Photo: ChrisSchlosser/

The film Seaspiracy has been accused of being a propaganda piece rather than a documentary. Researchers from a variety of scientific backgrounds have criticized its loose connection to empirics. But it is right about one thing: Corruption does threaten marine biodiversity.

Watching the Netflix film Seaspiracy can make anyone lose their sleep. A bleak picture is painted: Unless we all go vegan, we are doomed. The oceans will be empty by 2048. Several factors are contributing to an ongoing “crisis”, among them industrial-scale overfishing, subsidies with perverse effects, and corruption. In this Q&A, Aled Williams, senior adviser at CMI’s U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, reflects on what the film got wrong and right about corruption affecting marine fisheries.

-After the Netflix documentary Seaspiracy went viral, people from diverse scientific and business backgrounds began to debunk its claims. Yet isn´t corruption, one of the factors mentioned in the film, a threat to biodiversity in the oceans? Where do the filmmakers go wrong?

-First of all, the documentary is right in highlighting corruption´s role in undermining marine biodiversity. U4 has worked with the Fisheries Economics Research Unit at the University of British Columbia to compile evidence for how corruption influences decisions in the fisheries sector. Ultimately, this corruption affects life in and around the oceans. Some marine scientists reacted to the film by saying: this is not how it is in our jurisdiction. Yet, the quality of fisheries governance varies around the globe and illegal fishing is linked to a range of criminal activities, from corruption, to money laundering, to tax and customs fraud. Fisheries crime overall has been estimated to lead to economic losses of around USD 10-23.5 billion.

A main critique of the film has been its weak grounding in up-to-date empirics and its overtly emotional campaigning style. This aspect is indeed disappointing because there is plenty of recent public evidence that could have been cited on corruption. Not all of this corruption leads to overfishing. For example, a corruption case involving London-based banks and Mozambique led to a rusting tuna fishing fleet whose boats rested at port for several years.

-Who are these crucial stakeholders that can improve marine fisheries governance?

-You will find potential changemakers in many places and it is important to start a dialogue. Fishers themselves can have ample opportunity for take part in corrupt practices, and there are many known instances of fishers paying off inspectors when they exceed quotas. But such corruption is often a part of social expectations and sometimes keeps the wheels turning for fishers and their families. As Seaspiracy rightly points out, fishers are among those who have the most to lose from depleted fish stocks. Making sure marine resources are not overexploited is the only way these livelihoods can be secured.

There have been instances of fishers harassing and threatening inspectors or observers who come on board fishing vessels and being an inspector involves a degree of risk. Corruption in the fisheries sector is closely linked to transnational organized crime and inspectors have been killed doing their job. That being said, there are also plenty of examples of corrupt inspectors who accept bribes.

The potential of including fishers and inspectors in decision-making, emphasizing and strengthening local perspectives should not be undervalued.

Governments can also be key actors in facilitating or curbing corruption. This goes all the way from bureaucrats in national administrations for example issuing fake documents, to the top political level. Agreements between fishing nations can be corrupt. Many countries pay to get access to other countries waters that are rich in marine resources, but these payments do not always match the resources obtained.  

Weak institutions and high rents increase the risk of corruption and there are definitely lessons to be learnt from countries with well-functioning fisheries governance. But the risk of corruption exists in every part of the supply chain and we should not assume it is a problem isolated to just a few jurisdictions.

-Tackling corruption nationally is clearly not enough. The fisheries sector is global and so is the demand for produce. How is it dealt with on an international level?

-There are existing efforts from multilateral bodies to tackle corruption in marine fisheries. For example, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), with support from Norad and the Norwegian Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries, developed a “Fisheries Crime Initiative” (or FishNET) to help UN member states prevent, identify, prosecute and adjudicate fisheries crime. This initiative recognized corruption as a major facilitator of fisheries crime and a guide and related capacity building efforts were developed to address fisheries corruption. Yet, a 2020 review of FishNet found that fisheries crime overall had only been understood to some extent by project beneficiaries as well as the majority of UNODC staff, with crimes including corruption being understood primarily in terms of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated  (IUU) Fishing.

There seems to be a disconnect at the global level between the regular scientific assessments of the world´s fisheries and oceans, and evidence on the socio-political dimensions of fisheries governance, including corruption. Neither UNESCO´s Global Ocean Science Report (2020), nor the FAO´s State of the World´s Fisheries Report (2020), for example, mention corruption at all. While this may be reasonable given their respective scientific foci, it is also reflective of disciplinary silos that may undermine solutions to the governance challenges still facing the world´s oceans.

David Aled Williams

Principal Adviser (U4) and Senior Researcher (CMI)