Seaspiracy – a broad stroke

Last night I watched Seaspiracy, a Netflix documentary I was a few months late to jump on, as I munched on dinner – a plate of stir fried Manila clams, dressed nostalgically in the green, red, and white of Thai basil, fresh chilies, and Ontario summer garlic.

Before aggressively thumbing the “OK” on my remote, I did contemplate if it was perhaps too ambitious of me to dive headfirst into this issue with my mouth stuffed with shellfish, obviously a seafood. But I swallowed, took a leap of faith, and it proved worthwhile.

The narrator and director, Ali, begins his quest to uncover the cause of the oceans’ dire state by recounting his childhood love and fascination for whales and dolphins at marine parks. In the next scene, he U-turns the viewer’s attention to the (now dramatically juxtaposed) dolphin hunt in Taiji, Japan. In that scene he is obviously distressed and nauseous at the sight of the dolphins’ blood dyeing crimson the tight curve of the bay. He condemns the practice, which is fine (he’s entitled to his opinion). Except nearing the end of the film he shows the pilot whale hunt of the Faroe islands which to my untrained eye, looks indistinguishable from what he recorded in Taiji. However, this time the hunt was overlaid with, according to Netflix closed captions, “ethereal music” warmly washing the blood-stained scene with an atmosphere of closure and epiphany. He interviews one of the whalers, who is given the chance to tell his story, and his reasons for continuing what he does. Ali concedes that the Grind is sustainable.

If this is not imbalance and bias, I’m not sure what would be.

According to the Dolphin Project, annual kill counts in Taiji have been fluctuating downwards since “an all-time high of about 1400 slaughters in the 2007/2008 season”. Recent annual tallies in Taiji have been well below the 1000 mark. INSIDER reported in 2019 the Faroese government’s official estimate of 1700 kills. Both being centuries-old local traditions, both targeting small cetaceans, and both resulting in comparable number of deaths, I don’t see why one is demonized while the other is glorified. I’m not justifying the Taiji hunt (I’m in no place to, as I don’t pretend to be an expert on the subject but this article here sheds some light on the other side of the story which Ali failed to show). But stranding oneself on the Taiji subject does seem futile to me…laughable even, next to the annual tally of bycatch, which brings me to my second complaint.

While Ali is careful to point out that commercial fishing is responsible for a disgusting amount of bycatch each year, he fails to distinguish between unpoliceable industrial factory vessels designed to destroy and strip the international waters bare and small citizen-run fisheries that are limited year after year to the same strip of the coast. The former is somewhat like a voracious high school football team descending upon half a dozen of pizzas. Since it’s technically “shared”, it’s best to be selfish and grab as much as I can right now, because otherwise I might not get any tomorrow. This leads to a literal race-to-the-bottom where ships are fishing deeper and deeper, and fish stocks are falling lower and lower.

On the other hand, small coastal fisheries don’t get to just move on to another patch of untouched sea if they screw up what they have, so they tend to extract with much more tact. This is similar to a teenager whose mom left a whole lasagna in the fridge for him to eat during the week she’s away on a business trip. If he has any sense in at all, he would only eat some of it each day, so that it would tide him over until his mom returned to make more. This chapter here, by R. Chuenpagdee and Svein Jentoft dives into greater detail. Skipper Otto also points out another key difference in their article, which is that the plastic waste generated by discarded fishing nets and gear is primarily generated (again), by the large industrialized fleets.

To broadly advise not eating fish, period, would be a death sentence to these coastal, sustainable fisheries and the people who depend on them for a living. The large players who get subsidized would be unscathed for quite a while longer. Perhaps long enough to scoop up the vacant coasts now left wide open by decimated local fisheries.

Finally, while my innocence remained intact with regards to my dinner choice, this also revealed another hole in the Seaspiracy net. Bivalve aquaculture, which covers all farming of mussels, clams, and oysters for food consumption has long been underappreciated for being a major eco plus. This article published at Yale almost 10 years ago makes a pretty strong case.

So overall, Seaspiracy is a mixed bag of things – some right, some wrong, some omitted, and at least a few sprinkles of bias. All this isn’t the end of the world, just sloppy journalism. I’m not here to tell you what to think, just do your own research. As for me, I’ll keep on sticking to the small local fish and farmed bivalves. Some good news too, if you’re into king crab and sea urchin, they’re doing great thanks to our mistakes.

Stir-Fried Manila Clams with Red Chili and Thai Basil

Stir-Fried Manila Clams with Red Chili and Thai Basil

  • 20 medium-sized live Manila clams*
  • 3 fresh long hot red chili peppers (hong-gochu), deseeded* and thinly sliced
  • 6-8 slices ginger (no need to peel, why the heck would you do that?)
  • 5 large cloves garlic, roughly chopped
  • 1 large bunch Thai basil, leaves and stem separated
  • glug of neutral vegetable oil (not olive oil)
  • splash of soy sauce (about 2-3 tbsp)
  • splash of Taiwanese rice wine (about 2-3 tbsp)

*Very important that they’re alive and lively, scout out your provider’s schedule and see when new batches come in. Pick ones that have their siphons hanging out of their shell (and retract when you tap them).

**I’m not a pussy, I just don’t like the texture of seeds (but also the hong gochu I’ve been getting recently have had annoyingly thick skin what’s up with that?) Feel free to supplement with Thai red chilis if you you like pain.

  1. To prep the clams, soak them in a large bowl of generously salted filtered water. It should be salty…like the sea (or a bowl of miso soup, if you’ve never tasted the sea). Leave at room temperature in a shaded area for at least 6 hours and preferably up to 8 hours. Their siphons should be hanging out again and the water should be cloudy with their filth (that means the filth is no longer inside them, which is a good thing).
  2. Scrub the clams clean with a vegetable brush under running water and let them drain in a colander as you prep the other ingredients.
  3. Once all your ingredients are prepped and ready to go, heat a wok until ripping hot.
  4. Add the oil, swirl it around a bit until shimmery and beginning to smoke, and add all the sliced chilis, ginger, and garlic. Stir fry for about 30 seconds until aromatic and the edges are curled.
  5. Add the drained clams. Toss them a bit to mix with the aromatics and deglaze with the rice wine and soy sauce. Toss in the basil stems and cover to steam for about 5 minutes, or until the clams have opened up.
  6. Fish out the stems and discard. add the basil leaves and stir a few times until they are completely wilted.
  7. Plate up and serve immediately with steamed rice to soak up the juices.

Happy Saturday 🙂

2 thoughts on “Seaspiracy – a broad stroke”

  1. That’s a really cool fact about bivalve farming. I’ve always been under the impression that all shellfish were harmful, so it is heartening to see that that is false.

    1. That’s awesome to hear! There’s alot of misinformation out there and unfortunately this means that some really beneficial industries get falsely blamed. I’m so glad you learned something from this post!

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