of soda and water bottles out to sea. It’s fishing gear. Millions of tons of abandoned “ghost” gear. Fish and other marine life get trapped in these abandoned nets and lines. But as the gear breaks down into smaller pieces, the animals are eating them, too. The film starts with Tabrizi’s shock and horror over giant beached whales found with pounds and pounds of plastic in their stomachs. Plastic is so prevalent in the oceans that it will outnumber fish in just the next three decades. 

Certainly reducing single-use plastic plays a part in protecting the oceans. So does changing habits like replacing new fashion purchases with secondhand options to decrease the microfibers. But the film makes its point as clear as translucent jellyfish: fishing is polluting the oceans and depleting them at the same time. And it can’t continue — even, and especially, in the name of that “healthy” and almost-vegan diet. 

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