The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) is a US-based marine conservation group that specifically targets illegal fishing operations internationally. Founded in 1977, the organization is known for its use of direct action. The SSCS’ activities range from research to sabotage in an effort to prevent unregulated fishing vessels from harming marine life. The quasi-legal and radical nature of their activism have made the SSCS controversial within the public eye, international community, and environmental movement.
In 1977, Canadian environmentalist Paul Watson was removed from the Greenpeace board of directors. Watson did not agree with the organization’s pacifist brand of activism and his vocal support for direct action led to divisions with other board members. Watson claims he was a “founding member” of Greenpeace, although the latter formally deny this (1). After earning the funds to purchase their first ship -- the Sea Shepherd I -- Watson set off on the SSCS’ first campaign in 1979 against seal hunters in the Canadian arctic. Seal hunters would then become a frequent target of the SSCS.
During the 1990s, the SSCS shifted towards cooperating with local governments and police forces to achieve its goals. The 2000s and the rise of social media saw the group grow in popularity, as a number of documentaries were produced on the group. Additionally, many celebrities, including Pamela Anderson and Heath Ledger, announced their support for the SSCS, thereby increasing its popularity. The funds from its newfound viral fame allowed for the expansion of its fleet (2).
The Japanese whaling fleet has been a primary focus for the SSCS over the past 20 years. The Japanese government hunts and kills hundreds of whales a year for the alleged purpose of research, although the International Court of Justice found that claim to be untrue and thus ruled the hunt illegal (notably as the meat is then sold on the market). Japanese officials have labelled the SSCS as terrorists and have tried to prosecute the group numerous times. In 2017, the society ended its campaigns against Japanese whalers. Watson said the SSCS was at a legal and technological disadvantage and could not continue to fight them (2).
Objectives & Ideology
The group aims to exclusively protect marine life, strengthen environmental regulations, and help authorities guard their bodies of water from poachers. The SSCS saddles itself in a unique position amongst environmental activists. Although it employs direct action to achieve its goals, it operates in a legal gray area and frequently works with local governments. Beyond environmentalism, the organization is politically ambiguous. Thus, it stands between environmentalist pacifism and radicalism. This has allowed for the group to maintain its 'Robin Hood-like' public image and its widespread support. It must be noted, however, that in its early years, the group had less concern for the law and thus more pushback from authorities.
The SSCS operates all over the world, with its actions ranging from the Arctic to the Galapagos Islands. In certain countries, such as in Mexico and Sierra Leone, they work together with local authorities that may not have the resources nor the tactical knowledge to combat poaching. Currently, the group has a fleet of 12 main ships worldwide staffed by volunteers (4). It also pushes for governments and international institutions to strengthen their protections for marine life.
Approach to Resistance
The SSCS uses its fleet for all of its activities, which range from reconnaissance and scientific research to acts of sabotage and ramming the vessels of poachers. Members have been known to use water cannons, acid, lasers, smoke bombs, and mines (3). It targets practices that it deems to be particularly harmful to marine life, such as driftnet fishing, whaling, and sealing (2). The group’s activities have been attributed to one death, that of a Mexican fisherman who died in 2021 after an accidental collision with a Sea Shepherd vessel (5).
Another important element of the SSCS’ strategy is its media presence. Because of the controversial nature of their activism, the society has received plenty of attention from the media over the years. The group documents and publishes its activities online, having built up a large following. This is different from most other direct action groups who, for legal reasons, tend to limit their public exposure.
International Relations and Adjacent Groups
Although the SSCS was founded by former Greenpeace members, the two groups have denounced one another on the basis of their positions on non-violence (1). The SSCS is a registered non-profit charity in the US and UK. However, many governments have been more apprehensive towards the group. The governments of Japan, Costa Rica, New Zealand, Australia, and Malta have all opposed the SSCS’ actions (3).
Works Cited (Chicago-style)
(1) - Greenpeace (2008, December 18). Paul Watson, Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace: some facts [Press release]. https://archive.ph/20100901064525/http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/en/news-and-blogs/news/paul-watson-sea-shepherd-and
(2) - Sharman, J.C., & Eilstrup-Sangiovanni, M. (2022). Vigilantes beyond Borders: NGOs as Enforcers of International Law. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
(3) - Nagtzaam, G., & Guilfoyle, D. (2018). 'Ramming Speed': The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and the Law of Protest. Monash University Law Review, 44(2), 360+. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A614028780/LT?u=rpu_main&sid=summon&xid=b5cf836e
(4) - Sea Shepherd Global (n.d). Fleet. https://www.seashepherdglobal.org/who-we-are/fleet/
(5) - Aguilar, M. (2021, January 4). Fisherman dies after collision in clash with conservationists. Mexico News Daily. https://mexiconewsdaily.com/news/fisherman-dies-after-collision-in-clash-with-conservationists/