Sea Shepherd and Whale Wars

We have been and continue to be critical of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Although their goals are admirable their methods are not only ineffective, but in some cases impair the achievement of those goals.  With the premier of Whale Wars season 3 tomorrow evening, we’d like to take a moment to highlight the issues we’ve raised concerning the SSCS. Over the last two years we’ve written a number of post summarizing our problems with Sea Shepherd:

Our friends at Deep Sea News and Underwater Thrills have been critical of SSCS, too:

The above links cover many of the issues we have with this organization. The New York Times recently published an excellent breakdown of the Japanese Whaling Industry. Below are our main criticisms of SSCS:

While dramatic, their actions haven’t, after 32 years, achieved any of their stated goals. Sea Shepherd began as an offshoot of Green Peace. Over the years they have stated that their primary goals are to bring an end to seal clubbing,whaling, shark finning, and most recently to end the bluefin tuna fishery. Despite these laudable goals, seal clubbing continues, whaling continues, shark finning continues. All evidence indicates that they’ve  essentially ended their physical campaign against sealing. Not a peep has been heard from their “Shark Angels” project in the last year. As for whaling, despite a financially successful TV series, they’ve done nothing to actually advance their goals. Every time they fall short they choose to move their goalposts. For Whale Wars it was a declaration to end  Japanese whaling, then it was to end Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean, now it’s to make whaling too expensive to continue for Japan. Now it seems as though progress towards the end of commercial whaling is going backwards, with the IWC considering a return to commercial whaling. One is forced to ask why, if SSCS tactics really are effective, does progress appear to be moving away from an end to commercial whaling?


No clear mechanism to achieve their stated goals using their tactics. Whaling hasn’t been profitable in years, but because it’s government subsidized, it has the means to continue, regardless of the success of any single season. You can’t bankrupt an industry that’s being bankrolled for reasons other than profit. Their other campaigns lack any clear mechanism to achieve their goals. Sinking Norwegian vessels didn’t stop Norway, harassing Canadian sealers didn’t stop seal clubbing. Sea Shepherd’s tactics have resulted in Japan opening a coastal whaling fishery, within Japanese waters where SSCS can’t go. Their claim that they are saving X number or whales/seals/sharks per year ignore the fact that these activities will continue for the foreseeable future. If Sea Shepherd “saves”700 Minke whales every year, but the Minke whales are still hunted to extinction, then have they really saved any? SSCS methods can best be summarized as: Phase 1 – direct action against whalers/sealers/fishermen; Phase 2 – ?; Phase 3 – end whaling/sealing/illegal fishing. Until someone fills in Step 2, SSCS is just dancing with Underpants Gnomes.

Alienation of groups necessary to affect change. Our biggest argument against the SSCS actions is that by vilifying the Japanese, they’ve transformed whaling from a question of conservation to one of nationalism. By fostering an us against them mentality they’ve given the Japanese government the political capital to continue to fund whaling.

While few Japanese these days actually eat whale, criticism of the whale hunts has long been resented here as a form of Western cultural imperialism. During the long tenure of the Liberal Democratic Party, whaling was one of the sacred cows of Japanese politics, embraced by a group of nationalist lawmakers within the party who saw it as a rare issue where Tokyo could appeal to conservatives by waving the flag and saying no to Washington.

New York Times Asia

Anyone who thinks this hyper-nationalism is just posturing by the Japanese government should consider this article about the trial of Peter Bethune and the protests in Japan against him.

Japanese ultra-nationalists have picketed his daily court appearances and staged noisy protests outside the New Zealand and Australian embassies in Tokyo. Some called for Mr Bethune to be “hanged” and for Japan to go to war with Australia over its whaling stance. Australia announced this week that it is upping the ante in the anti-whaling battle by following through on a long-standing threat to take Japan to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

The Independent

Lying to further their cause. Paul Watson has admitted to manipulating the media and SSCS has been called out on some whoppers. So why should we trust them? Watson has consistently claimed that neither himself nor his crew have ever been charged with a crime yet the captain of the sunken Ady Gil, Peter Bethune has been charge with five crimes and is currently awaiting trial in Japan. In Cape Breton, two Sea Shepherd members were fined over $40,000 for endangering lives. In 1994, Watson himself was charged and convicted in Canada for crimes related to throwing acid at a Cuban fishing vessel on the Grand Banks. At the time, the targeted vessel was not violating any laws.

Openly mocking the tactics of other conservation groups, then claiming credit when those tactics are successful. The Cove was a huge victory whose waves are still being felt, and it used the tried and true tactic of “Bearing Witness” recording crimes against the earth and showing them to the world. Watson appears on camera openly mocking the idea of “Bearing Witness” in the first season of Whale Wars (apologies for not having a direct link to the clip, but it’s near the end of the episode). At the same time SSCS claims the Cove as their biggest (perhaps only) win. If everyone used Sea Shepherd’s tactics, the Cove would have never been made.

But you don’t need to believe me, you can hear it from the man himself. Quote Paul Watson:

They’re doing a lot of ocean posing down there, you know you see these pictures of the Greenpeacers getting their zodiacs hit with the water hoses and everything, it’s pure posturing.

What is Greenpeace doing? They go down there every year and they take pictures of whales dying. They say their policy is one of bearing witness… that to me is cowardice.

Paul Watson, Whale Wars Season 1, Episode 1

By Paul Watson’s own criteria, the actions of Louie Psihoyos and the amazing team who brought international attention to the Taiji dolphin slaughter was an act of cowardice.

But the SSCS definitely does a few things well:

Raising money. SSCS is the undisputed king of self-promotion in the conservation world. Their ratio of dollars in to conservation achievements out is truly staggering. And that’s also our biggest complaint. That money could be going to orgs with a proven track record. The $4 million they got for the Bob Barker could have been used to lobby CITES to raise the status of Blue Fin Tuna to level II. Or to buy police vessels for South Africa. Or to fund the Sea Turtle Restoration Project for the foreseeable future. The funny thing is, no one profits more from Japanese whaling than SSCS.

Make less extreme organization appear moderate. Sea Shepherd’s antics make other environmental organizations look more moderate in comparison, which makes stakeholders more likely to engage with moderate NGOs.

Invariably, someone is going to chime in with the tired “AT LEAST THEIR [sic] DOING SOMETHING!” argument. We’ve heard it before and our response remains the same – Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is making it harder to affect real lasting change in the conservation world. I’d love to see Sea Shepherd succeed. I really would. If they effectively end Mediterranean Tuna fishing, or whaling in the southern ocean, or sealing in Canada, or shark finning in the Galapagos, I’ll gladly admit I’m wrong. But nothing they’ve done in the last 32 years have convinced me that they will succeed. When your tactics don’t work, it’s time for a change, and if your leadership refuses to change, it’s time for new leadership. Results matter.

~Southern Fried Scientist

June 3, 2010 • 12:00 pm