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


  1. Patric Douglas · June 3, 2010

    Viva la Opposition!

    I wrote about the need for critical thinking vs cool-aid drinking a while back and in regards to the hoards of rabid SSCS followers out there.

    Got some nasty-grams in response.

    Fact is Peter Bethune is in prison, Japan is in the middle of a resurgent phase of nationalism over whaling and you can lay all that on the doorstep of SSCS.

    Japan will also start killing whales in bigger numbers off their coastlines and that’s also due to SSCS failed direct action policy.

    Can we do better?

    You bet.

    Does anyone have the bandwidth left to do it?


    Until that changes we’re looking at another season of Whale Wars, more Hollywood Bat ships sunk in pristine waters, and more Wagging the Conservation Dog for television ratings.

    By the way, fine synopsis there guys, as always your way with facts transcends the elevated bull-shit floating around out there.

    Insert (nasty-gram) here.

    • Southern Fried Scientist · June 3, 2010

      Thanks! Personally I can’t wait for Sea Shepherd to announce their plan to use Paul Watson’s ego to plug the oil well.

  2. Jae · June 16, 2010

    While this is a good piece on the futility of the Sea Sheep you fail to mention the futility of their main goals.

    Canadian seal hunting is as sustainable and “green” as you could get. There is absolutely NO conservation concern here at all.

    Same with whaling. No one whales for industrial oils any more and whaling for food is sustainable and includes some of the best management practices around.

    It’s time we started drawing a VERY clear line between conservation and the eccentricity of animal rights. The animal protest industry has enfeebled and undermined Conservation, Environmentalism and now food security for decades.

    Animal Rights orgs have almost totally had us spend the last three decades having what essentially amount to inter-cultural food fights arguing over practices that are sustainable – but which might be misunderstood or ready for commoditized vilification and serious fundraising.

    … and the fundraising narratives always require some shady bad guys doing bad things …Never that we’re in all in this together.

    Meanwhile, while EU politicians deplore sustainable, ecologically appropriate and humane Canadian sealers, the manufactured furore in a can allows the same politicos to ignore dire scientific warnings over local fisheries quotas.
    Hence we fund attacks on the sustainable whilst allowing the unsustainable to continue.

    Since the day Robert Hunter on his first Greenpeace trips started telling fantastical lies about whales battling giant squid, we’ve been off the rails and have allowed the hi-jacking of conservation by commercialized factory fundraisers using a simplistic “preservationist” stance.
    The mystics have had the upper hand and it’s time for the mechanics to reemerge.

    In my community seal hunters are the backbone of the local food production system. Three decades of being undermined first by unnecessary anti-trapping campaigns, anti-whaling campaigns and the hi-jacking of conservation measures by anti-hunting agendas, the sheer hypocrisy of the EU seal pelt ban and now concerns over climate change and polar bears hijacked by the anti-sports hunt lobby have left hunters broke and stuck in the communities.
    Healthy foods from seals to caribou, fish, berries, geese, clams all become out of reach when the economic guts of the food production system are ripped out.
    The effects of nice middle class western yuppies failing to distinguish between the sustainable use of locally available and abundant resources and environmental destruction is serious damage to Arctic food security.

    Today in my part of the world, 7 out of 10 of our kids now regularly go to bed hungry.

    The inability of bastards like the Sea Sheep is just the other side of the coin from nice well scrubbed yuppie folks like yourselves.

    Until you can stand with the sustainable sealers and whalers and draw a clear distinction between animal rights fundraisers and genuine conservation, sustainable takes and wanton slaughter then we’re all screwed.

    In the meantime, you’ll have to forgive me but I hold you in equal contempt to the Sea Sheep.

    • WhySharksMatter · June 16, 2010

      “whaling for food is sustainable and includes some of the best management practices around.”

      What management practices are you referencing?

    • Jae · July 27, 2010

      Show me a species of whale that is currently threatened by Japan’s take?

    • Southern Fried Scientist · June 16, 2010

      “whaling for food is sustainable and includes some of the best management practices around.”

      Yeah, and I have no problem with the few indigenous communities that do, but industrial whaling is neither sustainable from an economic nor ecologic perspective, nor does it currently feed anyone but the wealthy. Japan, Norway, and Iceland are not bringing food to the starving masses through whaling.

      GM is the only solution to feeding 7 billion hungry mouths. Global crises require global solutions, and prodding a couple caribou isn’t providing a future for the next generation.

      If it ain’t agriculture, it isn’t a solution.

    • Jae · July 27, 2010

      Once again, “industrial whaling” was shut down even before the *moratorium* on commercial whaling.
      What Japan is practicing now can in no honest way be compared to the days of industrial whaling for oils. I would add the same for Iceland & Norway. These are tiny fisheries. The Japanese aren’t even using “industrial” whaling ships but converted trawlers.How you can say current whaling is ecologically unsustainable is beyond me.

      As for whaling feeding the “wealthy”, once again you’re making a cultural judgement not an ecological one. At what point does one become too “wealthy” to eat whale sashimi? Is it okay for a street sweeper but not okay for a currency trader? How about a plumber; I hear they can be doing pretty well these days.
      It’s clear that in your mind whales should only be eaten by the starving on their hands and knees in the dirt.
      The “aboriginal” whaling exemption is a racist and demeaning thing indeed.
      I’m with the Maori contingent at this year’s IWC plenary that stated they recognize only two types of whaling: Sustainable & Unsustainable.

      No one is proposing that whales are to feed seven billion people and the “starving masses”. It is but one brick in the building of sustainable and resilient food production and culture.

      Objecting to whaling because it doesn’t make economic sense is simply being even more obtuse. If there really is no market for whale meat then whaling will cease all on its own and there is no need for either the Sea Sheep fundraisers or your culturally based objections.

      You’ll have to forgive me for ascribing you a level of dishonesty in your characterization of Northern food production as “a few communities” “prodding a few caribou”.
      There is more than a few communities and more than a few caribou being “prodded”.
      On a wider scale, the numbers of people who depend on wild foods worldwide is quite astonishing as well as humbling. All the more so when you learn what those people do to protect their food source which is a lot more than the Sea Sheep or such

      “If it ain’t agriculture, it isn’t a solution.”

      And that’s a cultural prejudice as old and Cain & Abel.

      Any solution that works against cultural and food diversity is no solution at all and is doomed to failure.
      In a world where the majority of the world’s food diversity has been so reduced this is crucial to resilience and sustainability.

      You do remember the Brundtland Commission don’t you?

    • Southern Fried Scientist · July 27, 2010

      The economics of large scale whaling really aren’t that good. Basically, what it boils down to, and what we should clarify, is that if you’re whaling for food, then the benefit outweighs the cost. If you’re whaling to make money, which is what Iceland and Norway’s fleets are doing, and what Japan’s heavily subsidized research fleet proposes to do, the cost of operation is greater than the potential profit unless you meet one of two conditions:

      1. You increase to cost of whale meat by turning it into a luxury item. This obviously precludes using whale meat as anything other than food for those who are not in need of it.


      2. You harvest more whales than the population can sustainably support. The cost of fleet is upkeep and sea time, so you reduce the cost by catching more whales in shorter times. This is exactly what we saw in the 18th and 19th century. It’s far to expensive to maintain a fleet while only catching a few thousand whales a year.

      Either scenario yields a situation that is either economically or ecologically unsustainable. If you really want to make serious money whaling, you should kill every whale you possibly can in a single season, then dismantle your fleet and reinvest all you profits in another industry.

  3. not a fan · June 24, 2010

    You idiots are all delusional. I don’t see any of you getting off your critical asses to do anything to save the whales or anything else. Paul Watson has put his entire life on the line for the ocean inhabitants … and you? what have you achieved?

    • Sam · June 26, 2010

      Problem is that no one knows if Paul Watson has actually helped or not. I for one am doubtful.

  4. mikey · September 3, 2010

    You are so stupid, I don’t know how you are a graduate student.

    At the end of the day, even if they saved one whale, that is a job well done.

    What have you done to save whales?

    • Mike Lisieski · September 3, 2010

      Anybody who cares (and has the cognitive capacity) to entertain hypothetical scenarios can see that this is not the case. If they saved one whale by killing a human, is this a job well done? What about 100 humans? What about 10,000 humans? As long as we’re not constrained by reality, what about 10,000 less charismatic/popular animals (say, tuna or sharks)? What about another whale? What about 10 other whales? Is the morality of one’s actions determined only by the number of whales one has “saved” each day? The world, especially the field of ecology, has never actually existed in the simple dichotomies upon which people like you – I mean, hecklers – seem to love to invoke.

    • WhySharksMatter · September 3, 2010

      Oh, snap! You go, Mike!

    • Southern Fried Scientist · September 3, 2010

      Epic response. Nice job.

  5. Jamie · November 14, 2010

    well they do fund a boat and crew in the Galapagos, pay for crew at a float GNP base, have purchased contraband sniffing dogs, negotiated donations of money and equipment for the law enforcement, and produced educational material

    they also do a lot of other educational grassroots work, help fund and distribute documentary film, they remove many longlines and drift nets, have enforced costa rican law at request of the authorities, have liberated about 800 tuna that would have been killed, sunk the whalers Sierra, Isba I, and Isba II using explosives, flooded the whaler Nybraena, scuttled in harbor the Hvalur 6 and Hvalur 7 (they were later repaired), and with their increasingly mellowed tactics a group called Agenda 21 claiming inspiration from SSCS have scuttled 4 more whaling shit in norway

    It not that “well at least they do something”, its more that all organizations are imperfect, not everything the US govt does is effective toward their goal(some might say its counter-productive sometimes) nor are the police always perfect, they have been documented committing horrific abuses, being incompetent, being negligent, lying, and using excessive force. Yet very few people argue to divest the local police of all power and funding.
    If a group of terrorist are holding a preschool of severally mentally/physically impaired infants hostage the expense of millions of dollars would easily be to rescue them justifiable and while attempt to avoid it should be made injuries to the both people threatening violence and the police are an acceptable cost to save a life.
    if justifiable in such a situation, comparable force would be justified in saving even a single cetacean life…unless your speciesist

    • Southern Fried Scientist · November 14, 2010

      You may be interested in Dave’s post: Sea Shepherd: Friend or foe of shark conservation

      Generally, that’s a fairly short-sighted and unnuanced view of the world. Your favoring short-term gains against long term solutions and trying to force conservation and animal rights into an anthropocentric framework. If everyone in the world was already approaching this as an “animal life is equal to human life” issue, than you might have an argument, but of course, that’s not the case. Conservation is about convincing people that the environment and the organisms that live in it have inherent value, not just exploitable value. If saving one whale means that whaling continues for the foreseeable future, then you haven’t saved anything, but rather condemned countless more to die. Real lasting change is forged through diplomacy and is excruciatingly slow.

      Would you care to address any of the points raised in this post?

  6. Jamie · November 14, 2010

    “While dramatic, their actions haven’t, after 32 years, achieved any of their stated goals.”

    Neither has the efforts to stamp out human trafficking, rape, drugs, or even piss-ant terrorist groups, these are all thing govt or other orgs have promised to wipe out, doesn’t mean that direct intervention isn’t PART of the solution, these and whaling are all complex problems with only so many resources to throw at them, besides the cry for a “meth-free america” is just marketing hyperbole designed to get people amped up about the cause, people arnt as excited about “lets reduce meth use as much as reasonably possible while recognizing that this will take lots of time and we will never completely wipe it out” one sounds better to science geeks and skeptics but the other has mass emotional appeal, hyperbolic slogans get the most attention, SSCS do it to get donations and mass appeal, considering there history of willingness to stand by and let animals die when they didnt feel they had a decent legal case (like with Ecuadorian fishermen of tuna fishers) or to compromise I think they are like most orgs, they talk big but have a nuanced or compromised approach

    I agree that the figure of 500+ whales saved are not attributable to SSCS, I would think its more like a hundred, though this post estimates it to be 240 whales based on average kills per day with & without SSCS presence
    That figure of 100 is of the top of my head and Im not married to it, its just based on the 31 or so days that SSCS was physically chasing or engaging the Japanese and the probability that they lost a little time. I still fidn it hard to believe they didnt save any whales and one is enough. I disagree that SSCS are at fault for polarizing public opinion, its not a either or option, its not your support SSCS wholesale or the ICR totally. If people really want to see SSCS stop in the southern ocean just put a ban on lethal whale research. SSCS doesn’t prevent people from voting against whaling their own speciesist bias does nor does it prevent much safer and controlled physical intervention by nation-states

    I think the failure of Sea Shepherd is due in part to the lack of force they have been able to present.

    My preferred solution would be to have anti-whaling nations who speak out against Japan put their navy where their mouth is and blockade the Japaneses whaling fleet with naval vessels until compliance can be assured through a treaty. When lives are directly in danger force is warranted. I’m not interested in the IWC or NAAMCO who exists to facilitate a return to full commercial whaling

    2. “No clear mechanism to achieve their stated goals using their tactics. ”

    I agree, mainly because they abandoned serious attempts to scuttle whaling vessels, they have set a limpet mine of opened a sea cock in years and there isnt enough people doing it at this point. SSCS often urge people to call this or that congressman, PM, or other official to tell them your opinion on an upcoming vote on local or international law. (Im on their mailing list)
    They also do and fund a lot of educational outreach about endanged species and marine conservation. That’s gotta help a little, at least in democratic nations.
    I disagree it didnt affect norwegian whalers,you are the one too focused on the short term here, the insurance premiums are much higher now and makes whaling a less attractive business to get into, less profitable and sustainable

    perhaps I’ll get to 3 & 4 later, gotta eat dinner

    • Southern Fried Scientist · November 16, 2010

      It’s important to note that in response to the lower catches in the Southern Ocean, Japan simply opened up coastal whaling for an additional few months – a move that no nation has the political authority to challenge.

      You’ll probably like Iron Dice’s post on SSCS strategy in the Southern Ocean – He’s a professional military strategist and points out when their strategy breaks down.

      And it’s also important to remember that not supporting Sea Shepherd is not the same thing as not opposing whaling. There are many other orgs and groups out there that deserve our support and have a track record of successful conservation initiatives. It’s just that real conservation work doesn’t make for terribly exciting TV.

  7. Southern Fried Scientist · February 16, 2011

    Comments on this issue will continue here: Japan temporarily suspends Antarctic whale hunt

Comments are closed.