For four decades, Earth Island Institute has been a leading force for environmental activism and action around the globe. We sponsor a vibrant network of more than 75 projects working in the areas of land and ocean conservation, wildlife protection, energy and climate, women’s environmental leadership, youth environmental leadership, international and Indigenous communities, sustainability and community resilience, and more. Our proud history goes back to our founding by the legendary environmentalist David Brower.
Netflix’s recently released movie, Seaspiracy, makes a number of false claims about Earth Island Institute and two of its projects, the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP) and the Plastic Pollution Coalition (PPC).
To set the record straight, the film’s accusations that Earth Island is directing PPC, IMMP, or any of its projects to ignore plastic fishing net pollution and funneling money from the global fishing industry to projects are false and reckless. Seaspiracy is spreading baseless conspiracy theories.
With regard to the film’s thrilling follow-the-money reveal, it’s nonsense. IMMP and PPC are fiscally sponsored projects of Earth Island. Fiscal sponsorship is a common and growing practice in the nonprofit sector that promotes efficiency by eliminating the need for multiple nonprofit organizations where one organizational structure can suffice. Under that structure, Earth Island’s projects operate with programmatic autonomy, in accordance with their mission statements. Earth Island works carefully to ensure that all funds are used for the intended charitable purposes. Earth Island is a top-rated charity with the highest possible ratings from charity evaluators for efficiency, financial management, and transparency. As a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, our financial statements are available to the public.
Both IMMP and PPC were maligned and misrepresented by the filmmakers. IMMP has worked successfully for the conservation of marine mammals for more than three decades, including via the Dolphin Safe tuna program. PPC manages a burgeoning global alliance of activists, small businesses, and nonprofits working to end plastic pollution in all its forms. Both these projects are deeply involved in various efforts to protect our oceans and marine life from the scourge of plastic pollution, including from ghost fishing gear. Both PPC and IMMP have released statements here and here documenting how the filmmakers distorted and mischaracterized their work.
It is regrettable that the filmmakers chose to attack the work of various environmentalists inside and outside of Earth Island. The important issues surrounding the crisis our oceans are facing deserve fair and factual coverage. At Earth Island, we remain committed to continuing our work on these issues, and in supporting the work of our projects that are making a positive impact on our world.
Netflix’s film, Seaspiracy, makes a number of false claims about Earth Island Institute and two of its projects, the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP) and the Plastic Pollution Coalition (PPC).
We offer the FAQ below to help set the record straight.
What is the connection between Earth Island Institute, the International Marine Mammal Project, and the Plastic Pollution Coalition?
Seaspiracy purports to find something ominous about the fact that the International Marine Mammal Project and the Plastic Pollution Coalition are projects of Earth Island Institute. This is consistent with the film’s conspiracy-theory approach.
IMMP and PPC are fiscally sponsored projects of Earth Island. While the film portrays this as suspicious, fiscal sponsorship is a common and growing practice in the nonprofit sector that promotes efficiency by eliminating the need for multiple nonprofit organizations where one organizational structure can suffice. Under that structure, Earth Island’s projects operate with programmatic autonomy, in accordance with their mission statements. Earth Island works carefully to ensure that all funds are used for the intended charitable purposes.
Further, Earth Island is a top-rated charity with the highest ratings from charity evaluators for efficiency, financial management, accountability, and transparency. As a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, Earth Island’s financial statements are available to the public.
Is the Dolphin Safe tuna label meaningful and worthy of support?
Yes. The Dolphin Safe tuna program is responsible for the largest decline in dolphin deaths by tuna fishing vessels in history. Dolphin-kill levels have been reduced by more than 95 percent since the dolphin-safe program began, preventing the indiscriminate slaughter of more than 100,000 dolphins every year. Despite efforts to provide documentation of these facts to the filmmakers, they chose instead to grossly distort and mischaracterize the program.
Who started the Dolphin Safe label movement?
The International Marine Mammal Project was established as a project at the inception of Earth Island Institute in 1982 when the organization was founded by legendary environmentalist David Brower. IMMP took on the campaign to address the largest threat to dolphins in the world, as a result of indiscriminate fishing practices by U.S. and foreign commercial tuna fishing. In 1988, biologist Sam LaBudde, working with IMMP and the Marine Mammal Fund, provided the world with the first investigative video footage of dolphins dying in tuna nets. Consumer outrage fueled the canned tuna boycott launched by IMMP and it also increased pressure on the U.S. Congress to outlaw this deadly fishing practice. In 1990, it led to the passage of the Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act and resulted in a historic commitment by the world’s largest canned tuna companies to cease all purchase, processing, and sale of tuna caught by the chase and netting of dolphins.
The Dolphin Safe label legislation was created in response to consumer concerns and was strongly supported by the environmental community in the U.S. and worldwide. It remains to this day the strongest dolphin-safe law in the world. The International Marine Mammal Project at Earth Island set about the task of ensuring that companies implemented their commitments to end all use of the deadly fishing practice of chasing and netting dolphins as a way of catching tuna.
Are tuna companies adhering to and abiding by the Dolphin Safe label requirements?
Yes. There is very high compliance with requirements of the Dolphin Safe label. The International Marine Mammal Project conducts extensive monitoring of purchase records, canneries, cold storage, and tuna fishing operations. The U.S. Commerce and Customs departments require documentary evidence that all tuna imported to the U.S. and labeled as Dolphin Safe must be caught without the chase, capture, injury, and death of dolphins. Regional fisheries management organizations require independent observers on board purse seine vessels in the principal ocean areas where tuna for the canned tuna world markets is caught.
Why does Mark Palmer, associate director of the International Marine Mammal Project, say in the film that he can’t guarantee the Dolphin Safe label?
Seaspiracy filmmakers persistently asked Mark Palmer to make a 100 percent guarantee about Dolphin Safe tuna and then edited his thoughtful response to create a “gotcha” moment, suggesting that there is no oversight. Following the film’s release, Palmer explained in a statement on IMMP’s website how the filmmakers took his statement out of context and failed to convey how the oversight that is occurring drastically reduces the killing of dolphins. As good as the Dolphin Safe label is, the fact is that no labeling standard is perfect. Even organic and sustainable brands aren’t able to provide 100 percent guarantees. But this does not render them, or the Dolphin Safe label, meaningless or useless, or warrant consumers to abandon any of the strong standards they set. The film’s claim that the Dolphin Safe label is a “fabrication” is completely false.
What role should the commercial fishing industry play in supporting independent monitoring of Dolphin Safe tuna fishing policies?
Tuna companies may, by law, place a Dolphin Safe label on their product without charge so long as their tuna fishery practices comply with U.S. federal regulations that there be no capture, netting, injury, or death of dolphins on fishing trips. Companies that comply with the federal regulations and certain additional protections may choose to use a licensed logo from the International Marine Mammal Project. Companies that use the licensed logo pay a licensing fee, the proceeds of which go solely to defraying the cost of monitoring their facilities to ensure full compliance with strict dolphin protection standards.
We don’t believe that compliance with dolphin-safe practices should rely solely on industry self-regulation and governmental inspections. Commercial fishing industries should support independent third-party monitoring of their dolphin claims and policies. They should also fund independent scientific assessments to determine whether the fish populations they are taking are overfished or sustainable.
Other than licensing fees supporting the conducting of monitoring activities of the International Marine Mammal Project, no projects or activities of Earth Island receive any funding from the commercial fishing industry.
Why would the filmmakers denigrate the Dolphin Safe label and the concept of sustainable fisheries?
The inescapable conclusion is because our work doesn’t fit their narrative that the only solution to ocean conservation is for no one to eat fish or any other products from the sea. This conclusion is now rightly being seen as overly simplistic and racist.
In the weeks after Seaspiracy was released there has been a groundswell of independent publications criticizing the film for playing fast and loose with the facts, concocting baseless conspiracy theories, and for the shoddy treatment of interviewees and nonprofit organizations working on ocean conservation.
The film “twists the narrative about ocean destruction to support the idea that we — the Netflix subscribers of the world — can save ocean biodiversity by turning vegan. In doing so, Seaspiracy undermines its tremendous potential value: to persuade people to work together, and push for change in policy and rules that will rein in an industry which often breaks the law with impunity,” said Daniel Pauly in Vox.
From food journalist, author, and former New York Times columnist Mark Bittman: “Yes, industrial fishing must be better regulated: It’s a horror show, and its awfulness cannot be overstated. And at the same time, small-scale fishing is an activity many of our fellow humans perform to survive and provide for their families, neighbors, and communities. There is a big and important difference between these two things, and Seaspiracy, by blurring that difference, amounts to manipulative propaganda. Telling people they can’t eat fish because you think it’s cruel or unsustainable is like telling Indigenous Plains people they can’t eat bison or Indigenous Northerners they can’t eat seal or whale: That’s just not right.”
Is there a connection between Seaspiracy and the documentary Cowspiracy?
Notably, the executive producer of Seaspiracy, Kip Andersen, was also behind the film Cowspiracy, released in 2014. That film used strikingly similar tactics to attack a number of environmental organizations by insinuating that they were part of a conspiracy with the meat industry to minimize the impacts of agriculture on climate change, concluding that going vegan is the only viable answer to combating climate change. The organizations attacked in Cowspiracy can also corroborate the filmmakers’ failure to accurately portray their positions and treat them fairly.
Does Earth Island agree that commercial fishing is out of control?
There is no question that commercial fishing is out of control in many cases worldwide. But canned dolphin-safe tuna is far more protective of dolphins and target fish stocks than the vast majority of other fisheries.
Seaspiracy raised many topics that need to be brought to the public’s attention and explored. Yes, global overfishing is a huge and pressing problem worthy of coverage. But unfortunately, the film took this on in a manner that unfairly distorted our work and the work of many highly regarded organizations.
Is the International Marine Mammal Project working to end the use of plastic fishing nets?
Yes. Contrary to the documentary’s claim, IMMP has been working for years on the scourge of plastic fishing nets. However, the filmmakers never brought this up in the interview with Mark Palmer. In fact, IMMP has worked to support legislation in California to ban these nets. IMMP also worked internationally to ban high seas drift gillnets, which were outlawed by the United Nations in 1992. None of this information was presented in the documentary.
What is the Plastic Pollution Coalition’s position on plastic fishing gear?
Plastic pollutes at every stage of its existence, from extraction to use and disposal. Plastic Pollution Coalition members who are focused on ocean plastic pollution and, in particular, stopping pollution from fishing nets and “ghost gear” include the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and Greenpeace.
As PPC said in its statement about Seaspiracy, “The film misrepresented the ocean plastic pollution crisis to suit the filmmakers’ agenda. The film claimed that 46 percent of ocean plastic consists of fishing nets, while not including the fact that this came from a study on one ocean gyre. In fact, fishing gear represents 10 percent of ocean plastic overall, according to a Greenpeace report.
Less than five percent of all the plastic produced ends up in the ocean. Globally, about 350 million tons of plastic is produced every year, and about 10 million tons end up in the ocean every year, according to a study.
It is regrettable that the filmmakers chose to attack the work of various environmentalists inside and outside of Earth Island. The important issues surrounding the crisis our oceans are facing deserve fair and factual coverage.
For four decades, the International Marine Mammal Project at Earth Island Institute has been a leader in efforts to protect dolphins and whales, and to implement strong laws, regulations, and policies to ensure that dolphins are protected from indiscriminate fishing practices.
The Plastic Pollution Coalition plays a crucial role in bringing together more than 1,200 organizations, businesses, and leaders in 75 countries toward a world free of plastic pollution and its toxic impacts.
Earth Island Institute remains committed to supporting the work of our projects to make a positive impact on our world.