Sea the Truth is based on numerous scientific publications that examine the problems of seas and oceans. Below follows an overview of the themes addressed in the film and a brief explanation.

Fishing policy and quota

Fishing policy around the world is destructive. Recommendations from scientists on quotas are ignored by policy makers, wealthy countries plunder the fishing territories of poor countries and bottom trawlers sow destruction all over the seafloor with their dragnets. In Europe, 88% of fish stocks have been overharvested, such as the blue fin tuna which sadly is threatened with extinction.

The management of fisheries around the world is in very bad shape. Not a single country where research has been conducted on its fishing industry has a properly working, sustainable and effective fishing policy. The effectiveness of fishing policy was examined on the following points:

–          Scientific research as a foundation of policy

–          Transparency of the conversion of scientific research into policy

–          Implementation of the policy in the form of laws and regulations

–          Overcapacity of fisheries

–          Granting of subsidies to compensate poor catches

–          Opening up the country’s own fishing territories to foreign fishing vessels

The main reason for the poor management of fisheries is the non-transparency of the translation of scientific research into policy. Moreover, the sea is considered a no-man’s land, effectively no-one’s responsibility. Recommendations from scientists on quotas are often ignored. A telling example: the recommended catch quota for the blue fin tuna in the Mediterranean Sea was 15,000 tonnes per year and a recommended ban on fishing during the two-month spawning season. Subsequently, the ICCAT (International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas) set the catch quota at 22,000 tonnes without a ban on fishing during the spawning season.

In general, wealthy countries have a more efficient fishing policy than poor countries. However, the main reason that fishing policy in poor countries is ineffective is the agreements they sign with wealthy countries. With these agreements, governments of third-world countries grant their permission to, primarily, the EU, South Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan and the US to fish in their territorial waters. As a result these wealthy countries empty these waters with their modern factory ships. In addition to the fact that this fishing policy is anything but sustainable, it harms the local fishing industry. As there is less fish for locals to catch, they generate less income and they have less fish for their own consumption. Less fish for local consumption also means that the hunting of local wild land animals for ‘bush meat’ increases and the local land-based fauna becomes threatened.

The granting of subsidies also maintains non-sustainable fishing. Many governments grant their fishermen subsidies when they catch too little. However, the fact that their catches are low is a clear sign of overfishing and it would clearly be better if pressure on the fish stocks were reduced. But the government subsidies guarantee the fishermen an income and they continue to fish without abatement.

A study by the European Commission shows that current fishing policy is responsible for an unprecedented period of decline in the European fishing industry and it sidesteps the basic principles of sustainable development. 88% of European fish stocks are overfished (worldwide this figure is 25%). One third of these stocks may never recover. Over the past few years, the quantities of fish that the European Commission has determined may be caught has, on average been 48% higher than the quantities recommended by scientists.

In the North Sea, most species of fish disappear into nets at 5 years old while some of these species have a natural lifespan of 25 to 50 years. 93% of North Sea cod is caught before it has had a chance to reproduce.

The Netherlands operates a number of huge pelagic (deep-sea) freezer trawlers that ensure that a substantial portion of the European catch is of Dutch origin, despite the fact that the number of fishing vessels the Netherlands operates is not that large. The Dutch share in the total European catch is 6% while Dutch fishing vessels make up just 0.5% of the European fleet. The Dutch outrigger fleet, in particular, which employs the most common fishing method in the Netherlands, is extremely harmful to the fragile ecosystem of the North and Wadden Seas. This method involves a vessel called a “fish cutter” dragging two trawling nets over the seafloor, a method that mainly harvests flatfish. Besides the fact that this method of fishing is extremely harmful to life on the seafloor, these vessels use a huge amount of fuel. In 2008, large outrigger trawlers used an average of 4.1 litres of fuel per kilo of fish caught.

Effects of fishing on marine ecosystems

In addition to the effect on the fish stocks, fishing also affects all other organisms in the same habitat or ecosystem. Whether the fish being harvested are predatory or prey, the balance of the ecosystem is disrupted and this can have serious consequences. The degree of disruption strongly depends on the fishing method employed.

By harvesting predatory fish such as tuna, shark, swordfish or salmon, prey fish are given an opportunity to grow explosively in numbers. This can result in these fish totally out-competing other species or in them eating too much of another species which then becomes threatened with extinction. The effect is a disruption in the natural balance. Harvesting prey fish has an equally negative effect: by removing prey fish (such as anchovies, sardines and herring), their natural predators, such as sea birds and sea mammals, become threatened. The harvesting of herbivorous fish can also result in huge problems. For example, if herbivorous fish are removed from a coral reef through fishing, the reef can no longer be grazed and it then soon becomes overgrown with algae and dies.

Even if fish stocks, despite the fishing industry, remain stable, the health of the population is still adversely affected by fishing. This is because fish of a certain size are often selected, which seriously reduces resilience of the population as a whole. The average of the population falls dramatically and its genetic diversity is compromised.

One fishing method that is extremely destructive for the surrounding ecosystem is bottom-trawling. This method involves dragging a huge net over the seafloor. The seafloor is churned up and all organisms that live on the seafloor are caught or, in any case, disturbed. Coral reefs, sea grass fields and oyster fields are completely destroyed by this type of fishing as is the habitat of the many species that live on or near the bottom.


The term bycatch has come to be used to refer to fish caught unintentionally when fishermen fish for commercial fish. These kinds of fish are not interesting to sell and as a consequence they are thrown back into the ocean either death or mutilated. The average bycatch worldwide is about 40.4% of the total amount of fish being caught. This means that 3 kilos of consumed fish brings about 2 kilos of bycatch. In total, 37 billion kilos of fish per year is wasted bycatch.

bycatch can be juveniles of the target fish, or it can consist of dolphins, porpoises, whales, large seabirds, sea turtles, albatrosses and sharks.

The data supposed to indicate the percentage of bycatch worldwide is not reliable, because these numbers are either based on the data that the fishermen declared themselves or are documented by observers on those ships. It is possible fishermen behave differently and more desirable when the data is collected. This suggests a data, which in reality has a different and probably higher percentage of bycatch. It is therefore feared that the percentage can be more than 50% of the total amount of fish being caught. In reality, fishermen are said to throw the fish back into the ocean if it is not interesting for commercial grounds. Slippage is a term frequently used to refer to this kind of activity and compasses the fish good enough to sell but is thrown back into the ocean anyway. It is thought that fishermen act like this because they might get better fish, or their cargo hold is full, or they otherwise fish above their quota. What a waste!

In the illegal fishery, the amount of fish caught is not documented and this kind of fishery does not obey the restrictions and quota that legal fishery obey.  Therefore bycatch in this kind of fishery is probably much higher than within the legal fishery. It is estimated that the percentage of bycatch in the illegal fishery is between 12% as far as 29% of the total amount of fish caught.

There are different kinds of fisheries, each responsible for a different percentage of bycatch and each responsible for a different kind of bycatch. First, The Dutch ‘schietfuik’ fishery is the worst kind of fishery because the consequences for populations are the most severe. If one eel is caught, which is the target species, the average amount of fish caught in the process is about 262 other fish: half of these fish do not survive.

Second, shrimp trawling in the tropics has a particular high percentage of bycatch: it has a percentage as far as 96% of the total amount caught. What is surprising is that 2/3 of this haul is thrown back in the ocean. If one makes a calculation 1 kilo of shrimps caught bring along 2 kilos of sea animals: this means that one portion of shrimps (500 gram) is on average responsible for the death of 2 to 4 fish. In the worst case, each kilo of shrimp consumed results in 10 kilos of fish and other see animals are thrown back in the ocean dead.

Third, the Long-line fishery is mainly responsible for the bycatch of mega fauna: sea turtles, sea mammals, sea birds and sharks. These species are especially sensitive for the negative affects of the fishing industry, because they become reproductive later in life and they give birth to relatively few young.  Due to this, the rehabilitation of the damage that these populations have to go through takes a long time, much longer than species that give birth to a lot of young at a younger age and that have a high mortality rate in their population, because they are food to other animals.

Ecosystems are disturbed as a result of the bycatch of those larger sea animals, which are at the top of the food chain. Sharks, dolphins, whales and large sea birds that are at the top of the food chain are very vulnerable for high mortality rate. Bycatch of these species might certainly have devastating consequences for the population and might even lead to dying out of certain species. In the North West Atlantic Ocean, shark populations are already decreased with an average of 85%. Annually about 300.000 dolphins and whales die due to bycatch. The long-line fisheries kill about 100,000 albatrosses every year.

Scientists are trying different solutions to reduce the percentage of bycatch, for example, different kind of nets, methods to chase away dolphins from the nets and the closing of certain fish areas. These methods do not form a realistic solution to the problems of bycatch.

Fish suffering

People once thought that fish could not feel anything when they are caught. This idea was probably motivated because fish are cold blooded; this is in contrast with humans who are warm blooded.  However, the ability to feel pain does not have anything to do with body temperature.  From research studying the behavior of fish, as well as the study of anatomy and physiology, it turns out that fish have feelings and are in fact able to feel pain. This means that the current methods to catch and kill fish are in truth a torture for fish, moreover captured fish die of suffocation: a process that can take up to several minutes or hours.

Behavioral research consists among other things of studying the behavior of fish that are given a pain impulse. It is found that the behavior of fish changed after this: fish swam away from the location the pain impulse came from, they also have enhanced gill activity and they rub the painful parts of their body’s against the ground. Other behavioral researchers look at the reaction of fish, which have been caught before, with a hook. It shows fish that have only been caught once in this kind of way will avoid the bait in the future. Being caught has a negative outcome for the fish, its appetite becomes less and the care taking of the nest is being neglected.

If we look in the light of anatomy and physiology, research has proved that fish have noci receptors, which are receptors to detect damaged tissue. These receptors are more sensitive than the kind humans have because noci reptors in the skin of fish reacted to an impulse that was 6 times lower than the impulse to which human nocireceptors react.

Fish not only feel pain, but it appears they are also intelligent and social creatures. For example they recognize friends and family among similar fish, they learn form each other how to avoid enemies, where to forage, which partner is a good match and the kind of fish that is better to be avoided because it is aggressive. Fish also have long-term memory, so the idea that fish have only a memory of a few seconds is a delusion.

Fish also maintain cultural habits, such as certain paths to forage areas and certain spawn behavior, at rest behavior and school behavior. That these characteristics are of great importance to fish life is shown when fish that are bred are set free: 95% of these fish die within a week. Bred fish do not stand a chance in the wild versus similar wild fish.

All in all, the current methods in the fishing industry to catch and kill fish are very unkind for fish. Before the fish dies of suffocation the struggle fish have to go trough takes several minutes to hours and is agonizing. Alternately,  the fish is being stripped of its organs when it is alive.

The methods used on eel are the cutthroat method and the salt bath. In the method in which the neck is cut means, the eel is cut behind its neck in such a way the spine is being cut through, during this process the eel is fully consciousness because the brain is still getting oxygen. The method in which an eel is thrown in a salty bath is extremely painful since eel have a sensitive skin, this is comparable with burn wounds on humans. It can take up until half an hour before the eel dies.

Is this possible? It unfortunately is. The law and restrictions does not address the methods to kill fish. In Dutch law, it is stated that an animal should die or lose consciousness within a second when it is killed. Unfortunately, this restriction has never been applied to fish and invertebrate animals. The health law and the welfare law for animals does contain general rules that apply to all animals: it is forbidden to unnecessarily let an animal suffer or sustain injuries, or to unnecessarily damage the health or welfare of the animal. In the case of fish, nobody seems to bother to care for these rules.

The plastic soup

Between Hawaii and San Francisco floats an enormous amount of rubbish – a plastic soup the size of 34 times the surface area of the Netherlands (41,528 km2). This plastic soup was ‘discovered’ by Charles Moore when he sailed through this area with his boat and found himself surrounded day in day out by plastic waste. He later returned with scientific equipment to determine the soup’s total size. The plastic soup is a huge threat to a number of marine animals and mammals.

The soup contains 44 million kilograms of plastic. This plastic is made up of large and very small pieces less then .3 of a millimetre in size. Because the plastic pieces are of all different sizes, it poses a hazard to large numbers of animals that live in the ocean. The large pieces of plastic are dangerous as larger marine animals get caught in them and either drown or choke. The small pieces, broken off from the larger pieces over the course of time, are eaten and wind up in animal stomachs. Plastic granules are made up of tiny beads the size of grains of sand. These beads have a lifespan of approximately 3 to 10 years, but the additives contained therein can last 30 to 50 years. These beads also easily absorb poisons that end up in the water due to human activity. Fish eat these beads and in so doing ingest these poisons, where they are stored in the animal’s adipose tissue. When food is scarce, animals use this fatty tissue for energy, which releases the toxins with all the associated negative consequences. Then when people eat this fish, those toxins wind up in their bodies. Birds and marine mammals also see these smaller pieces of plastic as food. Once the animal has consumed the plastic, it takes between one month and a year for the plastic to pass through the animal’s body. The plastic sits inside the animal’s body meaning there is less room to digest food and the animal’s sense of hunger is reduced. This has a highly negative effect on the animal’s condition, with death as a possible consequence. Long-term research into Northern Fulmar found that 98% of these birds had plastic in their stomachs. 2004 saw mass fatalities among Northern Fulmars in the southern area of the North Sea. It seemed that toxins from ingested plastic had a large role to play.

Rubbish in the ocean affects at least 267 species worldwide. 86% of all sea turtles, a species prone to mistaking plastic bags for tasty jellyfish, are under threat from plastic, as well as 44% of all marine birds and 43% of all marine mammals. These are merely estimates that err on the side of caution as the majority of animals killed by plastic simply disappear into the ocean. They are not found and so are not counted in these numbers.

Young sea lions are particularly vulnerable to plastic. As they have curious and playful natures, they are attracted to floating rubbish. Often with deadly results; young sea lions become tangled in plastic and end up dying slow and painful deaths from suffocation or because the plastic buries itself deeper into their skin as it does not grow with the animal. Tragically, the plastic still will not have degraded long after the sea lion’s death and can still claim another victim.

The plastic soup is difficult to clean up. Large pieces of plastic could be sieved out of the water, but it is almost impossible to do the same with the smaller pieces. Doing so would mean that plankton would also be sifted from the water. It is therefore of the utmost importance to ensure the supply of plastic to the oceans is stopped as quickly as possible.

Toxins in fish

We’re told we should eat fish twice a week as it is packed with nutrition. These healthy nutrients are however easily obtained from other food sources, whereas fish may also contain large amounts of toxins. Mercury and dioxins enjoy the status of most researched toxin in fish.

Mercury is a global polluter, for which man is responsible for the lion’s share (67%). Fish and shellfish take up toxic substances from the water and through their food. It often takes a very long time before these substances are removed from their bodies, which means people are also exposed to these toxic substances when they eat seafood.

More than 90% of mercury in fish is the organic form: methyl mercury. Methyl mercury does not end up in the fish’s fat like other toxic substances, but is found in the entire body – muscles, skin and tissues.

The permitted level of methyl mercury consumption in the Netherlands is 200 µg per person per week, a standard advised by the World Health Organisation (WHO). The National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) however advises a much lower amount: 39.2 µg per person per week. These differences arose because WHO has a lower standard of safety and therefore allow greater methyl mercury consumption because they have judged fish to be extremely healthy.

1 kilogram of fish may contain 0.5 – 1 mg of mercury. This level is lower in the United States where 1 kilogram of fish may only contain 0.3 mg/kg. Some examples of popular fish species to eat and their methyl mercury rates:

Mackerel can contain 0.66 mg/kg. One portion of mackerel of 150 grams means a methyl mercury content of 99 µg.

Tuna has an average of 0.675 mg/kg of methyl mercury. One portion of tuna of 150 grams means a methyl mercury content of 101 µg

Herring has 0.04 mg/kg. One portion of herring of 150 grams means a methyl mercury content of 6 µg

Therefore only herring is safe to eat according to The National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) standards. Just one portion of mackerel or tuna exceeds The National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) standards and the WHO standards are exceeded with two portions of tuna a week. This naturally merely covers methyl mercury. We still need to consider the risks of dioxins, fire retardants and other toxic substances that are found in fish. Nutritional advice organisations separate these various substances out so as not to scare the consumer but it would be a lot fairer to total the poisons up.

There are also indications that mercury cancels out the positive effects of omega 3 fats.

Dioxins are very toxic, carcinogenic substances, largely released into the environment by polluting industries. Dioxin concentrates in fish fat, so the fattier the fish, the more dioxins.

Even extremely low levels of dioxin are carcinogenic and cause other harmful effects such as skin complaints, neurological damage and immunity issues.

Based on animal experiments, the Scientific Committee on Food (SCF) has determined the maximum level at 14 picograms of dioxin and dioxin-like PCBs per kilogram of body weight per week (= 2 picograms TEQ/kg lg/day). This is the standard employed in the Netherlands. The matter was discussed a few years ago when they deliberated halving the standard to 1 pg/kg lg/day. This is a much safer standard, but the measure was not adopted.

Fresh fish is allowed contain 4 pg per gram of weight. The exception is eel which may contain 12 pg/g. This means that if you weigh 70 kg, you may eat a maximum of 82 grams of eel a week, and then nothing else that may contain dioxins. Or to put it another way: eel contains a great deal of poison but preventing the fall of the eel industry seems more important that a population’s health.

Fish has 2.4 – 214.3 pg I-TEQ per gram of fat (an average of 21.2 pg I-TEQ/g fat).This large spread is due to a large difference in the dioxin contained in fatty and non-fatty fish (fatty fish contains a lot more dioxin). This means that if a 60 kilogram woman eats a portion of fatty fish with the maximum level of dioxin (200 grams, 15% fat), she eats more than 100 times the allowable daily limit.

16% of the dioxins consumed by the Dutch enter their bodies through fish consumption. This is based on current Dutch eating habits. A Dutch national eats an average of one portion of fish every 15 days. The Health Council of the Netherlands and the Netherlands Nutrition Centre however advise eating fish twice a week. This means that fish consumption in the Netherlands should be four times higher than it is now. Besides the fact that this is irresponsible in light of fish stocks worldwide, it would also drastically increase dioxin consumption.

If fish consumption were to increase fourfold, total dioxin consumption as well the percentage that comes from fish, would increase dramatically. Total intake would rise by 48% and the percentage that comes from fish would be 43.2% instead of 16%.

The average dioxin intake and PCBs is 1.2 – 3 pg/kg lg/day. A 48% increase would push these numbers to 1.8 to 4.4 pg/kg lg/day. The permitted standard is 2 pg/kg lg/day.

If fish is consumed twice a week, the population will sit just under or over the standard.

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Sea the Truth is based on numerous research reports, statistical data and other scientific sources:

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Organizations and institutions

The following list shows the scientific institutions, governmental bodies and other organizations which were consulted during the making of the film.

Food and Agricultural Organization – State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2008

Nature (magazine)

Science (magazine)

Sea Around Us Project

Algalita Marine Research Foundation

The End of the Line


Ministry for Agriculture,  Nature and Food Quality, The Hague


European Commission – Reform of the common fisheries policy

VU University Amsterdam

North Sea Foundation (Stichting de Noordzee)

Fisheries Centre, University of British Colombia


The Royal Swedish Acadamy of Sciences


PLos ONE (magazine)

Society for Marine Mammalogy (magazine)

Duke University Marine Laboratory, Beaufort, USA

IMARES, Wageningen

Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society

University of Otago, Wellington, New Zealand

Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium

University of Rochester School of Medicine, Rochester, USA

Fish Protection Foundation (Stichting Vissenbescherming)

Heavy Metals and Myocardial Infarction Project


US Geological Survey – National Water-Quality Assessment Program

Food Additives and Contaminants (magazine)

RIKILT institute for food safety, Wageningen, the Netherlands (de mul et al, 2008)

US Food and Drug Administration

RIVM (National Institute for Public health and the Environment), Bilthoven, the Netherlands

Limnology and Oceanography (magazine)

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woodshole, Massachusetts, USA

Marine Conservation Biology Institute, Bellevue, USA

Frontiers in Ecology (magazine)

University of Exeter, United Kingdom

University of Edingburgh, United Kingdom

University of Guelph, Canada

Fisheries Research (magazine)

University of St. Andrews, United Kingdom

Roslin Institute, United Kingdom

University of Groningen

University of Leiden

Institute for European Environmental Policy

Fish and Fisheries (magazine)

Oxford University, United Kingdom

Lenfest Ocean Program, Washington, USA

Marine Policy (magazine)

Official Journal for the European Union (2007/C 317/01)

Humane Society International

EFSA (European Food Safety Authority)

University of Arizona, USA

State of Worlds Oceans (boek, Springer, auteur: allsop et al)

European Union, Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006

University of Wales, United Kingdom Biology Letters (magazine)

University of York, United Kingdom