Stormy weather

IssueJune - August 2004
Feature by Janet Kilburn

Between 1969 and 1977 Paul Watson was involved in the groups and actions that would spawn Greenpeace International. He was one of the relatively small number of people who participated in early sea-actions against nuclear testing, whaling and seal hunting.

It is fairly common knowledge that the Greenpeace co-founder and “life member number 7” left/was pushed from (depending on who you read) the organisation as it began its journey towards becoming the respectable face of international environmental activism. (Other “casualties”from this period include London Greenpeace - who also emerged in the early 1970s, but chose to remain outside the international Greenpeace system. See .)

In response, Watson set up the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and in1979 began operating the group's first vessel the Sea Shepherd. Three crew members of the 1971 Greenpeace 1 (aka the Phyllis Cormack - see p24) voyage to oppose US nuclear testing at Amchitka Island have continued to work with Sea Shepherd ever since.

More than 160 voyages and several vessels later, Sea Shepherd remains as active and committed to defending our oceans and their inhabitants.

Actions not personalities

Since he is “the founder”, it is hard to disentangle Sea Shepherd (the group), from Paul Watson (the person) and their actions from personalities. About ten years ago I watched a TV documentary about Sea Shepherd and was thoroughly inspired (even given my reservations about their approach to violence and the slightly - though hardly unheard of - military-style activism). I was not inspired by Watson particularly - though being the “captain” and having two large, fast ships, plus a little flotilla of minor craft, at your disposal has got to be a huge buzz - but by the ships themselves (I am a sucker for hardware...), the sense of adventure, and the large number of female engineers on the crew (...and shallow), plus their genuine and direct activism in defence of our marine environment.

The group's reputation for their “take no prisoners” approach, with documented rammings, sinkings and alleged shootings of illegal fishing and whaling vessels, is not unjustified, but it is too easy to dismiss them as “extreme”, “people-hating”, or “violent”.

Eco-terrorism and nonviolence

To date no-one has been seriously injured or killed in any of these reported ramming/sinking/shooting incidents, though the fact that during the 1990s Watson admitted carrying firearms on board merely adds to the easy dismissal of Sea Shepherd as a “terrorist” organisation.

Their stated purpose of eradicating “pirate whaling, poaching, shark finning, unlawful habitat destruction, and violations of established laws in the World's oceans” through assisting “national and international bodies in the enforcement of international law under authority of the United Nations World Charter for Nature” isn't that much different - except in some choices of tactics - from a group like Trident Ploughshares who claim they are empowered under international law to carry out “citizen disarmament” actions.

Perhaps a clear and public statement on and adherence to nonviolence, particularly given that the overwhelming majority of their actions are nonviolent, would win them a few more friends and leave them less open to the “eco-terrorism” slur - something which their detractors consistently use to obfuscate the actual issues the group are working on.


Leaving aside tactics and personalities, probably nobody doubts Sea Shepherd's commitment to protecting our seas and oceans, but there are two questions in particular that call the group's integrity into question.

The first is the group's “enforcement” work on behalf of national governments, the second is Watson's ambiguous and sometimes contradictory position on overpopulation and immigration – something that has lead to accusations of racism and allegations of sharing the same waters as the animal-loving far-right.

For the past four years Sea Shepherd has been contracted by the Ecuadorian government to patrol the Galapagos national park and to intercept illegal fishing boats. This work is carried out in partnership with the National Park Service and the Ecuadorian navy, whose staff travel with Sea Shepherd during their patrols. The group has been involved in incidents of boarding ships suspected of illegal fishing and seizing vessels.

On the one hand, this close co-operation with government agencies to carry out environmental protection work creates a kind of normalisation and respectability for the group and it is hard to see a more effective and immediate way of doing it other than in co-operation with law enforcement agencies. On the other hand, close co-operation with national governments and their militaries also raises a few questions about the independence, freedom of action and the kind of “enforcement” the group may find themselves involved in.


The “extreme” animal rights movement is often equated with fascism - something which can be (but is in no way necessarily) true. In April 2004, under a barrage of attack - predominantly from the liberal US environmental movement and in relation to the Sierra Club elections (see end notes) - Watson published an extensive statement on the Sea Shepherd website,attempting to address his critics;

”I am not anti-immigrant and I am not anti-immigration [...] My concern is for numbers and not for the origins of the numbers. Yes I know our critics are accusing us of racism but should we back down on an important ecological issue because we are being called names that have no substantiation in fact?”

When areas of the planet become densely saturated with human beings - and all their waste, pollution, “development” and so on - it generally spells disaster for the environment and its non-human inhabitants. Low-impact, sustainable living is not usually at the fore of thinking when humans start to settle and “develop”.

However, as with any simple theory, there are also claims to the contrary: “The image of a run-away population `explosion' exceeding the earth's `carrying capacity' and leading to ecological devastation has a certain dramatic appeal, yet adds little to the formation of effective strategies for ecological sustainability. It also does much to foment racist, anti-immigrant sentiments” (Emanuel Sferios, Alameda County Green Party, writing in 1998).

If there is an issue here, then how we go about “managing” population is really open for discussion. Charges of “racism” should not prevent an open and honest exploration.

Critical support

Right now Sea Shepherd are in the Galapagos, cutting nets and lines, saving turtles and generally defending our marine environment. As someone who essentially shares the view that the earth and its species are not here to serve human beings, I am grateful for every explicitly nonviolent direct action they carry out. However, their choice of tactics and partners, combined with a lack of clarity around the “population” issue, make uncritical and unqualified support impossible.