What a good conservation organization looks like

You know, we have a history on this blog of criticizing Sea Shepherd. We frequently criticize their methods, motivations, and effectiveness (we also went out of our way to add opposing views when we raised such a contentious issue). For a select group of readers, criticizing one conservation organization is tantamount to criticizing them all. If we say Sea Shepherd has been ineffective in protecting sharks, inevitably someone will assume that we’re in favor of shark finning. I don’t understand that leap of logic, but I’ve seen it come up so often that I know to expect it, probably even on this post. I can also expect someone to say “At least they’re doing something!” That is, of course, completely missing the point, since our argument is that the ‘something’ they’re doing is making it harder to affect real, lasting, change.

So let me begin by saying this – assume Sea Shepherd’s motives are absolutely pure, assume they really are try to protect the oceans, assume their commitment is absolute, then our main argument is still sound – they aren’t doing a very good job and they are generating a lot of ill will in the process. strplogo1

“Oh sure,” you say, “you can rag on Sea Shepherd ’til your face turns blue. Why don’t you show us someone who’s doing it right?”

Enter STRP.

I’m going to give a hat tip to the MarineBioBlog now, instead of at the end, since you really should go read their post before you continue. It’s very good and I’d hate to steal another blog’s thunder.

The Sea Turtle Restoration Project (STRP) was founded 20 years ago. In 1989, they sought to close down a sea turtle slaughterhouse in Mexico. By 1990, not only had they succeeded, but they brought an end to legal turtle slaughter in Mexico. They’ve convinced 20 nations to use turtle-excluding equipment in shrimp fleets and created a 200,000 square mile Leatherback Conservation Area, among other achievements. They’ve also helped form other grassroots organizations, some as far away as Papua New Guinea.

The Sea Turtle Restoration Project fights to protect endangered sea turtles in ways that make cultural and economic sense to the communities that share the beaches and waters with these gentle creatures. With offices in California, Texas, Papua New Guinea, and Costa Rica, STRP has been leading the international fight to protect sea turtle populations worldwide. STRP mission statement

Education, outreach, and community engagement. Making conservation an issue for those most directly affected by conservation initiatives. This is how conservation efforts succeed. This is why direct action fails. Direct action alienates the people who are most essential to the process. Ramming and sinking ships and disrupting fishing operations make great TV. They attract donors. They have satisfying short term gains. Stopping a whaling ship or cutting a longline seems like the most direct, most effective way to stop these activities. It feels good to free a whale, or cut loose a shark, stop a seal clubbing. But whaling continues, shark finning continues, the seal hunt continues.

STRP operates on a shoestring budget, with at most 10 volunteers at any one time. Sea Shepherd has orders of magnitude more resources, and orders of magnitude less success. STRP has raised awareness of conservation issue to the people most directly affected, the people who share the beaches and the fisheries with sea turtles. Sea Shepherd has raised awareness of conservation issues to people disconnected from the issues at hand, people who’s lives and livelihoods are not directly connected to the issue at hand. In 20 years, STRP has achieved the goals set forth at its founding, and surpassed them all. Sea Shepherd has achieved exactly none of original goals.

This isn’t about who believes what. This isn’t a game of “who cares the most about the environment”. The people who volunteer at Sea Shepherd are as dedicated and generous of heart as the people who volunteer for STRP. This is an issue of method. The philosophy of Direct Action does not affect lasting change towards conservation goals.

When you alienate the people who have the most invested, the people who’s livelihood currently depend on these activities; when you make them an enemy, vilify them, you will lose. And when that happens, we all lose.

~Southern Fried Scientist

hat tip MarineBioBlog



  1. bluegrassbluecrab · October 26, 2009

    The turtle volunteer network definitely has lots going for it. They have a history of squashing conflict rather than creating it and that makes the program hard to say ‘no’ to. The STRP and programs like it, both internationally and right here on our local NC beaches, do a tremendous job of bridging the communication divide between citizens, scientists, and fishers that makes coming up with productive solutions 10 million times easier than it would be if they were out there cutting through the shrimp nets.

  2. whysharksmatter · October 27, 2009

    This sounds Carl Safina-ish…. is he involved? I know he’s into working with local communities.

    • Southern Fried Scientist · October 27, 2009

      Between Safina, STRP, and Widecast, it really seems like the turtle people have got it figured out.

    • fishtastegood · October 27, 2009

      I agree with you on the conservation side, but if you graded sea turtle scientists in a collaborative framework, most would get a does not play well with others report card.

      Nice blog – way to get science mainstream!

  3. Christophe · October 27, 2009

    I agree, this is the best way things have to go.
    But I do not see the relation between poor small to medium fisheries and a rich whaling nation.

    • Southern Fried Scientist · October 27, 2009

      Hi Christophe,

      The connection is in the effect. Sea Shepherd has changed the issue in Japan from one of conservation to one of Nationalism. Instead of it being about the whales, it’s now about a bunch of foreigners attacking Japanese vessels, and that makes it harder to permanently end whaling in Japan.

      And Sea Shepherd does operate in developing countries as well, using the exact same tactics.

    • bluegrassbluecrab · October 27, 2009

      Even a rich whaling nation (or the US, for that matter) can be further divided between fishing villages dependent on small or medium fishing operations and the overcapitalized, for the richest of the rich whale fishery (or shark finning operations). The key difference here is the destination of the food – is it dinner or is it gourmet? The fact that Japanese fisheries in general are embroiled in conflict over the whaling means that the small fishing villages suffer from lack of support that may be critical to putting dinner on the table.

  4. Amanda · October 27, 2009

    While I sometimes don’t agree with Sea Shepherd’s tactics, they are doing something now about illegal whaling as opposed to something in the future. The governments and UN can’t stop Japan with their laws, so someone else has to step in. They have kept them from reaching their quota for the past 4 or 5 years, which is more than anyone else can say. The only way to truly stop illegal whaling is through government but that isn’t happening nor will it for awhile until someone raises the issue.

  5. Sam · October 27, 2009

    You made a good point about Sea Shepherd not having any lasting legal effect on the issues that they claim to support.

    It seems that Sea Shepherd has either completely forgotten about or completely ignored trying to find solutions on a legal basis- that is, getting legislation enacted. It would actually benefit them to do that– other people (governments) would be taking care of certain problems instead of them “having” or “needing” to do it, and they could focus on other issues.

    Conversely, that’s probably a contributing factor to why STRP is so effective– they found a method that works, which allows them to make their impact in an area and move on, instead of stagnating in several different areas where they have no lasting effect.

  6. Jon · October 28, 2009

    I have supported Sea Shepherd for several years, but not necessarily for their effectiveness in stopping shark finning, seal slaughter, or whaling. But rather in order to keep an extreme group in operation. This allows other groups like STRP, WWF, Sierra Club, …etc, from looking like an extreme group and being able to work toward solutions.

  7. Pierre · October 30, 2009

    I partly agree. But… Japanese whaling is illegal: they’re not doing “research”. They’re hiding behind that to do commercial whaling, which is banned since 1986. What can you do about it except 1) saying “booh, it’s bad”, 2) trying to harass them and lessen their catches?
    If you have a solution, please share it!
    By the way, I don’t think the Sea Shepherd has worsened the situation. It was a “Nationalistic” issue way before they intervened.

    • Southern Fried Scientist · October 30, 2009

      As a direct response to Sea Shepherd’s campaigns, Japan has opened coastal whaling within Japanese waters, thus guaranteeing that more whales will be taken, in territory where Sea Shepherd cannot intervene.


      Incidentally, Japanese whaling is not technically illegal, it’s an egregious manipulation of international law, but it is not actually illegal.

      As for the false dichotomy of saying it’s either saying “booh it’s bad” or trying to harass them, those are obviously not the only two option and plenty of NGO’s (the ones who will affect lasting change) are working within Japan to halt whaling for good. Even Sea Shepherd praises the guys responsible for the Cove who’s actions actually resulted in real change.

  8. James Barron · January 5, 2010

    I have yet to hear from anyone that lives in my corner of the world where SSCS is active… none of you are here in the South Pacific and more importantly none of you are here in the Southern Ocean. Funny that SSCS has overwhelming support from Australia and New Zealand and a host of enviornmentalist from this corner of the world. I think it ironic that a few of you find it easy to attack them from the comfort of your office chairs typing out a blog.

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