A new Netflix programme – we’re not calling it a documentary – is putting people worldwide off eating fish. But how much of the message was massaged? 

If the controversial Netflix documentary Seaspiracy is to be believed we should all give up eating fish now.

It even set a year for when we would run out of fish: 2048.

That’s been debunked by many people, along with a number of other claims in the 90-minute programme.

But it hasn’t stopped celebrities raving about it to their millions of followers, resulting in many viewers vowing to go fish-free.

Filmmaker Ali Tabrizi​ has travelled around the world getting shocking images of shark finning, Japan’s dolphin hunting, plastic pollution, and dumping of bycatch.

He’s interviewed scientists, activists and conservationists to reach a conclusion that our oceans are in huge trouble, and the commercial fishing industry is largely to blame.

Today The Detail looks at the state of New Zealand fisheries with NIWA’s chief scientist for fisheries Dr Richard O’Driscoll, and does some fact checking on the Seaspiracy claims.

“They drew a conclusion which was simple and wrong,” says O’Driscoll.

Seaspiracy has raised global awareness of the state of the oceans, but it is unfortunate, he says, that it took a tabloid programme – he refuses to call it a documentary – that oversimplifies the issues, and where people make extreme claims, to get the conversation started.

More reliable sources that have raised issues in the past haven’t managed such traction.

“We saw the release of the Prime Minister’s chief science advisor Juliet Gerrard’s report on New Zealand fisheries in March which generated almost zero interest; Kate Evans wrote an award-winning piece in New Zealand Geographic in 2019 on New Zealand fisheries which didn’t get picked up and carried forward.”

NIWA’s Dr Richard O’Driscoll. Photo: Sharon Brettkelly

O’Driscoll heads a team of 80 to 100 people at NIWA, spread throughout the country, whose scientific advice is used by the Government to manage the fisheries, including setting commercial quotas and recreational bag limits.

His estimation of the country’s fisheries is that, in general, they’re “in a pretty good state”, but there’s a gap in our information gathering. Little or nothing is known about nearly a third of the commercial catch, and that’s because of a lack of money to conduct research.

“Of the 160-odd fish stocks – that’s species and areas that we have information about – we don’t think there are sustainability concerns with about 80 percent of those stocks, which represents something like 90 percent of the commercial catch.

“But there are another 200-odd stocks which represent 30 percent of the commercial catch that we don’t have the information to make that judgment about whether we are fishing sustainably or not,” O’Driscoll says.

According to the industry group Seafood New Zealand, about 450,000 tonnes of seafood (excluding aquaculture) is harvested from New Zealand’s waters each year.

Total seafood exports in 2020 were $2 billion.

A total of 169 species are commercially fished in New Zealand; 98 of those species are managed in 642 stock areas under the Quota Management System which controls harvest levels for each fish species and area. About half of the fisheries quota is owned by iwi.

O’Driscoll talks to The Detail‘s Sharon Brettkelly about how the stocks are counted, which species are in trouble and how they are being managed, and why marine fisheries and aquaculture are part of the solution to feeding the world’s population.

Want more from The Detail? Find past episodes here.

Sharon Brettkelly is co-host of The Detail podcast.

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