History Repeating itself as Watson is squeezed from Sea Shepherd. 13 October 2022

The recent machinations of Paul Watson and Sea Shepherd highlights the challenges faced by Activist organisations when they grow large, and must make difficult choices. A key one is do you work against governments or with them? Or put another way, do you highlight the failings of government, or do you partner with them in pushing solutions. But it is hard to do both.

SSCS found this out with their forays into Galapagos. They had worked on patrols there with government Rangers for some time, and it allowed SSCS to contribute with a boat and crew, while government Rangers provided oversight. That all came crashing down a couple of years ago when Watson was extremely critical of Ecuador after a fleet of Chinese squid vessels ventured inside their EEZ. Sea Shepherd was subsequently booted from Ecuador, and the Navy has made it abundantly clear SSCS is not welcome back. This despite many prior years or working constructively with the government. But you can understand the governments position – you can’t trash them one minute, then come to them the next wanting to work alongside them.

It is not an isolated example. SSCS has also been booted out of many other countries, including Costa Rica, Norway, Namibia, Faroe Islands, Japan, and more recently Panama, to name just a few. It makes it hard to foster new relationships with government when so many don’t want anything to do with you.

For some time, and under the guidance of its board (appointed largely by Watson), SSCS has recognised this dilema, and have been pursuing closer relationships with governments, and with some success. The board saw joint patrols as legitimate use for their many assets and crew. They also saw merit in supporting scientific research to help push government policy. This last point is interesting. “We save Dolphins” gets lots of likes and shares on Facebook, but it does little to change government priorities. However legitimate scientific research highlighting the problems of dolphin by-catch for example can help shape government policy.

SSCS then in recent times has been evolving. They have deep pockets and are the strongest brand in marine conservation. And they have actively looked to support science, and to support government agencies in protecting MPAs. The tricky part in all this remained Watson, who in no way favoured this shift. And who at times had become destructive towards governments that his board were trying to work with.

It got to the stage recently where SSCS has formed a new entity entirely, titled “Marine Protection Alliance”, in an effort to distance themselves from the boat ramming, butyric acid and hostile activities towards fishermen that SSCS are best known for. The new NGO is now offering governments what are effectively SSCS boats and crews to patrol MPAs, but without the baggage of Watson’s brand.

This is similar to the model we’ve pursued for the last 3 years in Costa Rica, and prior to that with our fishery patrols in Asia. We provide boats, crew, food, fuel, and technology, while the governments we partner with provide Rangers or Coastguard officials to oversee operations. The patrols see fishermen not as the enemy, but rather legitimate stakeholders in an industry that is important to local economies. Here is a video summarising the approach and what we work on.

Watson is from an era where there were many illegal activities that gave a small NGO plenty to work on. Chasing illegal whaling vessels in international waters made great TV. Watson’s simple approach of attacking also found a receptive audience. He would regularly attack pretty much everyone – including governments, coastguard, officials, former volunteers, NGOs, fishermen, and in some cases entire nations. And the only people worthy of any praise was himself and maybe a few crew. But the recipe was hugely successful. It got lots of likes and shares, and it helped push SSCS into a legitimate powerhouse in marine conservation.

Antarctica of course provided the perfect platform – International waters where you can get away with prop-fouling, throwing butyric acid, ramming and other activities. No one has jurisdiction there so it became a free-for-all. Japanese conducting horrific whaling in breach of numerous international laws and treaties also provided a great enemy for people to hate, as well as opening up significant funding via donations.

Japan has since ceased whaling in Antarctica however, and it has taken away Watson’s flagship campaign. Japan does still conduct whaling in Japanese waters, however you go there with your so-called “Aggressive non-violent direct action”, and you simply get arrested. Similarly if you apply “Direct Acton” to other flagship SSCS issues (Seal clubbing, Taiji dolphin slaughter, shark finning, the grind), you also get arrested. I’m not saying these issues are less important. And getting arrested can serve a valuable purpose. I would know, having spent 5 months in a maximum security prison in Japan on Sea Shepherd’s behalf. But the board of SSCS for some time has shied away from having volunteers imprisoned, they have scaled back the direct action, and they’ve increased cooperation with governments.

So Watson and SSCS have parted ways. It’s like history repeating itself. A fledgling Greenpeace similarly booted him out decades ago because no one liked him. He can be a difficult person to work with. When he’s in charge it doesn’t matter of course – There are always lots of new volunteers, including myself, who were prepared to work under him. But as SSCS evolved, it has now simply outgrown him. The board, many appointed by Watson himself, were charged with running the organization, but they found Watson increasingly difficult to deal with, and they were probably quite relieved when he recently resigned.

Galling as it must be for Watson to be squeezed out of the NGO he created, at least he’s now free again to pursue campaigns he believes in. SSCs can evolve into a more government-friendly entity. And people can support whoever they think best represents their core values.

Captain Pete Bethune
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email: pete.bethune@gmail.com