Sea Shepherd: Friend or foe of shark conservation?

croppedAs promised, this week’s ethical debate deals with one of the most hotly debated issues in the marine conservation community- the tactics of “Sea Shepherd”.

Though “Sea Shepherd” is most famous (or infamous) for their work with the Japanese whaling fleet, which is featured in “Whale Wars”, they are also heavily involved with the shark finning industry.

Before we get started, I want to say something about the tone of this debate. I know from our own comments sections, even ones that don’t deal directly with Sea Shepherd, that there are strong opinions on both sides of this issue. See last week’s Deep Sea News, particularly the comments section, for an example of this.  Here at Southern Fried Science, we recently came up with a new comments policy, which we will be enforcing strictly with this post. DO NOT personally attack anyone, DO NOT try to change the subject to something totally irrelevant, and DO NOT post under multiple names to create the false appearance of a majority (“sock puppetry”). Since the Deep Sea News post covered whale stuff pretty solidly, we will only be talking about shark finning here. WE ARE NOT TALKING ABOUT WHALING IN THIS POST.

Ok, now on to the debate.

If anyone isn’t familiar with Sea Shepherd’s methods or the controversy surrounding them, you will likely be confused by the caution with which I introduced this ethical debate.  Hopefully that will soon be made clear.

While groups like Oceana and WildAid focus on public education, Sea Shepherd focuses on action. As an example, in the movie “Sharkwater”, which I really liked except for the parts that involved Sea Shepherd, Paul Watson and his crew find a ship actively engaged in longlining for sharks to fin. Using a high-powered water cannon, the Sea Shepherd folks attempt to flood the engines of the shark finning vessel. They also attempt to destroy fishing gear in the water. There are many reported incidents where Sea Shepherd vessels actually ram fishing vessels.

They also do things like this – a woman in London suspended herself by hooks in her skin to protest the sale of shark products at a department store.

Let me be perfectly clear on my background with shark conservation before I state my opinions on Sea Shepherd. I believe that sharks play a critical role in the ecosystem. I believe that due in no small part to the shark finning industry, populations of many sharks species have declines by as much as 90% in the last few decades. I believe that shark finning is a brutal, wasteful, and completely unsustainable practice and I would be quite happy if it stopped.

That said, Sea Shepherd and their tactics are bad for the conservation movement, bad for sharks, bad for science, and morally wrong in their own right.

Dr. M at Deep Sea News summarizes nicely why ramming ships is so completely unacceptable.

  1. The  ramming of another vessel is against every maritime code and just general sense of decency I can think of.
  2. For a captain to put both his own vessel and crew at risk and another as well, intentionally, is beyond forgiveness.
  3. To conduct such an act that serves absolutely no function other than showboating or putting on a good show for television crews is cheap.

I’ll add little to this, other than to point out that the ship being attacked by Sea Shepherd in Sharkwater was crewed by poor South American fisherman who haven’t been able to find other work. And yes, “attacked” is the right word when one vessel attempts to damage or destroy another vessel. Disregarding the bad PR of well-off Americans violently telling poor people that they can’t earn a living, YOU JUST CAN’T DO THAT. People’s lives were put in danger! The shark finners are made to look like victims- in fact, they ARE victims- which makes others sympathetic to them.

Yes, the individual sharks freed from the longlines by Sea Shepherd are probably better off. However, sharks as a whole are FAR WORSE OFF as a result of Sea Shepherd’s insane and criminal actions. I speak to the general public about sharks and shark conservation whenever I get the chance. It is HARD to get people to care about sharks. I have had some success through reasoned and respectful argument. All that Sea Shepherd does is to make regular people associate caring about sharks with being insane and violent- and they DO make the association. I have not yet had any success convincing anyone who has seen Sea Shepherd endanger the lives of poor people for the sake of sharks that sharks are worth saving, and I know many other sane shark activists who have had the same problem.

While Sea Shepherd is superbly skilled at making headlines, the news stories usually focus on the criminal actions taken by Sea Shephard and almost never focus on the actual scientific reasons why sharks are important- largely because many Sea Shepherd members are ignorant of science. Simply “generating awareness” is not helpful, particularly when it’s done in this way.

I appreciate the enthusiasm, but it would be nice if it were directed towards actually helping sharks instead of becoming famous and demonizing people who don’t have another way to earn money.

We will NEVER get sharks the legal protection they need without getting large groups of people to care about sharks. Sea Shepherd DOES NOT get regular people to care about sharks, they get regular people to associate caring about sharks with being insane and endangering the lives of poor people. Sharks and the shark conservation movement are FAR WORSE OFF as a result of Sea Shepherd.

Thoughts? Please keep it relevant, respectful, and sock-puppet free.