Oceana is one of the few environmental organizations to focus solely on protecting the oceans. The giant nonprofit has absorbed two other ocean-based nonprofits, including the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Ocean Law Project and actor Ted Danson’s American Oceans Campaign.
Oceana is funded by a whole host of foundations, including the Pew Charitable Trusts, Oak Foundation, Marisla Foundation, Sandler Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. It is also a part of several other environmental coalitions, including the Break Free From Plastic coalition. Oceana has been working to promote seafood consumption, ban plastics, and reduce carbon emissions — all while using some fishy data along the way.
Fishing for Plastic Bans
Oceana argues that the oceans must be protected because seafood is the best way to feed a growing global population on the cheap. At the same time, Oceana backs several initiatives that aim to ban plastic or create a plastic-free future, such as the Break Free From Plastic coalition.
These two endeavors seem to be at odds because plastic is used in almost every aspect of seafood harvesting. Fishing nets? Plastic. Fishing boat components? Plastic. Fishing line? Plastic. The crates used to transport the fish? Plastic.
In fact, abandoned fishing equipment has created a significant problem in the ocean. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a plastic mass twice the size of Texas, is made predominantly of abandoned fishing gear, not smaller items like soda bottles or straws.
Still, Oceana focused on “single-use” items and called on manufacturers to stop making new products. At the same time, Oceana dismissed plastic recycling and argued that “recycling alone is not enough.” Oceana included recycling on its list of “inadequate solutions” to plastic waste. It even included bio-plastics, which have become popular substitutes for plastic items, because they do not believe bio-plastics are easy enough to compost. The only “adequate solution” Oceana proposed is to eliminate all new single-use plastics — like the take out containers, bottles, gloves, and masks that kept people safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Oceana has been criticized for its reporting on seafood fraud — which is the problem of seafood being mislabeled so that lower-value fish species can be sold as a higher-value product. Oceana deemed every instance of mislabeling as fraud, something that fishery experts have criticized because there are often language barriers between fishers and marketplace buyers. Other critics have claimed that Oceana is overselling the issue of fraud. For example, Oceana identified instances where farm-grown salmon were listed as wild salmon as fraud, despite both fish being salmon.
Oceana has also been accused of using biased sampling because they over-tested the fish in some parts of the world known for mislabeling their products. A spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute said Oceana “distorts their findings by design.”
The only solution that Oceana recommended to prevent seafood fraud is to have DNA testing of fish shipments, something that fisheries say would be a costly and unattainable solution. If Oceana’s argument is that seafood is the cheapest way to feed the world, making costly, misleading criticisms of the seafood industry is an odd way to make their case.
Partnering with Pirates
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is a violent activist group that has shut down fishing operations that they do not support using arson, vandalism, and theft. Sea Shepherd has been known to ram into fishing boats to sink them (and all their plastic waste!) in the middle of the ocean. “Captain” Paul Watson, Sea Shepherd’s founder, has been arrested in several countries for his violent activism.
Oceana has lent its credibility to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in co-authored press releases in which the two groups air their common grievances. They’ve also listed Sea Shepherd members among their lists of “ocean heroes.”
Oceana touts many celebrity supporters, but some have questionable backgrounds. Ghislaine Maxwell, who was arrested in 2020 for her alleged role in a child sex trafficking ring with Jeffrey Epstein, hosted a cocktail party for Oceana in her home in 2008 shortly before she announced her own ocean-saving venture, TerraMar. She was also a guest at Oceana’s World Ocean Day event in 2008. Oceana partnered with TerraMar and other environmental groups in their lobbying efforts as recently as 2017.
Epstein was first convicted of procuring for prostitution a girl below age 18 in 2008. He was again arrested in 2019 for sex trafficking. Maxwell is accused of working alongside Epstein for several years to recruit the girls he allegedly sexually trafficked and abused. TerraMar closed down in 2019 after Maxwell was tied to Epstein’s crimes.
Bait and Switch
In November 2020, Oceana published a report titled: “Choked, Strangled, Drowned: The Plastics Crisis Unfolding In Our Oceans.” On the cover of the report was a photograph of a seal choking on a plastic bottle. Totally heartbreaking. Also, totally photoshopped.
The picture was a composite image that misled many, including the New York Times. The Times issued a correction after they used the same photograph in the featured image in their report on Oceana: “Correction: Nov. 19, 2020. An earlier version of this article published in error a photo of a Hawaiian monk seal with a plastic bottle in its jaws. The caption information for the image, from a stock photo service, did not make clear that it was a composite photo illustration; it was not a photo of an actual scene,” the Times wrote in an updated report.
While the Times was quick to address its error, Oceana waited nearly a week to change the cover image on its report.
The photoshopped cover image was pulled from the report, but further investigation from the Center for Accountability in Science revealed that Oceana had included several other misleading photographs in the report and accompanying video. The report — which focused exclusively on the United States’ contribution to plastic waste in the ocean — was filled with photographs of plastic waste in other countries.
Most of the plastic in the ocean stems from Asian countries, as did many of the photographs in Oceana’s report. Despite the report’s focus on the U.S., America is responsible for less than 1% of the mismanaged plastic in the Ocean, according to a 2015 study.