There are a lot of problems affecting our oceans. Fishing stocks are dropping precipitously; radioactive isotopes are showing up in Pacific tuna, and…oh yes, there is a gyre of plastic bottles the size of Texas somewhere in the South Pacific. The current cause célèbre of ocean conservation in the surfing world is the hunting of whales practiced by Norway, Japan, Iceland, Denmark, the Faroe Islands, and a few other smaller nations around the globe. Our support tends to coalesce around two particular NGOs wherein there is considerable cross-pollination, both in their participants and their media presence. I refer to Surfers for Cetaceans, spearheaded by Dave Rastovich and the more widely famous Sea Shepherd. If we really hope to stop the hunting of whales, which we should, we need to boycott Sea Shepherd and encourage Rastovich and his far more worthy organization to do the same.
Before I get into why Sea Shepherd is doing more to hurt the cause of ocean conservation than help, let’s take a brief look at the history of whaling. The practice of hunting whales dates back to before the dawn of recorded history. While the Basques were some of the most celebrated early whalers, evidence of the practice has been found in cultures all over the world. In his enlightening book on the dire state of the world’s oceans, “The Unnatural History of the Sea,” British academic Callum Roberts called whaling the “first global industry.” It is hard to pinpoint when whale stocks first started to be depleted unsustainably but their populations became seriously threatened because certain parts of the body of the whale played a key role in the Industrial Revolutions in North America and Europe. Whale oil, in particular, powered lamps and literally greased the cogs of industry as a lubricant. When new types of oil were discovered and electricity replaced oil lamps, the need for whales as an industrial catalyst diminished. As Paul Greenberg mentions in his wonderful book, Four Fish, one of the inconvenient truths of the conservation movement is that whaling was only banned internationally after it was no longer commercially viable.
Today the harvesting of food and other materials from the sea is still a largely unregulated industry when compared to land-based environmental exploitation. It is controlled by large corporations and wealthy investors on both the supply and demand sides. We, as individuals, have very little power against such forces, so in order to effectively oppose them, we have to choose our paths and resources wisely.
Paul Watson and his organization, Sea Shepherd, are not a wise choice. In a March 2012 article in Nature, Christopher Costello and Steven Gaines from the University of California, point out that the international whaling industry makes no more than $31 million a year while major anti-whaling NGOs spend around $25 million. What have whales gotten out of all this anti-whaling money? Hunting rates that are twice as high as they were in 1990. To break it down, there are roughly 1,000 whales a year taken by Japan (though Watson claims to have cut down that number, he apparently didn’t convince The Economist, which is the source of these numbers): 600 by Norway and Iceland, and 350 by native communities in Denmark, Russia, and the US. This amounts to roughly 2,000 whales a year. I cite these number to remind you, that, as well as championing an important cause, Sea Shepherd is part of an industry – the conservation industry – and, based on those numbers, investing in the anti-whaling industry is not a sound strategy if you are hoping for valuable returns on your money.
Watson and Sea Shepherd do not only work to stop whale hunting. They also try to decrease blue-fin tuna fishing, shark-finning, and many other types of semi-regulated fishing. Their overarching cause is to protect marine reserves, like those in the Galapagos and Costa Rica, which is, of course a noble aim, but by working outside of governments and often alienating them, their efforts do very little on a large scale beside garnering PR for their organization. Watson embraces and likes to play up the “pirate” angle of his work. In the past he has extolled the virtues of famous historical pirates including Sir Walter Raleigh, Francis Drake, and Henry Morgan, claiming that the latter single handedly defeated piracy in the Caribbean. First, Drake was a sadist and slave trader. Second, Raleigh fought for the English in the brutal oppression of Irish Catholics in one of their innumerable wars that, if they had happened in our times, would be rightly called religious genocide. Finally, as if this even needs to be said: no, Henry Morgan did not single-handedly defeat anything. Piracy came to an end through a combination of economic, governmental and social factors.
What all these pirates all had in common, and indeed, what Watson shares with them is that they were all opportunists who took advantage of the power struggles of large, powerful nations for their own personal gain. They killed and plundered. Watson uses misleading media spectacles. These spectacles fit with a larger ethos he espoused in his book, Earthforce! An Earth Warrior’s Guide to Strategy:
“The nature of the mass media today is such that the truth is irrelevant. What is true and what is right to the general public is what is defined as true and right by the mass media…A headline comment on Monday’s newspaper far outweighs the revelation of inaccuracy revealed in a small box inside the paper on Tuesday or Wednesday.”