Transgressive Environmentalism: Sea Shepherd and the Indespensible Role of Direct-Action

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a nonprofit direct-action marine conservation organization, was initially conceived as the ‘Earth Force Society’ in 1977 in Vancouver, Canada by Captain Paul Watson, a former Greenpeace member. In 1981 it became officially incorporated in Oregon as a US-based environmental group (SSCS, 2016), and has since become an international phenomenon whose hundreds of bold, fierce, and uncompromising direct-action campaigns have managed to accomplish what years of litigation by more established environmental NGOs such as WWF and Greenpeace have often failed to do: to bring an immediate halt to the systematic slaughter of whales and other marine life. For instance, their incessant harassment of Japanese whalers managed to bring Japan’s 2010-2011 operations to a grinding halt (Stuart et al, 2013), have since managed to reduce Japan’s annual kill quota to as low as 10% of intended kills, and their last 10 Antarctic Whale Defense campaigns have managed to save the lives of over 6,000 whales. Their actions have granted them a high profile, though often controversial, status in the realm of international environmental politics, and they were even given their own show, previously titled ‘Whale Wars’ yet newly renamed ‘Ocean Warriors’, on the American nature channel, Animal Planet. Some of their most astonishing feats include Sea Shepherd engineers Rod Coronado and David Howitt’s sinking two of Iceland’s four whaling ships in Reykjavik harbor, in 1986, and their destruction of the whale processing station at Hvalfjodur, which effectively shut down Icelandic commercial whaling activities for the next 16 years (SSCS, 2016). Similarly remarkable was their 10,000-mile, 110-day pursuit in 2015 across two seas and three oceans of an illegal fishing trawler called the Thunder, which landed them in maritime history for the longest ever pursuit of an illegal fishing vessel (Urbina, NY Times, 2015).


Because of their anti-establishment approaches, they and groups similar to them have often been labeled as ‘radical’ or worse, as ‘eco-terrorists’ by opposition groups such as Japanese authorities and a number of powerful state and corporate actors. However, as Salter (2011) so eloquently states, such labels are employed in order to ‘illegitimatise and criminalise activists (Polletta & Jasper, 2001; Linden & Klandermans, 2006)(Stuart et al, 2013, pg. 8) and to portray state and corporate interests as the only truly legitimate ones. What’s more, it is absurd to label a group of activists who devote their lives towards protecting living beings, who’ve never been responsible for the death of anyone, and whose specific direct-action guidelines state that they cannot use weapons and that they cannot undertake any action that involves risk of injury to living things (Watson, 1988, pg. 86), as ‘terrorists’. A more apt use of the word terrorist would be to apply it to any individuals, groups, or institutions that systematically destroy life, as does the outdated and woefully inefficient whaling industry (and capitalism more generally, I’d add). Environmental activists, however, have endured all manner of harassment, attack, and violent retaliation by police, government officials, and true ‘terrorists’ such as the person who planted an explosive device in the car of lead Earth First! activist, Judi Bari which caused extensive injury to her and a fellow Earth First!er who was riding in the passenger’s seat (Taylor, 1991). I wholeheartedly maintain that such ‘radical’ and zealous actions undertaken by such brave souls through interposing their anti-whaling vessels and very bodies between whales and harpoons, their use of irritating yet non-threatening devices such as high-pressure water hoses, and their unrelenting persecution of and interference with whaling and other ecologically disastrous activities represent glimmers of the ‘ecological self’ that is so essential for mending the damaged human-nature dialectic.

 “No…we don’t protest. We intervene against illegal whaling. We don’t like coming down here year after year. But we come because the signatories to the treaties and laws are doing nothing, just as the British did very little to stop piracy in the Caribbean in the 17th Century. Governments are doing even less today to stop the pirates diminishing life in the sea. Thus we have no choice than to be pirates of compassion in opposing the pirates of greed. (Article 16)’” (Stuart et al, 2013, pg. 13).

A poignant comment by Watson highlights the essence of the ‘who’ and ‘why’ of Sea Shepherd and their unorthodox, staunchly anti-establishment stance: ‘It’s a funny world where vegetarians who have never injured a single person can be denounced as terrorists by nations that have committed gross and horrific acts of genocide and habitat destruction. It’s killers flashing peace symbols as they denounce the “viciousness” of writers, poets, philosophers and teachers. In a world where the Dalai Lama is a “terrorist” then there is only one possible thing to be ourselves. And so I stand with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in the noble memory of Gandhi and King, and in respect for gentle terrorists around the world from Nelson Mandela to Aung San Suu Kyi. For in the end, it will be the pirates that bring down the pirates, the outlaws that will uphold the law and the gentle terrorists that will prevail over the brutal terrorism of nation states, corporations and organized crime. (Article 19)’” (Stuart et al, 2013, pg. 14). As Stuart et al (2013) elucidate, Sea Shepherd’s alignment with the ‘paradoxical label’ of ‘gentle terrorist’ is a rhetorical device utilized to clearly delineate where Sea Shepherd go one step further than most environmental organizations. By ‘gentle terrorist’, Watson is referring to the Buddhist tactic of ‘compassionate wrath’, or, ‘aggressive nonviolence’ (Stuart et al, 2013, pg. 14) characterized by resolute opposition to ecologically destructive activities and the adoption of nonviolent intimidation strategies geared towards halting them. As an unyieldingly direct-action organization that has been disillusioned by the lack of effective action on behalf of governments and other mainstream institutions against global ecological destruction, Sea Shepherd is indeed unconventional in many respects; this is why they are of such interest for my thesis.


A review of the numerous successes of Sea Shepherd’s campaign reveals that their adoption of more extreme solutions for stemming the tides of ecological destruction, while controversial, has been highly successful and highly consequential in terms of helping to effect broader social change. According to Dissensus theorists (Piven & Cloward, 1977) in the political sciences, the groups that adopt more disruptive strategies (which violate the norms of an advantaged group or mainstream society), while aided to certain degrees by the more moderate strategies employed by more mainstream environmental NGOs such as Greenpeace and the WWF, are vital for effecting social change. Tactics employed by direct-action groups ‘polarize public opinion and draw attention to the cause’, which paves the way for more moderate groups to capitalise on the new attention in a way that the bystander public find more palatable (Stuart et al, 2013). However, there is something wonderfully utopian about the strategies and convictions of direct-action, ‘eco-vigilante’ groups such as Sea Shepherd. They don’t take existing conditions as a given; they show us that there is a better way. Fueled by their boundless passion for our biosphere and its magnificent inhabitants, they do not ask only what is legally permissible; they ask, what is the moral, sane thing to do? Who are the true criminals, those who harass whalers by means of irritating yet quite innocuous and always non-violent direct-action tactics? Or are the true criminals those who exploit loopholes in international law in order to brutally and unnecessarily slaughter some of our planet’s most amazing, intelligent, and long lived creatures? How about the nations and government bodies that continue to view whales and other more-than-human beings as mere resources to be managed for profit rather than as sentient, coevolutionary marvels who have inherent worth and a right to life just like we do? Yesterday, Sea Shepherd vessels set out to the Southern Ocean on its 11th annual campaign to defend whales against illegal Japanese whaling. Its new custom-made anti-whaling ship, the Ocean Warrior, is larger, faster, and more well equipped to contend with its adversaries. I wish them every success in their fight to stem the tides of ecological destruction.

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