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.’
“The Sea Shepherd movement turned more of its focus toward overfishing and began to collaborate with foreign governments to help them monitor their waters.”
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. The same message highlights Operation Milagro, which is SSCS’s collaboration with the Mexican Navy, where Sea Shepherd vessels remove illegal fishing equipment. Important work, but disingenuous to describe such an ominous partnership as direct action.
It’s unclear as to what SSCS means when it uses the term ‘direct action’. One example used by the organisation post-Watson resignation was in a 29 August tweet. It described SSCS’s assistance to Mexican marine researchers and rangers as “direct action”. Again, important work, but is this the not-asking-permission-from-the-State-to-confront-oppression spirit that the term implies?
Freedom News asked Watson if he knew why the organisation continues using the term direct action, and he said:
“I was told in June 2022 at a Board meeting that SSCS would no longer be doing direct action campaigns. One of the reasons I resigned. The backlash from our support base caused SSCS to walk this back and to say they would continue with direct action campaigns but I have seen no evidence of this.”
Determining the scale of the backlash is difficult in part because SSCS limited the responses on its Facebook page immediately following Watson’s resignation. But the Science article makes it clear there is a wholesale move away from interventionist actions towards scientific research. At the same time it’s clear that the US branch remains – for now – committed to branding itself as a group using direct action.
Echoes Across the Way
What is happening with Sea Shepherd and Paul Watson echoes fractures elsewhere in the animal rights/liberation movement. Two names dominate the UK anti-hunting movement: the Hunt Saboteurs Association (HSA) and the League Against Cruel Sports. The former is an informal network of groups across the UK using direct action to stop people hunting foxes, hares, deer and mink. The latter is a campaigning charity that undertakes investigations and tries to change legislation. The two have historically had a tenuous but functional relationship.
Until 2018, that is, when the League underwent a major change after appointing Andy Knott its CEO. Several years of tension erupted into the removal of ‘controversial’ figures from its senior board including then-vice president Simon Russell, a long-term hunt saboteur and today chair of the HSA’s committee. A statement posted on a public Facebook group claimed the League suspended Russell because as long as he was on its board the police would “refuse” to work with the charity. Rather than people with a track record in the defence and liberation of hunted animals, the new senior management team consisted largely of former police and military personnel with little record in the animal rights or liberation movement.
One of the League’s long-term investigators Darryl Cunnington – himself a former police officer – criticised detractors of the new management team at the time, saying the change was needed because:
“We need them [police and politicians] to trust that we are acting legally and that the information we give them is factual. When it comes to achieving what we want, we need to work with all the right people.”
This was necessary in order to keep “protecting the animals”. The similarities with Singh’s rhetoric about Sea Shepherd’s change in direction are uncanny. Watson told Freedom News that:
“Pritam Singh… began to marginalize me, to remove directors that supported me and to appoint new directors to support him. This was a hostile take-over with the intention of transforming Sea Shepherd from what I created to an organization with an agenda created by Pritam Singh.”
When reading former League vice president Peter Egan’s account of what occurred in 2018 and 2019 with the charity, Watson’s statement could almost be about the League as well.
The League’s recuperation by the State, particularly its much closer collaboration with the police, has led to a stark decline in its impact on hunting even by its own measures. The League’s evidence has led to just one successful prosecution under the Hunting Act in eight years, while the days of their deep cover investigations such as the liberation of a fox captured for hunting are long gone. In the same period of time, evidence by sab groups has led to three convictions under the Hunting Act simply as a by-product of helping wildlife escape the clutches of hunters on a daily basis.
We shouldn’t rely on the State’s forms of justice to measure success, of course. But it illustrates how direct action is successful even on terms set out by the League. Will the future of SSCS mirror this decline in effective wildlife defence?
Direct Action is Resistance
Direct action is ambiguous in the form it takes, and how it manifests is highly contextual. Palestine Action, the anti-raids network and ALF groups all use very different forms of direct action. But there are common threads between them. The first is, of course, a reflection of the classical definition of the term: bypassing appeals to authority in order to get what we want. Voltairine de Cleyre expressed it as:
“Every person who ever had a plan to do anything, and went and did it, or who laid his plan before others, and won their co-operation to do it with [them], without going to external authorities to please do the thing for them, was a direct actionist.”
Meanwhile, the HSA expressed it more succinctly: “Words mean nothing. Actions are everything.”
The second common thread is that direct action groups usually have low barriers for entry, meaning taking part is accessible to a wide range of people. This is essential for generalising a struggle. Turning a campaign into something led by specialists will ultimately leave it vulnerable to co-optation by State forces or other malicious parties. One of grassroots action’s greatest strengths is its appeal to and leveraging of the ‘masses’, turning the weight of our desires into a weapon and shield.
On the other hand, SSCS’s move towards becoming a scientific research organisation immediately limits the number and type of people that can get involved, thus ultimately limiting what it can achieve. There’s also a lot more profit to be made out of scientific research than throwing smoke bombs at whaling vessels.
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.
Watson’s choice to target Makah (indigenous North Americans) whalers in 1998 faced condemnation given the colonial structures we live within. However, Watson told Freedom News that he has “no regrets for the Makah campaign”, claiming that:
“We were invited to intervene by Makah Elders, and I said all through the campaign that if the Elders requested us to leave, we would leave. We attended the International Whaling Commission meetings in Aberdeen, Dublin, and Monaco in company with Makah Elders, and together we spoke in defense of both the whale and Makah traditions and culture.
“I think it would have been racist of us to not oppose the Makah plan to work with the U.S. Government, Norway and Japan to conduct a whale hunt that was illegal under IWC regulations, U.S. law and contrary to the traditions and the culture of the Makah nation.”
Watson’s fracture with Sea Shepherd show how direct action remains resistant to State and capitalist recuperation. Therefore it remains an essential tool in our struggles.
Paul Watson continues his work through the Captain Paul Watson Foundation.
Freedom News contacted SSCS and Sea Shepherd Global for comment on the issues raised in this article but they hadn’t responded by the time of publishing.