Is Whale Wars a waste of money?

Portobello Road

Lindsey Peavey is  a PhD student in the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  She is a marine ecologist whose research seeks to find a sustainable balance between human resource use and species conservation.  You can follow her work on Twitter (@lepeavey) and her blog,

Last December, I sat down to enjoy a pizza pie and draft beer with my friend Neal, a 6-foot, 5-inch, 280-lb. (think offensive lineman), die-hard conservative republican. He was giddy with excitement to talk with me about one of his favorite TV shows, Animal Planet’s “Whale Wars.” Knowing that I’m a tree hugger by nature and a marine biologist by trade, he thought an hour of “Save the whales!” camaraderie was ahead. He was shocked when I let out a long sigh and confessed, “I’m not a fan of Whale Wars.”

Neal was completely deflated. He demanded to know why I didn’t like the show. Shouldn’t I, of all people, be Sea Shepherd’s No. 1 fan? I offered my gripes: It’s outrageously expensive to operate a vessel like Sea Shepherd’s SSS Steve Irwin in the extremely volatile and dangerous environment of intercepting Japanese whaling vessels in the Antarctic — on the order of tens of thousands of dollars a day. Although funds are available to support these operations, the return on investment is unclear. How many whales are actually being saved?

Do anti-whaling supporters think about their donations in terms of the actual number of individual whales saved per dollar spent?  If the answer is no, why not?  The business of whaling is necessarily framed by the number of whales caught per amount of effort spent to hunt whales.  Perhaps those in the business of saving whales should borrow this way of thinking.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) recently met in Korea to discuss the status of whale populations worldwide.  The agenda showed that the plan is to continue with status quo management using a voluntary moratorium, controversial scientific permits, and unenforceable whale sanctuaries.  These management approaches have proven difficult to implement and propagate inefficient spending all around.  Simply put, they aren’t working.

Decades of global whale population declines compel people to fight for whale protection, or harvest.  Various values fuel our affection for whales — cultural, economic, spiritual, intrinsic, and ecological.  And these values are quantifiable, in a way, through the money spent to oppose or propel whaling.

Demand for whale meat is waning, and commercial whaling is a dying industry.  We’ve seen this unfolding for years — Carl Safina wrote a provocative blog about this issue in Feb. 2011 that I encourage you to read.  This past February, the International Fund for Animal Welfare released an economic report that revealed the “true cost of Japanese whaling.”  One of the more alarming statistics is that the Japanese government subsidizes its country’s whaling activities to prop the fishery, estimated at over $28 million dollars in 2011.

But that’s only half of the economic story.

Anti-whaling organizations spend just as much (of perhaps your money) to oppose whaling.  In 2011, non-governmental organizations spent a conservative estimate of $30 million on anti-whaling activities.  Additionally, Australia alone has invested over $20 million challenging Japanese whaling at the International Court of Justice.  But it’s hard to come up with an actual number of individual whales that benefited from throwing money at this problem.

Environmental problems are often discussed in terms of “winners” and “losers.”  Because the two opposing poles of the whaling issue are at an economic stalemate, it is difficult to identify any winners in international whaling, most especially the whales themselves.  This is disheartening.  It’s time the IWC starts thinking outside of the box for ways to end the current lose-lose situation.

For instance, market-based solutions have been proposed as one potential way forward (e.g., A market approach to saving whales in Nature).  Not just for whales, but for other endangered species in crisis as well; for example the African rhino.

In short, this might consist of systematically dividing up the resource (e.g., the Southern fin whale population) among all stakeholders into tradable shares that can be bought and sold according to a price determined by the market (not fundraising campaigns, subsidies, or costly legal battles).  For whales, this would allow both pro- and anti-whaling entities the opportunity to purchase (read: consume –OR– save, respectively) individual whales in a regulated, efficient market.  And unlike the outcome of the tens of millions of dollars currently spent, it would enable the industry to tank if demand is no longer there.

Given the substantial amount of recent intellectual ammunition expended exploring creative ways to solve this multi-faceted problem, I am surprised that alternative solutions, like legal whale trade, were left off the IWC floor.  I urge the IWC to explain how their management approaches are evolving to save whales, and money.  Although whaling wars make for entertaining TV, they are a waste of money and save few whales.  Neal now watches the dramatic confrontations of the high seas through a different lens and thinks more practically about the return his investment.  We finally agree on this: we can do better.

  1. Interesting opinion, should make for some debate since this is an emotional topic and most people can’t remove emotion from the picture. I’ve got friends that crewed for Paul Watson so I’ll pass this link along and maybe they’ll put up their sides.

  2. $28 million in 2011 INCLUDED costs for rebuilding the northeast region torn apart by the barreling tsunami. $6 million was used to beef up security for the ICR in the SO, Japan on average subsidizes the research @ $10 million per year. 2011 was an unusual year (Tsunami) I hope we never see again.

    • Hi Jamie,

      Thanks for your input. It’s a good point that 2011 may have been an especially costly year for Japan due to tsunami recovery efforts. Do you by chance have a reference for the $10 million annual subsidies statistic? I’m interested in keeping track of spending on both sides of the whaling issue and I want to make sure I’m not missing important documentation.


  3. The evidence for Sea Shepherd’s success comes straight from Japan. Let’s have a look at the latest attempt by Japan to kill around 1000 Antarctic whales in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary….

    Direct quotes from: “Cruise Report of the Japanese Whale Research Program under Special Permit in the Antarctic-Second Phase (JARPA II) in 2012/2013” – Written by: The Institute of Cetacean Research, 4-5 Toyomi-cho, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0055 Japan. 2) Kyodo Senpaku Kaisya, Ltd., 4-5 Toyomi-cho, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0055 Japan.

    – “the research activities were influenced negatively by the SS [Sea Shepherd] during the entire research period”
    – “It was very regrettable and disappointing to report that this large investment – dedicated sighting survey in the Antarctic – had to be cancelled in the 2012/13 season as same as the 2011/12.” [due to Sea Shepherd interventions]
    – “the research activities in the whole period were influences negatively by this group. Sighting and sampling effort was substantially diminished.”
    – “Due to this interference [by Sea Shepherd] the SSVs (YS1 and YS2) cancelled the research in the large part of the research area.”
    – “Sampling for these fin whales was not conducted due to sabotage by the anti-whaling group [Sea Shepherd]”

    In Japan’s 2012-2013 Antarctic Whaling Season their whalers took only 11% of their Minke whale quota and 0% of their Fin and Humpback quotas.
    832 Minke whales not slain, 50 Humpbacks and 50 Fins not slaughtered.

    This was Japan’s worst Antarctic whaling season ever & ‘Operation Zero Tolerance’ was Sea Shepherd’s most successful anti-whaling campaign.

    • Hi Rob,

      Thanks for your comments and for weighing in. Are you sure that Japan’s 2012-2013 whaling season was its worst yet due solely to the efforts of anti-whaling organizations, or could at least some of that failure be attributed to declining demand for whale meat in Japan? No doubt Sea Shepherd, Green Peace, and other anti-whaling organizations have had success at agitating and slowing down Japanese whaling vessels, but my point is that it is unclear exactly how many individuals whales (e.g., an absolute number) are saved per dollar spent on anti-whaling campaigns. However, the number of individual whales harvested per dollar spent by pro-whaling nations, like Japan, can be quantified. I am suggesting that if anti-whaling organizations were accountable to their supporters in a similar, measurable way, it would encourage spending on both sides of the debate to become more efficient, and transparent. And perhaps it would also allow management entities, like the IWC, to develop more effective management strategies. The money is available to fix this problem, but in my opinion, we just aren’t spending it wisely in order to do so. Conservation strategies need to evolve and improve, which is a tangible goal. I hope it happens in the near future to save money and whales.

      Cheers, Lindsey

    • Japan’s 2012-2013 whaling season was its worst yet due solely to the efforts of ONE anti-poaching organization – Sea Shepherd.
      No other organisations were opposing the Japanese whaling fleet and the last time Greenpeace sailed to ‘protest’ against Japan’s fleet was back in January 2008. Operation Zero Tolerance was Sea Shepherd’s 9th consecutive Antarctic campaign and involved all four of our vessels. The diminishing appetite for whale meat in Japan has not decreased their year on year quotas as for Japan it is not only about filling freezers or shelves in supermarkets – but is about JARPA II enabling the whaling fleet to stay fully operational and keeping their ex-politician friends in their salaried positions within the ICR and associated businesses.

      You say it is “unclear exactly how many individuals whales (e.g., an absolute number) are saved per dollar spent on anti-whaling campaigns. However, the number of individual whales harvested per dollar spent by pro-whaling nations, like Japan, can be quantified”….. – This is totally irrelevant to Sea Shepherd. We are opposing a whaling fleet killing whales under the false pretext of scientific whaling in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. Sea Shepherd does not put a price on saving whales…..only whalers, poachers and corporate managed ‘conservation’ groups such as WWF, GP and others who backed the failed 2010 IWC compromise deal (that you referred to indirectly in your blog) put a value against a life.
      Sea Shepherd’s spending is transparent (ad a charity/non-profit etc..) and our accounts are matters of public record.

      Conservation strategies do evolve and improve but more important is diversity in strategies and there is also great work being done politically and with the public by groups such as IFAW, WDSF, Promar, WDC etc… and Japan’s whaling is right now being challenged by Australia and New Zealand at the ICJ as you know. We have no concern about ‘saving money’ for the world in general – we are here to save whales, many other marine creatures and habitats and we are very efficent and produce quantifiable and tangible results either by direct intervention or the awareness we create by confronting illegal poaching operations as Sea Shepherd has done since 1977 (long before Animal Planet took an interest in SSCS).
      Rob Read – Sea Shepherd UK

    • The cruise report is part of their non-lethal research program, it makes zero sense to save whales that were never in any danger.

      Humpbacks have not been part of the lethal research (although their population would support it) not a single humpback has been killed by Japan since 1966. The 2012-2013 season was less than half the length of time as an average season.

  4. My beef with the show has more to do with the dangerous boat handling and reckless behavior that puts the lives of the crew at stake. I worry that not all crew on-board have the experience to understand the danger that ramming other ships, or inserting yourself in a small inflatable between a whale and a harpoon, or jumping onto the side of a larger ship with signs, can pose. Idealistic and enthusiastic people who want to save the whales are great, but threatening the lives of humans in the process is not something that should be promoted or applauded. No captain should allow such hazardous behavior on their watch.

    • Hi Beth,

      I completely agree re: Sea Shepherd’s dangerous at-sea practices. I didn’t have room to discuss that in this post, so I’m glad you brought it up.

      Cheers, Lindsey

    • I’m surprised to see 8 thumbs down to safety at sea concerns, but no one bothering to comment. I’d be curious to hear why you feel that putting human lives in direct harm is the correct course of action here…? Speak up and don’t just use the un-trackable “thumbs down.”

    • I did get a thoughtful reply from a “Daniel Watson” though I can’t find it in this thread… In paraphrasing he assures me that all crew aboard know the risks fully, and that, to date, no lives have been lost.

      I appreciate the reply and agree that things can and are exaggerated for reality TV, but as a captain and long-time whale researcher, I guess you will just never convince me that risking human lives as I have seen in certain clips of ships getting rammed, run over, etc is the best way to handle this. Though I can appreciate that they have been effective in creating a constant spotlight on the issue and remain a thorn in the side of the Japanese fleet.

      But to each his own. Just not something I could do in good conscious aboard any ship I was in command of…

    • Lives would be risked LESS if SSCS did even a minimal job training their crew in maritime safety. I learned more as a teenager at summer camp about boating safety than SSCS teaches their volunteers before sending them to one of the most dangerous parts of the ocean.

  5. ” Although funds are available to support these operations, the return on investment is unclear. How many whales are actually being saved? ” – Lindsey Peavey

    Sea Shepherd is aware that supporters expect some “bang for their buck” which is why the SSCS fabricates the number of whales “saved” …..

    ” At this rate the whalers cannot possible reach the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary until January 12th at the earliest. They have never left this late in the season and even if we were not down here to meet them, they would only be able to get half their kill quota. ” – Paul Watson , December 20, 2012

    Yet SSCS claims the full quota number minus the whales taken as “saved”……

    ” Passionate Sea Shepherd volunteers saved 932 whales during Operation Zero Tolerance in the Southern Ocean including 50 endangered Fin whales. ” – Paul Watson , June 21, 2013

    During the previous whaling season SSCS could not even find the whaling fleet until the last couple of weeks of that season…. as they were to busy trying to lose the tail of the Japanese ships that were relaying their position to the ships that were whaling during the worst southern ocean weather for decades…..the weather probably being the primary factor for low catch numbers….

    Yet SSCS claims the full quota number minus the whales taken as “saved”……

  6. SED, maybe I’m a little unclear on the concept but could you please explain “Yet SSCS claims the full quota number minus the whales taken as “saved”…… Does this mean that Watson claims there is a quantifiable number saved or an actual number saved or is this a potential guess about the number saved or a full on fabrication? The quote says the full quota minus the whales taken. So that implies they saved the difference between the actual quota less the number actually killed. Right? Is that even possible to claim? I mean of course it’s possible to claim but can it even be factual at all? The absence of caught whales doesn’t necessarily mean Sea Shepards caused the absence. You did say they fabricate the numbers right?

    My particular position is that I do support the Shepards though I don’t always agree with their tactics and I don’t necessarily agree with all that many of their statements. I’m not too fond of the show and I’ve seen what happens when TV gets on a boat or into a house. As a mariner myself, I think they are a little fast and loose. The show however is a perfect vehicle for them since they need to make noise, with potential creative scripting and editing who knows what actually happens out there.

    • @Greg ……

      Sea Shepherd said that you’ve prevented the death of 3,600 whales. Can you tell me how that number is calculated? – Outside Magazine

      Every year japan has a quota. For example, it’s 935 minke whales, 50 humpback whales, and 50 fin whales. Last year, they only got 277 minke whales and then one fin whale—the year before that, 178 whales. So, when you deduct those numbers from their overall quotas, those are the number of whales that we’ve saved.

      So you’re simply subtracting the number they actually get from their quota? – Outside Magazine

    • Now…. even if you give them the 932 whales they claimed to save in the last campaign…how does it jump from 3600 to 5000 ?? Magic ??

      ” Nothing anyone can say about Sea Shepherd, our captains, our officers, our crew or myself can ever take away from what we achieved – the lives some 800 whales this season and some 5,000 whales over the nine years we have been defending the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.” Paul Watson ,March 3, 2013

    • SED,

      I’d like to explore these number a bit more. Let’s say that a reasonable estimate of saved whales equals Japan’s quota minus the number of harvested whales, as you suggest. And let’s use the numbers you provided for Japan for 2012: [(935-277)+(50-0)+(50-1)] = 757 saved whales. If we assume an estimate for Sea Shepherd’s 2009 budget as $10 million US dollars (P. Watson 2010, pers, comm., Oct. 20), and we attribute all of the whales spared from the Japan harvest to Sea Shepherd alone, that means that each whale cost $13,210 for Sea Shepherd to save (which is just $10,000,000 divided by the 757 saved whales). Are anti-whaling supporters OK with this math, and the per whale cost? Furthermore, I don’t believe the math is as simple as subtracting harvested animals from the quota, or dividing the total budget by the number of whales saved.

      My blog was not meant to single out Sea Shepherd, however discussing the TV show Whale Wars was a way to contextualize this issue to a broad audience who is aware of the show. As far as I have been able to research to date, no anti-whaling organization has been able to provide an accurate estimate of their anti-whaling campaign budget; or estimate the number of whales their budget has “saved.” We do know that tens of millions of dollars (or more) are being spent on both sides of the whaling debate, and the spending is not done efficiently. Specifically, I think there are better solutions to save whales compared to the approaches currently implemented with the money available to address declining and threatened whale populations, and I am encouraging the IWC to explore alternatives. I think spending information is an important addition to the international whaling debate, and relevant for the IWC as their management strategies evolve.

      A friend of mine is a Sea Shepherd supporter and made a valid point in a Facebook discussion on this topic.

      My friend said, “Question I have though, is where the money comes from to fund the sea shepherd campaign? Most is private and whatever is awarded from animal planet correct? They are doing exactly what they have set out to do and the project gets funded as a result of their efforts. I don’t see a problem unless they are receiving gov. dollars or otherwise.”

      So the question is, Do we — the general, tax-paying public sharing a natural resource, whales — have the authority to expect efficient spending from an anti-whaling organization that receives private funding and no government support? Rob Read spoke to this in an earlier comment:

      Rob said, “You say it is “unclear exactly how many individuals whales (e.g., an absolute number) are saved per dollar spent on anti-whaling campaigns. However, the number of individual whales harvested per dollar spent by pro-whaling nations, like Japan, can be quantified”….. – This is totally irrelevant to Sea Shepherd. We are opposing a whaling fleet killing whales under the false pretext of scientific whaling in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. Sea Shepherd does not put a price on saving whales…..only whalers, poachers and corporate managed ‘conservation’ groups such as WWF, GP and others who backed the failed 2010 IWC compromise deal (that you referred to indirectly in your blog) put a value against a life.”

      Does anyone have any thoughts about these aspects of the debate: the acceptable use of private vs. government funds; and/or how to incorporate ethics into a bio-economic solution?

      Thanks all for a lively discussion! I appreciate everyone’s input.


    • Lindsey, I did not want to imply that Sea Shepherd’s method of calculating the number of whales “saved” was reasonable….just stating the method used….

    • Also if the SSCS is able to receive tax-deductible donations, is that not a form of government support? …….. especially for an animal rights group that masquerades as a conservation group?

  7. So yes…..Quota minus whales killed is whales “saved”…..regardless if the Japanese were actually whaling and regardless if SSCS was there or not…

  8. To act on principle can be expensive, either because you spend money or you don’t make money that you otherwise might have. From my perspective, every dollar spent to save even one whale is a dollar well spent. This is because I view whales as sentient beings, who have language, who have complexity of thought, who probably have feelings. As a matter of principle it is immoral to kill a sentient being.

    You ask the question in a bio-economic way, and because I think the whole act is immoral there is no bio-economic answer. In other words, whales are not resources to be traded or commodified.

    Lest you be too sure of yourself with regard to making economic arguments, consider other aspects of environmental conservation. A lot of money is spent to put a stop to many activities that destroy habitat, not habitat for us, but for the myriad number of species that are not like us. Is that cost worth it? I would suggest it is, and not for standard economic arguments, such as the idea we might find a cancer treatment in one of those species, etc. But rather, for the simple argument that we have only one earth, we have 600 million years of evolutionary innovation that is recorded in the DNA of each of those critters, large or small. That is our library of life. Every time a species goes extinct, another book is lost from that library, never to be recovered. What does it matter what it costs to save it? If you think it is important to maintain that library you will spend what needs to be spent.

    So, in the end I am an enthusiastic supporter of Sea Sheppard and I am disappointed with the vast majority of NGOs who seem to be more concerned with developing their membership numbers than with preserving habitats and the life that depends on it. This is a moral imperative, not an economic argument.

    A final note. All the attention brought to the farce of Japan’s research whaling may finally be paying off. Australia has sued Japan in the World Court (the trial is going on now) and if Australia wins, there will be no more so-called scientific whaling. That will be a clear win and every dollar spent will have been worth it.

  9. @ Les, I would think that just exploring the topic on the money side is unavoidable just because of the show and the claims but regardless, they do save a few whales so they do get points. The groundswell support around the world is slowly making a difference.

  10. It´s interesting to see opinions popping out from people apparently entirely removed from the whaling issue questioning the effectiveness of Sea Shepherd actions. I have been attending the International Whaling Commission proceedings since 1984, of which for twenty-odd years as government representative (delegate, Head of Scientific Delegation, Alternate Commissioner and Acting Commissioner) for Brazil. It is absolutely clear to me that the anachronistic, ineffective and corrupt (refusing to investigate the explicit vote-buying of small, porr countries by Japan) IWC will never stop the continuation of unchecked, unilateral whaling activities such as that of Japan. Pelagic whaling by Japan in the Southern hemisphere is not a matter of number of whales killed, but the criminal subtraction of a natural resource which is used and managed non-lethally by many countries down here (not a single Southern Hemisphere nation has been whaling for decades and many have multimillion-dollar whalewatching industries). Therefore, what Sea Shepherd is doing is upholding the rights of those people who are not heard by the crooked IWC and whose livelihoods depend on healthy oeans and healthy whale populations. Currently, Sea Shepherd interference is the only force capable of putting an end to Japanese whaling imperalism. I applaud, supportmamd encourage everyone to help sponsor it until we get rid of Japanese whaling in the Southern Hemisphere.

  11. @ Jose, Seems to me that this is the perfect place to offer educated opinions. I do shark tourism and in that I certainly agree with you that the resource is much better used in that manner. You have some good points.

  12. I don´t recall Greenpeace ever been accused of paying bribes and prostitutes to government officers in poor developing countries in exchange for a change of policy, or of turning their international treaty policies upside down to favor those of a single country. More on Japan´s proven – and admitted to a great extent – behavior at (don´t miss the video part!) and . Although never addressing it directly, the IWC implicitly admitted the bribery problem by adopting new financial rules to stop the Japanese from showing up with suitcases of cash to pay for African and Caribbean delegates: .