Founded in 1977, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Group has become celebrated in recent years for its aggressive anti-whaling campaign. While this high-profile is largely a product of the popular TV programme ‘Whale Wars’, a documentary that tracks the Sea Shepherd’s seasonal campaign against whalers, the group can also claim the support of notable individuals such as the Dalai Lama, Christian Bale, Mick Jagger, Pierce Brosnan, Martin Sheen, Kelly Slater and Modest Mouse.
The battle between the Japanese whaling fleet and the Sea Shepherd has been fought for several seasons now but was propelled back into media attention in January 2010 when a Japanese harpoon vessel, Shonan Maru 2, sheered off the bow of the Sea Shepherd’s Ady Gil, a $2.5 million, 78 foot wave piercing trimaran. Although the Ady Gil later sunk and another vessel was rammed and damaged, Operation Waltzing Matilda has been the latest and most successful Sea Shepherd anti-whaling crusade to date. Intending to sink the Japanese Whaling fleet economically, the conservation group managed to cut the annual Japanese quota of 1,000 whales in half, costing the whalers tens of millions of dollars in lost profits. In their view, ‘ships are expendable, endangered species of whales are not’.
Unlike conventional conservation groups who fight to protect and conserve wildlife, Sea Shepherd openly uses ‘innovative direct-action tactics’ to confront illegal activities on the high seas including deliberately sailing into ship’s path to defend whales, ramming and sinking vessels, throwing acid onto whalers, destroying nets and tampering with harboured boats. In addition, protestors have been known to use bio-degradable, organic and non-toxic rotten butter stink bombs, water canons, sonic blasters, photonic disruptors (laser dazzlers used to temporarily blind the target) and line carrying rockets, sometimes known as James Bond Harpoons. In retaliation, it has been claimed that Japanese whalers have used military grade weapons such as grenades, acoustic weapons (emitting high frequency sound waves that cause disorientation and nausea) as well as solid brass and lead balls. Unlike the Sea Shepherd who is monitored closely by environmentalists and Western administrations, the Japanese fleet has full support of their government in the tactics they use to defend their vessels, a bitter point of contention for Captain Paul Watson, the 60 year old founder of the group.
Events have emerged however that could damage the reputation of Sea Shepherd as a legitimate conservation movement. During the most recent campaign, Captain Peter Bethune of the Ady Gil boarded the Shonan Maru 2 under the cover of darkness. Presenting the captain of the vessel with a citizen’s arrest warrant and an invoice for the value of his sunken ship, he was seized and taken prisoner. Today he is facing charges of trespass, vandalism, possession of a knife, obstructing business, assault and piracy. Although Bethune claims that he was under orders from Watson to scuttle the boat for the sake of entertaining television and to garner sympathy from the public, he faces up to 15 years in prison if he is convicted.
Watson maintains that they are not breaking the law. The campaigns are guided by the United Nations World Charter for Nature which provides authority to individuals to act on behalf of and enforce international conservation laws. On the other hand, in accordance with their practice of non-violent principles the Sea Shepherd severed association with Bethune after bow and arrows were found amongst his ship’s wreckage. While it is a crime in maritime law to board another ships flagged vessel on the high seas, Watson claims that it would be ‘an unlikely case to charge a man with piracy after his ship has been destroyed by the very captain of the vessel that he boarded.’ For now at least, piracy within the Sea Shepherd conservationist group remains strictly romantic with comical weaponry and a skull and cross bones flag.
Article by Sarah Murphy-Young.
Edited by Matthew Byatt.