ANALYSIS: Sea Shepherd Espouses Nonviolence, But Could Stand a Lesson in Using It

Bryan Farrell May 3, 2010

An arrest warrant has been issued by Japan for Captain Paul Watson, founder of the anti-whaling Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, for endangering the lives of Japanese whaling crews in the Antarctic this winter. According to The Guardian:

The Canadian, who founded Sea Shepherd in 1977, has proved a formidable nemesis for Japan’s whalers in recent years.

Earlier this month, the leader of Japan’s whaling fleet said the group’s guerilla tactics had forced it to return to port with just over half its intended catch of 935 minke whales.

Watson, 59, said the move was a “desperate” attempt to prevent Sea Shepherd from pursuing the whaling fleet during its next expedition to the Southern Ocean whale sanctuary at the end of this year.

While there’s no doubt the intentions of the Japanese whaling industry are malevolent, Sea Shepherd operates in murky waters as well. For instance, they have admitted to owning a cache of non-lethal weapons, such as sound cannons and photonic disrupters, both of which temporarily impair their target. They also throw stink bombs and slime that makes the ship’s deck too slippery to walk on—an especially dangerous weapon in the freezing Antarctic waters.

Yet, Sea Shepherd maintains it has a “strict policy of nonviolence, to not cause injury to those we oppose.” And they claim to have “an unblemished record in this regard.”

Having just days ago met some of the crew during a promotional visit to New York City, I don’t have the sense that this policy is intentionally disingenuous. Misguided? Absolutely. Anyone who volunteers to go out to sea and risk bodily harm to save whales should be commended, but the moment you start playing the same violent game as the whalers, you have compromised not only your just cause, but perhaps your best chance at winning.

While on board Sea Shepherd’s Steve Irwin and observing their high-tech operation I couldn’t help but wonder if they have ever considered or used other proven nonviolent tactics, such as organizing boycotts of whale meat or getting dock workers to refuse unloading, like when Chinese ships filled with weapons for Zimbabwe were denied port access along southern Africa.

Another missed opportunity seems to be the establishment of a relationship with the fishermen. Rather than physically challenge their livelihoods, Sea Shepherd could probably benefit from reaching out to these workers, who I’m sure have little ideological ties to their job. In fact, I would bet it’s a rather unpleasant job. Not to mention the fact that they work for an industry that knowingly violates international law. Could they too be victims of this industry? If so, what a tremendous chance for collaboration against a common enemy.

Without incorporating other strategies that go after the whaling industry’s pillars of support, as well as the culture that demands whale meat, it seems like the best Sea Shepherd can do is minimize the problem. Considering the amount of money and resources it takes to keep their operation running year after year, I have to wonder how financially sustainable it is in the long run. (Bob Barker and his millions won’t be around forever, after all). There’s also the question of environmental sustainability. It takes a lot of oil to power Sea Shepherd’s three ships and two helicopters. I’m not sure that totally fits in with their conservation-minded approach.

At the same time, however, I think there is value in following these whaling ships and documenting their abuses and legal violations. I just wonder if it’s possible for that to become one of many truly nonviolent tactics in their effort to save whales.

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