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In defense of Sea Shepherd

The discussion on the merits of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society was incredibly heated and many good points were raised on both sides. Unfortunately, as often happens when comment threads approach 100+ comments, many of the strongest arguments get diluted in a sea of verbiage. I decided to invite one of our frequent commenters, Craig Nazor, to write a guest post on  his views of Sea Shepherd. Enjoy!

~Southern Fried Scientist


cninca5kbThe debate is whether the tactics of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) are helping or hurting the cause of shark conservation.  A disclaimer: this is NOT an official response from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS). Although I am a supporter of that organization, the thoughts and opinions expressed here are entirely my own.

Any debate that is not going to polarize the ranks of the good guys (that’s us, the conservationists) must be based on facts, and not on false assumptions and not just on emotional reactions. One common but illogical tactic often used to try to win a debate is to repeat a falsehood over and over, hoping to win for a lie the mantle of truth. A lot of time can be wasted refuting lies (or, more diplomatically, opinions disguised as facts). Another related tactic is to use words with unclear definitions but high emotional connotations. In its most simple form, this is what I would label “name calling,” as in recent uses on this blog of the terms “violent,” “criminal,” and “eco-terrorist.” Unfortunately, some of this response is going to have to be focused on addressing such unproductive tactics.

There is a long-running debate about whether it is possible to commit a violent act upon an inanimate object. Is pounding in a nail violent? Is blowing up a condemned structure violent? The Dalai Llama, someone who has spent far more time than most thinking about the difference between violence and non-violence, does not believe it is possible to commit a violent act on an inanimate object. There are few of us who would claim, however, that shark finning or longlining are not violent acts.

Technically, a criminal is someone who has been found guilty of committing an illegal act. But there is also the connotation of the word criminal: “What Paul Watson did was criminal,” in no way declares that Paul Watson has been legally judged a criminal. It simply states that the writer feels that Paul Watson behaves like a criminal. It’s hard to argue with such a statement. But to declare that he IS a criminal is a debatable point.

To make things more difficult, in human history, countless thousands of good people have been legally convicted of crimes that they did not commit, and countless thousands more have committed heinous acts and have never legally been convicted of anything. In 1997, Paul Watson was convicted in absentia in Norway for “attempting” to sink a whaling vessel. He was being held at the time by authorities in the Netherlands, but they refused to turn him over to Norwegian authorities because they did not believe the charges were substantiated.

In the episode filmed in Sharkwater, Paul Watson and the SSCS had been asked by the President of Costa Rica to come help them stop illegal shark fishing. On his way there, Watson reported to the Costa Rican authorities that he had come upon a Costa Rican vessel longlining for sharks illegally. The Costa Rican authorities told Watson to “bring them in.”  The fishermen resisted arrest by attempting to flee, which is when Watson used the water cannon to flood their engines, and in the ensuing mêlée the ships collided. (How many times do police cars collide with fleeing suspects? It is a standard of reality television.) Upon arrival in Costa Rica, Watson was charged with “attempted murder” for the collision. When the prosecutor saw the film footage of the incident, he had the charges dismissed, because the collision clearly appeared to be accidental in light of the situation. Somehow, a different prosecutor was then appointed, and this new prosecutor said Watson “should be held in jail pending prosecution.” Watson left Costa Rica before he was re-arrested, and no charges have ever been filed.

Technically, it is hard to support the charge that Paul Watson is a criminal, to the best information that I can find. I believe, however, that this is not really that relevant to the original question.

Paul Watson has said that in the Galapagos, where the SSCS is enforcing the fishing laws in a world heritage site at the request of the Ecuadorian Government, they are usually not allowed to go after the Ecuadorian ships (the poor, indigenous fishermen?), just the foreign ships. It is his opinion that the international market for shark fins is a corrupt business, in many cases run by companies associated with organized crime organizations from around the world, sometimes involving large bribes. In any case, the evidence points strongly to the fact that shark finning IS NOT something done by poor, subsistence fishermen trying to eek out a living. Commercial longlining and the finning of sharks is simply too wasteful a method of fishing, both in time and energy, for someone in a condition of hunger. It is only done to sell the fins at a high price.

But this idea of illegal shark fishing as subsistence survival for fisherman is exactly what these large, corrupt fishing enterprises would want conservation-minded people to believe, so that conservationists WILL NOT support organizations that would enforce the law. (If illegal shark fishing is indeed largely due to subsistence fishing, then I might advise that we would all be far more productive at the Stop Overpopulation Now blog discussing the daunting task of mounting a direct action against the Catholic Church.) In defense of wanting to do something “constructive,” if some people end up believing the subsistence overfishing argument, they might miss the best opportunity to stop the real criminals, that is, the ones who are ACTUALLY BREAKING conservation laws every day.

Regardless of the perpetrator, if we refuse to support the enforcement of laws we have fought so hard to establish, who will enforce the laws? Are poor people exempt from prosecution for robbing their wealthier compatriots because they are poor? Then what about robbing from ones own (and the world’s) children’s future? When respect for any conservation law is lost, then ALL conservation laws suffer. These are a few of the very negative results of refusing to support the enforcement of conservation laws.

Upon research, I find the term “eco-terrorism” to be so poorly and controversially defined as to be useless as anything but an emotional trigger. So in my (emotional) opinion, the largest “eco-terrorist” associations in existence today are the richest companies that have ever existed in the known universe, namely the big oil companies, who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to spread lies about global climate change, which risks acidifying the oceans and destroying most of the world’s coral reefs, among other catastrophes. These corporations, added to the corporate loggers, fishermen, coltan miners, palm oil growers, strip miners, polluters, etc., etc., make the most powerful environmental organizations in the world look about as effective as the hairs on a manatee. In this context, calling Paul Watson an “eco-terrorist” is laughable.

Is the SSCS helping the cause of shark conservation? Well, has ANY other topic on this blog drawn as much discussion? Merely by taking a part in this conversation, I am sure that many have substantially increased their knowledge about the politics of shark conservation. My own curiosity about Paul Watson’s passion and lifetime of knowledge of the politics and economics of this issue has certainly increased my awareness of the magnitude of the problem. So for me, I would have to say his methods have worked. And to those of you who don’t like him or his methods, are you any less passionate about this issue because of the SSCS? Can anyone name one person who, after hearing about the SSCS, has suddenly decided they will NOT support shark conservation?

But there is a very important fundamental MORAL issue that Paul Watson raises by his uncompromising and confrontational tactics: are the lives of humans more important than the rest of the life on this planet? The “American” lifestyle is the envy of the world. But for the “first world” to maintain this lifestyle, everyone else needs to aspire to it so that we can continue to make massive profits selling the things that are “essential” for that lifestyle. Is this sustainable? Science tells us quite plainly that it is not. It is a pyramid scheme, pure and simple. If you or I tried this as a business plan, we would be convicted as criminals.

But the greedy people whose most important goal is to hoard resources (get rich and gather power) want – no, NEED – us to believe something very different. These people need us to believe that humans are more important than all the other life on earth, so that we can exploit it for the transient and flawed human concepts called money and power. They need us to believe that the only way to succeed is to follow their rules, and then we can get rich, too! They need us to believe that economic growth is limitless, that energy resources are infinite, and that God designed it that way – that we don’t need to pay attention to science, and that respecting all life just because it intrinsically deserves it (releasing a shark from a longline that is being confiscating anyway, for instance) is a waste of time or worse, a sign of altruistic weakness. These greedy people need us to believe that if the law is not allowing us to get rich, then it is OK to bend it, redefine it, break it, or ignore it, not so we can live, but so we can dominate the world.

Science tells us otherwise. Our deepest, most intimate moral center of conscience, if we will listen, tells us otherwise, also. It tells us to think deeply about “it” before you kill “it,” because “it” wants to live just as badly as you do. Life is a divine blessing to ALL life. We do not own living things – they own themselves. And if we see something truly and wantonly violent, we need to do something about it. So what do I say to these ignorant people, far, far more powerful than I, who, in their blind greed, are destroying everything that I passionately love? I want so badly to get in their face and yell STOP! YOU IGNORANT, SELFISH FOOLS! YOU ARE CAUSING GREAT SUFFERING! YOU ARE DESTROYING OUR ONLY WORLD, AND OUR CHILDREN”S FUTURE! STOP!!

Well, guess what? That’s exactly what Paul Watson is doing – he is flagrantly IN THE FACE of those who recognized no authority, and saying WE WILL NOT ALLOW YOU TO DO THIS WITHOUT RESISTANCE. And doing that non-violently is a great challenge and requires taking great risk, because these are very powerful people who have no compunction against violence – just look at the millions of dead sharks, whales, dolphins, seals, etc., etc., and ad nauseum etc. By taking such risks, Paul Watson is saying that the survival of sharks is equal to the lives of humans. This addresses the scientific problem of anthropocentricism and ecosystems. With science, we can win that argument. But without deep passion and moral conviction, which I strongly believe Paul Watson possesses in abundance, we will not win the war against those who refuse to believe science. It simply must be a part of the mix. I am sure I will never agree with everything Paul Watson has said or done, but I am convinced that Paul Watson is doing exactly what he is supposed to be doing, and, after thoroughly researching it and thinking deeply about it, this is why I support the SSCS.

~Dr. Craig Nazor


Craig Nazor grew up in Ashtabula, Ohio on the shores of Lake Erie, where, at an early age, he witnessed first hand the massive destruction that humans can visit upon aquatic ecosystems.  In college, his choice of careers was between biology and music, and Craig chose music, although he has never lost a very keen interest in the natural world.  Upon graduation from Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Institute of Music with a Bachelor of Arts in Music, he moved to New York City and spent the next seven years living in the “Big Apple” and touring the United States and Europe with various performing arts companies, always taking time to visit the closest natural wonders.  In 1982, Craig moved to Natchitoches, Louisiana and received a Master of Music degree from Northwestern State University, where he taught for five years.  From there he moved to Austin, Texas and received a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Texas at Austin.  He is currently teaching music theory, piano, and composition at Austin Community College, and continues to compose.

Throughout his life, Craig has maintained an active interest in biology.  As an aquarist, he has bred many species of freshwater fish, and enjoys both snorkeling and scuba diving.  He has been a member of the board of the Friends of the Alexandria Zoo as well as president of the Natchitoches Audubon Society.  In 2000, he was hired by the Hartman Foundation to design and install the plantings for the Hartman Prehistoric Garden at Zilker Botanical Gardens.  He is a current member of the Austin Cactus and Succulent Society and the Austin Herpetological Society.  He supports many ecological groups, from NRDC to Oceana to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.  He is also the Vice President and Membership Director of the Cycad Society, an international society promoting the cultivation and conservation of cycads, which are a group of ancient plants that have survived from the time of the dinosaurs.