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Will the oceans be empty of fish by 2048?
I recently watched ‘Seaspiracy’, the popular Netflix documentary which exposes the darker side to the fishing industry and has caused much controversy since its release. The documentary opened up some questions which I had previously not considered.
One of the more dramatic claims made during the film was that, due to fishing, all of the fish in the sea will have disappeared by 2048. To check this fact, we asked 8 experts in fisheries sciences, marine sciences, and ecology ‘Will the oceans be empty of fish by 2048?’. 7 out of 8 answered ‘extremely unlikely’. Many of the experts also included their opinions on how successful ‘Seaspiracy’ was in communicating science and delivering its message about overfishing - here is what we found out…
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Will the oceans be empty of fish by 2048?
Where did the 2048 prediction come from?
Ali Tabrizi, Seaspiracy’s director and narrator, says during the documentary “If current fishing trends continue, we will see virtually empty oceans by the year 2048”. This claim has been echoed across many news articles and blogs since it was made in 2006, but where does it come from?
A scientific paper published in Science by Worm and colleagues in 2006 which looked at the decline of marine populations and species. They found that loss of marine biodiversity has important effects on the ecosystem. In one sentence in the concluding paragraph, they also said that the “current trend is of serious concern because it projects the global collapse of all taxa currently fished by the mid-21st century”.
Why is the 2048 prediction inaccurate?
Dr Michael Melnychuk, an expert in fisheries sciences from Washington University, highlights some of the issues with the 2006 prediction. He says that “The definitions of "collapsed" by the authors are based on catch data, but these do not necessarily reflect abundances of fish populations”. He also points out that the method used by the authors to extrapolate data into the future was not realistic.
Dr Robert Steneck, an expert in oceanography from Maine University, highlights that “three years after the initial publication Worm et al 2009 (also published in Science) pointed out that many fish stocks are rebuilding globally”. Since 2006, the authors have also tried to emphasise the broader conclusions of their findings instead of this prediction.
There have also been numerous scientific publications heavily criticising the 2048 prediction for the reasons highlighted by Dr Melnychuk, but unfortunately this claim has stuck.
Dr Melnychuk highlights a final reason why the 2048 prediction is inaccurate, it “assumes that our hands are tied and these trends will continue indefinitely”.
Does it matter that there are inaccuracies in Seaspiracy?
Seapiracy claimed that oceans will be empty of fish by 2048 even though this prediction has been strongly refuted for over 10 years. Other similarly contentious claims were made throughout the film in order to expose the darker side of the fishing industry and suggest that the only way to save the oceans is to stop fishing altogether.
Some of the experts believe that this overly negative image of the fishing industry could do more harm than good to the oceans. Dr Alec Christie, an expert in marine biology from the University of Cambridge, says “the way this movie used data from scientific papers was a good example of questionable research practices - cherry-picking and unjustifiable and opaquely extrapolating data beyond the bounds of the study.”
Dr Holden Harris, an expert in Fisheries Sciences from Florida University, adds that Seaspiracy omitted some of the achievements in sustainable fishing, “The convenient oversite of not including the many, many success stories of good management guided by science and community (e.g., U.S. fisheries) provides an extremist view of the issue.I also personally know some of the interviewees in the film, who have spent their life work in ocean conservation, and do not deserve the false light cast on to them. This is not how progress is made.”
However, not all the experts agreed that the inaccuracies of Seaspiracy means it does more harm than good. Dr Simon Allen, an expert in marine science from Bristol University points out that “At the end of the day, love it or loathe it, Seaspiracy has got some tongues wagging and people asking questions.”
Is overfishing an issue?
All the experts agreed with one claim made by Seaspiracy: overfishing is a serious issue. Dr Harris says “Today, it's likely that 1/3 of the world's fish stocks worldwide are overexploited or depleted. This is certainly an issue that deserves widespread concern.” Dr Allen adds that “Overfishing is still the biggest problem on the global high seas”
Dr Christie’s concluding opinion on Seaspiracy is that “we all agree that its message of the ecological harm of industrial fisheries is a major urgent issue, but we need to present facts not fiction and unite, build consensus, and use rational arguments to convince people to change.”
It is unlikely that the oceans will be empty of fish by 2048. Although experts disagreed on the effectiveness of the Seaspiracy documentary to help protect the oceans, they all agreed that overfishing is a major issue.
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