Is Sea Shepherd really saving whales?

Sea Shepherd claims that their actions in the Southern Ocean opposing Japanese whaling fleets has effectively reduced the number of whales killed. What always rubbed me the wrong way about these claims is that they always compare their success against the Institute for Cetacean Research (the Japanese organization that oversees ‘scientific whaling’) Quotas. So at some point you have to ask the question, in absolute numbers, has Sea Shepherd really reduced the number of whales killed?

To answer that we need three pieces of information:

  1. When did Sea Shepherd begin it’s campaign against Japanese ‘scientific whaling’?
  2. What are the ICR quotas for that time frame?
  3. What are the absolute catches for that time frame?

Sea Shepherd provides a comprehensive timeline for their whaling campaigns that indicates serious opposition in the Southern Ocean began in December 2002. For the two other questions, we turn to Whale and Dolphin Conservation International, who have produced a truly exceptional interactive graph of the history of whaling since the inception of the International Whaling Convention by the numbers. The relevant figure is reproduced below:

courtesy WDCS

From this graph, we can see that Sea Shepherd began its campaign when whale catches were at their lowest, and catches have increased since then. Despite their claims of preventing whaling, we can see that more whales were killed per year after 2004 than any year before 2004. In other words, more whales are dying on Sea Shepherd’s watch.

So where do they get the claim that SSCS is reducing the numbers of whales caught? Remember they always report whales saved in relation to the Japanese quota, a reasonable value since the quota provides the absolute upper limit for how many whales will be killed each year. What they ignore is that, in 2005, the quota increased from ~350 to ~1000, and at no point since that increase has Japan ever reached quota.

All of this points towards the fact that Sea Shepherd’s claim that direct action is saving the whales is bunk. More whales have been killed per annum on Sea Shepherd’s watch than during the 16 years before Watson declared a Whale War. Of course there is no causal link in these data. The only conclusion that can be drawn from these data is that Sea Shepherd’s claim that they are preventing whales from being slaughtered is not supported. Results matter.

Still interested? Check out our analysis of the real issues with Sea Shepherd and why their brand of environmental activism is ultimately ineffective.

~Southern Fried Scientist

UPDATE: It has been brought to my attention that the catch numbers reported from 2002 and 2003 are wrong. The Japanese caught 441 and 443 whales, respectively.

June 7, 2010 • 8:44 pm