Paul Watson is perhaps one of the most famous militant conservation activists in History, known for his propensity to act violently in defense of marine life and the oceans. But the vigilante approach he espoused since the 1970s appears finally on its way out, to be replaced by a more sober form of ocean surveillance, based on scientific research and close cooperation with government maritime authorities. In short, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) he founded is no longer the same.
SSCS now embodies a new kind of activism that sees itself as a service provider, coming to the rescue, filling knowledge gaps where needed, and no longer acting like an overbearing vigilante setting rules by force.
But as reported by Science in a recent article, Can former pirates help scientists study troubled waters, the change wasn’t easy.
Many fishing communities around the world still remember the Sea Sheperd as their enemy, as evidenced by an episode in 2019 when the Mowat, a Sea Sheperd vessel with scientists on board studying the sea porpoise Vaquita, a species at risk of extinction, was attacked by local fishing boats.
Enraged fishermen hurled stones and Molotov cocktails. The Mowat crew responded by dousing them with water hoses but had to give up when a fire started on board:
First, to understand the hurdles ahead and how big a change this is for the Sea Sheperd Conservation Society, it helps to know how Watson operated and what kind of legacy he left behind.
Watson’s legacy: Sea Shepherd’s controversial results
Watson started off in the 1970s walking out on Greenpeace that he had helped create because, in his view, it was too mild and had become ineffective. He spent the next three decades in epic battles on the seas with his “pirate” fleet – his own ship always flew a strange black flag with skull-and-cross-bones, he wore a captain’s uniform and carried a knife in his belt.
In the name of conservation, Watson had his crews place “net rippers” with steel spikes on the ocean floor to tear up trawling nets, throw smoke bombs on fishing boats, and even taint whale meat with rancid butter. From 1979 to 1994, Watson claims his group sunk five whaling ships and scuttled two more.
By 2010, things took an ugly turn. A U.S. federal court labeled his crew “pirates” and authorities not just in the United States, but also Canada, Norway, Costa Rica and Japan took legal action against him.
Interpol in 2012 issued a “red notice” declaring Watson an internationally wanted fugitive at the request of Costa Rica and Japan. In the end, he was never arrested and now reportedly lives in Vermont, writing books – even though the US is a signatory of Interpol cooperation agreements.
At the time, marine life activists were highly critical of Watson’s activities, in particular Sidney Holt, one of the main architects of the first international whaling moratorium that was put into place in 1982. He felt that Watson’s tactics had backfired, giving a boost to pro-whaling sentiment in places like Japan and Iceland.
“[Watson’s] involvement in all of this is an absolute disaster,” he told The New Yorker in 2007. “Almost everything he has been doing has had blowback for those who want to see an end to whaling.” And indeed, to this day, Iceland and Norway continue to be exceptions to the international whaling moratorium calling for a pause and they are still catching whales commercially.
In 2014, Watson pulled out of the US-based Sea Sheperd Conservation Society leaving the space for a new management – a move that did not stop the TV series Whale Wars that had documented his campaigns around the world from creating yet another (exciting) episode:
2014: The Sea Shepherd undergoes a radical transformation
As it happened, 2014 would be a major turning point because the new management team was set to completely overhaul the organization. Pritam Singh, a wealthy developer and environmentalist, and Roger Payne, a leading expert on whale behavior had very different ideas when they joined the board of the U.S.-based Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
“By the summer of 2014, we were re-evaluating how best to accomplish our mission of protecting marine wildlife,” Singh told the Science reporter. “It required a complete change of direction in terms of culture and approach.”
Then in 2015, something momentous happened: Sea Shepherd Global’s Bob Barker—a former whaling ship painted with shark jaws on the bow—chased an illegal fishing vessel, Thunder, for 110 days and 10,000 nautical miles. As the New York Times reported, it was an “epic game of cat-and-mouse”. The pursuit, the longest in maritime history, ended with the sinking of the Thunder and the arrest of its captain.
To put the event in context: Industrial-scale violators of fishing bans and protected areas are the reason why more than half of the world’s major fishing grounds have been depleted and by some estimates over 90 percent of the ocean’s large fish like marlin, tuna and swordfish have vanished.
Unsurprisingly, a U.S. Navy report later called it a “game-changer” for the Sea Shepherd movement, re-establishing its reputation, moving it from “eco-vigilante to legitimized maritime capacity builder”.
The current composition of the SSCS board of directors reflects this new course of action, with Dr. Payne as its Director of Science, and Dr. Ann Edwards as Director of Conservation. Edwards, with a Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Washington, has a long experience as a research field ecologist and conservation program leader, inter alia working at NOAA and USAID.
More ships were added to the SSCS fleet and a campaign of what Singh calls “radical collaboration,” was launched, signing agreements with a number of Latin American countries to fight poaching and overfishing. And a yacht, the Martin Sheen was exclusively dedicated to research – starting with the above-mentioned Vaquita project.
SSCS currently has five vessels and is adding three more by the end of the summer; by early next year, it plans to have a dozen, ranging from the 24-meter Martin Sheen to a 41-meter former Japanese research ship.
SSCS is also recruiting researchers from across the globe. By early next year, it plans to bring scientists, especially those from less developed countries, to work in parts of the ocean never covered before by research. They will survey animals at risk of extinction, search for new species, and help collect data on overfishing, including by boarding illegal vessels if necessary: The Watson legacy is not entirely forgotten!
In its research activities, SSCS is far more nimble compared to the research fleets operated by big government organizations like NOAA: It can take up to 5 years to secure a grant to get on these boats, and costs can exceed $100,000 per day on a large research vessel. In contrast, SSCS can field scientists at a fraction of the cost and in far less time.
By now, the SSCS is engaged in a number of projects around the world, including the Vaquita project which is now coming to fruition with the sea porpoise’s chances of survival vastly improved. Other projects include an Amazon expedition announced in March 2022: The Boto Expedition II, in partnership with Sea Shepherd Brazil and the National Institute for Research in the Amazon (INPA), will map the populational health of Amazon river dolphins across 1100 km in four areas of the Amazon basin.
The change comes at the right time. With climate change, overfishing and pollution wreaking havoc on marine life and environments, monitoring the oceans has become an ever-higher priority.
Yet marine research in the United States has shrunk under the pressure of conservatives cutting back on the Federal research budget. The U.S. government’s scientific fleet has diminished by one-third over the past twenty years, according to some estimates.
According to Douglas McCauley, a marine ecologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, many marine biologists and researchers find themselves grounded. “There are a lot of good ocean scientists, but they’re stranded on shore,” he said .“We are looking at a rough next few decades for the ocean, and we need all hands on deck.”
SSCS could play a key role in this new phase, and be a big part of the answer – provided it can complete its turnaround which will require considerable investment and dedication from all involved, directors and staff, sailors and scientists.
But the outlook is hopeful. For example, earlier this year, Age of Union Alliance, led by tech leader and environmental activist Dax Dasilva, pledged $4.5 million to support Sea Shepherd’s efforts to battle illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing worldwide.
This donation will fund three years of operating costs for one of Sea Shepherd’s most iconic vessels – the 182-foot research and survey vessel formerly named Sam Simon. In recognition of this generous gift, SSCS decided to rename the ship: Age of Union.
The name change also reflects the radical turn in SSCS corporate philosophy: From fighting it out alone to international cooperation.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com — Featured Photo: Scientists aboard the Sharpie scan for Vaquitas Source: MELISSA ROMAO/SEA SHEPHERD