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Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

LEADER: Paul Watson




Founded in 1977 as a more extreme alternative to Greenpeace, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has amassed a lengthy record of attacks on whaling and fishing vessels. The group's leader is wanted in several countries for his work, and he has frequently bragged about his organization's numerous attacks on whaling ships. The group considers itself a self-appointed enforcer of international maritime law.


By the mid 1970s, the environmentalist group known as Greenpeace had gained substantial attention for its efforts to stop commercial whaling, nuclear testing, and other anti-environmental practices. Typical of the group's efforts was a 1975 mission in which a Greenpeace vessel confronted Soviet whaling vessels off the coast of California, with Greenpeace members steering their inflatable speedboats between the whalers and their targets. While Greenpeace's actions often shocked the general public, some within the group believed that its tactics were actually far too tame.

Paul Watson, a charter member of the organization, was among these disgruntled members. In 1977, Watson left Greenpeace to begin his own organization. While controversy remains over whether this departure was voluntary or not, Watson's new organization was founded with the simple purpose of prosecuting the Greenpeace battle, using more violent tactics. Watson's efforts led to the founding that same year of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which describes itself as a self-appointed policing organization of the high seas.

In 1979, Watson's vessel (also named Sea Shepherd) was patrolling off the coast of Portugal when it encountered the Sierra, a commercial whaling ship that was allegedly operating in violation of international whaling guidelines. Watson's ship had been uniquely prepared for this encounter: her bow compartments were entirely filled with concrete, making the front of the Sea Shepherd a lethal weapon. Watson took aim at the Sierra and rammed it, seriously damaging the vessel.

Portuguese officials soon confiscated the Sea Shepherd and announced plans to give it to the Sierra's owners as compensation for the ramming. In response, Watson covertly boarded the Sea Shepherd and scuttled her, though two later vessels in the Sea Shepherd "navy" would be christened with the same name. The Sierra, while surviving this initial attack, would not survive long. While docked in Lisbon harbor in 1980, the vessel was attacked. Divers attached magnetic mines to the ship's hull, and the resulting explosions sank the vessel. Sea Shepherd statements claimed credit for the attack.

Throughout the 1980s, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society was linked to numerous acts of violence. In several cases, Watson openly bragged about the attacks, claiming credit for sinking whaling and fishing vessels flying the flags of Spain, Iceland, and other nations. While not all of Watson's claimed attacks have been verified by independent sources, the government of Norway found sufficient evidence of his involvement to confront him at sea. In 1994, as a Sea Shepherd vessel followed whaling ships off the coast, the Norwegian coast guard ship Andenes approached, intending to stop the vessel and arrest Watson.

The incident that followed remains in dispute. Watson claims his ship was in international waters and that the Andenes rammed him. Norwegian authorities, citing videotape and eyewitness accounts, claim Watson was in Norwegian coastal waters at the time and that he in fact rammed the coast guard vessel. Following the collision, Watson's vessel limped away with the Andenes in pursuit. The Andenes eventually broke off the chase, and Watson escaped.

Later that same year, Sea Shepherd claimed responsibility for the attempted sinking of another fishing and whaling vessel off the coast of Norway; though it sustained massive damage, the vessel Senet was prevented from sinking. In his press release after the sinking, Paul Watson claimed that former U.S. Navy Seals had participated in the attack. Following this incident, the Norwegian foreign secretary summoned U.S. officials to his office to discuss the United States' responsibility in dealing with Sea Shepherd. In later public statements, a Norwegian official pointed out that not only is the group headquartered in the United States, but that it also receives "financial support" in the form of tax breaks associated with its status as a non-profit entity. He also suggested that U.S. authorities enjoy a tacit agreement to ignore the group's actions as long as U.S. interests are not targeted.

As of 2005, Sea Shepherd remains at the extremist edge of the environmental conservation movement. Paul Watson continues to lead the organization, and several celebrities are among the group's supporters. The group's current priorities include protecting sea turtles in the Galapagos Islands, intercepting so-called long-line fishing nets, and raising funds to intercept the Japanese whaling fleet near Antarctica.


Like many other environmental activist groups, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society believes that commercial uses of animal resources should be severely curtailed or eliminated. In comparison to most other environmental action groups, Sea Shepherd's tactics appear more extreme and far more violent. Watson and his associates claim responsibility for numerous sinkings and attempted sinkings on their website. Watson is also well-acquainted with the more traditional tools of publicity, admitting during a Canadian Broadcasting Company interview that his group uses photos of seals simply because the animals appear so cuddly.

Sea Shepherd currently maintains two ocean-going vessels at its home port in Friday Harbor, Washington. Crewmembers on Sea Shepherd missions pay the organization $1,000 for the right to participate. Because of its past actions, Sea Shepherd was banned from attending the 2005 International Whaling Commission Meeting in Ulsan, Korea. The group announced that it would instead send undercover delegates to the meeting.


Though it relies on extremist tactics to achieve its goals, some members of the more-radical environmental and animal rights movement praise Sea Shepherd's mission to stop whaling. Many supporters assert that Sea Shepherd acts primarily to stop whaling that is in violation of international law or treaties. However, critics counter-argue that such actions, even if directed against illegal whaling operations, constitute vigilantism.

Sea Shepherd took their mission to stop legal seal hunting into Canadian courts on September 15, 2005. A lawsuit filed on behalf of eleven Sea Shepherd members challenged the constitutionality of laws protecting hunters from being observed and documented by environmental and animal rights organizations without government permission. The suit was filed in response to charges that the organization violated such laws in the past.



Born in 1950 in Toronto, Paul Watson is the founder and current leader of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Watson grew up in a coastal region and soon took to the sea, working in the Canadian Coast Guard and on merchant vessels. His first known environmentalist effort came in 1969, when he participated in a Sierra Club antinuclear protest. He soon joined the fledgling group Greenpeace, where he served as an officer and sailor on several missions during the 1970s.

Watson left Greenpeace in 1977, reportedly because he found Greenpeace's tactics insufficiently violent. Watson was later quoted as saying that Greenpeace lost sight of its original mission and degenerated into "a bunch of wimps." In response, Watson founded the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which works to end whaling, seal hunting, and other abuses of the seas. Watson is often described as flamboyant, flying a skull and crossbones above his ship and painting the names of rammed vessels on its hull. According to one account, Watson's ship often plays Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" to intimidate his intended victims.

In 1983, Watson was sentenced to fifteen months in prison for interfering with a seal hunt in Canada. In later years, he was repeatedly charged by nations around the world, though he has largely managed to avoid jail time, despite admissions of his involvement in numerous acts of eco-terrorism. As of 2005, Watson remains at sea.


Like its gregarious founder, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society at times appears to crave the spotlight. While many activist groups appear reluctant to discuss their use of violence, Paul Watson openly brags about his group's exploits and the destruction they cause. Sea Shepherd has been able to escape legal problems largely because its actions take place on the open seas, a region that lies largely outside the jurisdiction of any single national government. The group has become increasingly bold in pre-announcing its campaigns, raising the likelihood that its intended victims may take steps to fight back in the future.


Paul Watson leaves Greenpeace and launches the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
Sea Shepherd rams whaling vessel Sierra, crippling it. When Portuguese officials seizes the Sea Shepherd, Paul Watson sneaks aboard and sinks it.
Norwegian coast guard vessel and Sea Shepherd ship collide. Both sides claim the other was at fault.
Norwegian authorities demand that the U.S. government take action against Sea Shepherd, which is currently headquartered in Washington state.
Sea Shepherd makes plans for a winter mission to intercept Japanese whaling vessels near Antarctica.



Morris, David B. Earth Warrior: Overboard With Paul Watson and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing, 1995.

Wright, Richard T. Environmental Science: Toward a Sustainable Future (9th edition). NY: Prentice Hall, 2004.

Web sites

Activist "Norway to the USA: Stop Sea Shepherd." 〈〉 (accessed September 30, 2005).

The High North News. "Sea Shepherd Conservation Society." 〈〉 (accessed September 30, 2005).

The Institute of Cetacean Research. "Sea Shepherd's Violent History." 〈〉 (accessed September 30, 2005).



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