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Paul Watson v. Sea Shepherd: Standing up for direct action

Sea Shepherd has held a unique place in the marine conservation movement by being confrontational, non-compromising and controversial. The Board wants to disassociate with traditional tactics and strategies and focus more on partnerships with governments.

GLEN BLACK: When Paul Watson posted on 28 July 2022 that “It is with great relief… I have ceased my employment and cut all ties with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (USA)”, it didn’t come as a surprise to those that had been following the group’s trajectory. Despite Watson having founded Sea Shepherd, senior management within the US branch had slowly edged him out over the best part of a decade. And much of it, at least publicly, came down to Watson’s ongoing commitment to direct action.

Sea Shepherd sits in the popular consciousness with a reputation for confrontational tactics: throwing rotten butter aboard whaling ships to spoil its catch; weighted ropes to ensnare propellers; using emergency flares as smoke bombs; boarding ships; ramming ships; and, perhaps most famously, scuttling two unmanned Icelandic whaling vessels. A 2009 article reported that Sea Shepherd claimed to have sunk 10 whaling vessels and destroyed millions of dollars of equipment.

Watson founded Sea Shepherd in 1977 after he was forced out of another organisation for proposing methods of maritime direct action it found too aggressive – Greenpeace. Watson pursued these tactics into the formation of Sea Shepherd because he believed they were the needed to save lives. And history seems to have proved him right. A timeline on Sea Shepherd Global’s website shows the effect that its ‘controversial’ tactics have had, from saving “over a thousand” seal pups in one action in March 1979 to more than 6000 whales saved from Japanese whaling ships between 2002 and 2017. We should sometimes take a group’s claims of its own success with a pinch of salt, but many of Sea Shepherd’s successes are documented by third parties as well.

The success stories didn’t come without consequences, though. In February 2013, a US court of appeal declared Sea Shepherd to be a “without a doubt, a pirate” organisation following attempts by the Japanese whaling industry to bring an injunction against the group. The court ruling led to a fracture within the organisation. Sea Shepherd US effectively split away from other national branches. The following year Watson was replaced at the head of the US branch by Pritam Singh (formerly Paul LaBombard), a millionaire real estate developer that had previously donated large amounts of money to the organisation. And Singh would ultimately sever the ties between Watson and Sea Shepherd completely.

A June 2022 article in Science documents how the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS), a name most often applied to the US branch, changed its outlook after Singh took over. It reported that Singh, along with whale behaviourist Roger Payne, who came onboard at the top of SSCS, wanted a more ‘scientific’ approach to marine conservation. Science wrote: “’By the summer of 2014, we were re-evaluating how best to accomplish our mission of protecting marine wildlife,’ Singh says. ‘It required a complete change of direction in terms of culture and approach’…

This change of direction was stark. SSCS moved away from confrontational actions. It invested itself instead in scientific research and, perhaps most ominously, partnerships with States across Latin America that turned Sea Shepherd vessels into security guards of the ocean.

Freedom News contacted Watson via the new organisation the Paul Watson Foundation to ask why he believed direct action became such a point of contention for SSCS. “Sea Shepherd has held a unique place in the marine conservation movement by being confrontational, non-compromising and controversial,” he said. “The Board of SSCS want to disassociate with our traditional tactics and strategies with the intention of focusing more on research and partnerships with governments. My history (the history of Sea Shepherd actually) was cited as an obstacle for negotiations with governments and corporations. In June 2022, I informed the [SSCS] Board that I could not support or participate in this change of directions. I was told I was an employee and needed to do what I was told.”

Watson’s response was to resign. Despite this, SSCS continues to claim it is a direct action organisation. Responding to Watson’s 28 July open letter of resignation, the US group said its “growing fleet remains focused on direct action campaigns”, although it is unclear exactly what that means…

Watson’s commitment to direct action is strong enough that he left the group that he founded and guided for several decades. And not for the first time either, as his past with Greenpeace shows. It’s also true to say that despite Sea Shepherd Global siding with SSCS in its rejection of Watson, many of the network’s national branches have sided with him and his approach to marine wildlife defence. “So far Sea Shepherd France, Sea Shepherd UK, Sea Shepherd Brazil, Sea Shepherd New Zealand and Sea Shepherd Tahiti are backing my position and there is debate amongst the other Sea Shepherd groups,” Watson told Freedom News… Paul Watson continues his work through the Captain Paul Watson Foundation. SOURCE…


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