Seaspiracy: Why, As An Asian Ocean Activist, It’s So Harmful


I love the oceans. I’ve built my entire life around ocean advocacy and working to protect marine life. I’ve even spent time crewing for Sea Shepherd campaigns in Antarctica and Mexico fighting against illegal fishing and have worked on nature documentaries to show the oceans’ wonders to the world. I also don’t eat meat or fish, and I do not encourage many people to do so. So when Seaspiracy came out on Netflix, I was excited to see a film aimed at tackling the oceans problems, one that included hard-hitting facts about overfishing and reached a wide audience with its strong environmental messaging. I was excited to watch it, but as I watched, I found myself more upset than anything else. I was appalled at the ignorance, the racist portrayal (and complete absence) of communities of color, the white savior narrative, and the oversimplification of an immense and complex issue that just hands the burden onto consumers.

First of all, I’d like to say that I support the message that privileged people from rich nations who get their food at grocery stores should think twice about buying seafood because, indeed, industrial fishing is linked to a whole host of environmental and social issues. However, while this message applies to some, it does not equally apply to everyone worldwide. It is not so simple. The solutions to fixing our seas are more complicated and nuanced. We must consider the economic, environmental, and social factors, which mean giving up fish is not a viable solution for everyone. We must remember, not all people have the same exploitative relationship with the oceans. Millions of small-scale indigenous fishers are an integral part of their ecosystems. They have been natural custodians for the oceans for millennia, and they too are struggling under the weight of industrial fishing. We cannot make blanket statements that all people must stop eating fish without understanding the reality of that statement and the vulnerable communities it affects the most. For a wealthy and privileged audience, the films’ message resonates, but how that point is made could not have been more harmful.


The film centers itself around a very limited middle-class western perspective, which is something we see in conservation time and time again. Frankly, I am tired of listening to mostly white middle-class people touting solutions to save the oceans that do not include or consider colonial/imperialist history, geopolitical, or cultural context and portray people of color according to stereotypes and without allowing them a voice. There were very few non-white people in this film. Of the few groups that were, they were portrayed as the evil ocean plunderers or the helpless victims- neither were given any control over their own stories and the rest of the non-western world seemed not to exist at all. This blatant use of racism and erasure in service of a white-centered narrative and the use of stereotypes and othering to “make a point” is something we can no longer tolerate.

As an Asian woman, I found the portrayal of Asians in this film as a homogenous group of ocean villains deeply upsetting and downright irresponsible at a time when anti-Asian hate is skyrocketing worldwide, and we know that negative Asian stereotypes are what’s behind these attacks. This narrative not only does great harm to our communities, but cumulative insensitive rhetoric emboldens people to attack us in the streets in the name of the environment.

I have personally been a victim of this. I was berated by someone who hated Japanese whalers and looked at me and saw the enemy. Never mind, I have nothing to do with whaling, or that I was part of an anti-whaling campaign to Antarctica to save whales from slaughter- none of that mattered. This individual felt it was okay to say horribly racist things to me because they did not see me as an ocean activist or even as a human being—instead, all they saw was an evil Asian stereotype who should be blamed for killing the oceans.

This film, seen by millions, will further strengthen those dangerous stereotypes and will leave an entire community vulnerable and left without a voice at the worst time possible. Demonizing Asians is not the only way to tell this story. Factually, Norway kills more whales than any other country in the world, more than Japan and Iceland combined. But the Norwegian whaler stereotype (or lack thereof) just doesn’t evoke that same visceral and emotional response (alarm bells ringing) filmmakers need to sell a story. Ergo, the role of the villain is placed on the “foreign-looking” Japanese.

If you watch the film, you’ll notice that the loudest voices, the ones given the most time to speak, are mostly white males. Most obvious is the main character. The very lens the audience sees this issue through is through the perspective of a white male and the consequential blind spots that result are just too big to ignore. Diversity in the interviewees is shockingly low and leads people to believe that ocean conservation is limited to a particular type of person when in fact there are many people of color and women who care about these issues and fight for them every day. Yet except for her deepness, Dr. Sylvia Earle, women and minorities were vastly underrepresented. This tired practice excludes and ignores the perspectives of the majority of other people that are intrinsically linked to the ocean; the millions of fish workers, ocean conservationists, and integral marine communities all around the globe.

This kind of conservation is an extension of white saviorism. People from wealthy countries who consume and pollute at much higher rates than others go to other parts of the world to tell local people how to care for their resources as if they know best. Often there are historical, geopolitical, and cultural contexts surrounding those issues as well as intersectional ones that go ignored. Then conservation practices that are used in the west are wrongly pushed all over the world as solutions to problems everywhere. As a global community, we are all connected to the world’s oceans, and we cannot afford to look at massive issues like saving the oceans through a single lens. We need to listen to all voices, we need a diverse set of perspectives, and we need to work collaboratively to find real, lasting solutions that work for everyone. Effective ocean solutions demand equity and novel understandings of each region. There is no silver bullet or one size fits all. It will take all of us, not just the privileged few, to turn the tide.


This brings me to my last point, the oversimplification of a massive problem this film employs is not only wrong but is also ineffective. The filmmakers had an opportunity to empower people to help create lasting change by affecting ocean policy, but they squandered it and left it up to the consumer. It is great that if you have a dollar to vote with, then vote with it and change what you buy. But not everyone has that power. Saving the oceans is going to take a lot more than just tweaking your spending. Individuals are powerful, but only when we come together collectively and take a stand to pressure governments to enact laws and create major shifts of our collective mindset that ensures lasting change. Yet once again, here is a film that is turning a huge intersectional global environmental issue into one that can be solved by the green spending habits of middle-class people. What this film fails to understand is that we are more than just consumers and our true power lies not in our wallets but in solidarity with one another and the planet we share. Ultimately, we need a change in mindset and attitude that goes beyond our role in the market but pushes us towards becoming stewards of the ocean.

I believe that saving our oceans is imperative, and I’ve dedicated my life to this cause. But I do not believe we get there with single-perspective stories like these. Seaspiracy may do some good in the form of getting privileged people to stop eating fish, but at what cost? At the cost of stereotyping, vilifying, and ignoring communities of color? At the cost of entrenching beliefs that our greatest power comes only from our spending habits and that privileged white people are here to save us all? Can we not find a better way to get this message across?

I believe we can. I believe that when we invite everyone to the table, we will be able to come up with solutions that do more than just scare people into changing how they spend, but we can help create a shift in our attitudes about how we all relate to our blue planet. In this way, we move away from just opting in or out of a capitalist framework to move towards true conservancy and ecological harmony. Everyone has a part to play in that future for our oceans, Asians included.

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