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Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society LOGO.png
Founded 1977
Founder Paul Watson
Type Public charity (US); registered charity (UK)
Focus Marine conservation activism
Area served
Method Direct action

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) is a non-profit, marine conservation activism organization based in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, Washington, in the United States. Sea Shepherd employs direct action tactics to achieve its goals, most famously by deploying its fleet of ships to track, report on and actively impede the work of fishing vessels believed to be engaged in illegal and unregulated activities causing the unsustainable exploitation of marine life.

Sea Shepherd has been criticised by some environmental groups and national governments that oppose its tactics. The Japanese government, whose whaling industry is a leading target of the organization's efforts, has called Sea Shepherd eco-terrorists for "impeding their research". In March 2014, the International Court of Justice ruled that the Japanese whaling program was not for scientific purposes, as claimed, and ordered Japan to immediately cease its operation.


The predecessor organization of Sea Shepherd, the "Earth Force Society", was formed in 1977, after its founder, Paul Watson was ousted from the board of Greenpeace for disagreements over his direct action activism which clashed with their pacifist nature. Watson soon left Greenpeace. Initially without funding and with only a small group of supporters, Watson convinced Cleveland Amory, head of the Fund for Animals, to fund Watson's first vessel, the Sea Shepherd in 1978.

The first direct action undertaken by the organization was against Canadian seal hunting in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in March 1979. The same year, the Sea Shepherd also rammed an unregulated Portuguese whaling vessel, the notorious Sierra. After the Portugal campaign, the first Sea Shepherd had to be scuttled, but Watson sold the story to raise money to fund his next vessel. He then spent the 1980s undertaking a variety of controversial and dangerous operations in support of various marine conservation aims, and physically intervened against Russian, Spanish, Norwegian, Icelandic, Makah, Faroese, and Japanese whalers.

In the 1990s the group is described as having undertaken a shift in its public attitude. Having previously argued primarily from an ethical viewpoint, Sea Shepherd began to describe itself as an anti-poaching agency, a claim it based on its interpretation of the maritime and conservation law. The decade also saw the organization make more progress in saving wildlife, including by teaming up with other groups to reduce the prevalence of driftnet fishing. In 1994, Sea Shepherd sank an illegal Norwegian whaling vessel. However, no charges were brought as the vessel had been involved in even more illegal behavior than anticipated by the authorities.

The organization began in the 2000s by assisting with the clean up of the Petrobras oil spill, Brazil's worst oil spill to date, after being contracted by the Rio government to mitigate against the devastation. Sea Shepherd also cooperated with other governments against maritime poaching, including in Costa Rica, though not always with good outcomes. In 2008, Sea Shepherd conducted two trips around Antarctica to disrupt illegal whaling practices.

Since 2016, Sea Shepherd has increasingly co-operated with national governments in assisting anti-poaching activity in national territorial waters and marine reserves, including with the Italian Coast Guard in Sicily (Operation Siracusa), Mexican Navy (Operation Milagro) and the Coastguards of Gabon and São Tomé and Príncipe (Operation Albacore), which saw Gabonese military marines sail aboard Sea Shepherd vessels.

In late 2022 a schism occurred after Paul Watson was removed from the board of directors of Sea Shepherd Global, a move which, he says, was due to the organization shifting away from his policy of independent, direct action to one of collaboration with governments. Watson subsequently formed his own organization, the Captain Paul Watson Foundation, and a competing Sea Shepherd group called Sea Shepherd Origins. The France, UK, and Brazil chapters of Sea Shepherd have pledged their allegiance to Paul Watson and Sea Shepherd Origins, and have left the umbrella of Sea Shepherd Global. Neither Sea Shepherd Global or the regional chapters that remain loyal to it have issued statements in regard to these events.


Sea Shepherd flag
Farley Mowat, Melbourne
A wildlife advocate during an education session on board RV Farley Mowat

Sea Shepherd is a non-governmental, non-profit environmental organization. In the United States it has a 501(c)(3) tax exempt status. Most of the organization's revenue is spent on its programs – 89.9 percent in 2019, with just 10.1 percent spent on administrative costs and fundraising. Sea Shepherd has also been rated highly for financial transparency and accountability. The group is supported by private and corporate donations, lectures by Watson, internet advertising and grants. It is operated by volunteers and a small paid staff, and is committed to staying small and with low spending on fundraising or recruitment.

Sea Shepherd is governed by a board of directors and several boards of advisers, each addressing an area of expertise. The Scientific, Technical and Conservation Advisory Board includes Earth First! founder Dave Foreman and Horst Klienschmidt, a former deputy chair of the International Whaling Commission (2006). The Legal and Law Enforcement Advisory Board includes Ian Campbell, a former Australian Minister of the Environment and Heritage (2004–07). The Animal Welfare, Humane and Animal Rights Advisory Board included animal rights philosopher Tom Regan, until his death in 2017. There is also a Media and Arts Advisory Board, Photography Advisory Board and a Financial and Management Advisory Board.

Direct action activism

Sea Shepherd engages in conventional protests and direct actions to protect marine wildlife. Sea Shepherd operations have included interdiction against commercial fishing, shark poaching and finning, seal hunting, and whaling. The group has been active in intervening against fishing and poaching in the South Pacific, the Mediterranean, and in waters around the Galapagos Islands. In addition to their direct action campaigns, Sea Shepherd works on ocean issues such as plastic pollution. Sea Shepherd chapters across the world organize onshore cleanups throughout the year to pick up debris near oceans, streams, and rivers. In April 2018, Sea Shepherd released a PSA that takes an artistic approach to telling target audiences that more than one million marine animals die every year from plastic debris.

According to its mission statement, Sea Shepherd "uses innovative direct-action tactics to investigate, document, and take action when necessary to expose and confront illegal activities on the high seas". In addition to the organization's role of documenting and reporting violations of conservation laws, Sea Shepherd operations have utilized direct, non-lethal tactics including scuttling and disabling whaling vessels at harbor, intervening in Canadian and Namibian seal hunts, shining laser light at whalers, throwing bottles of foul-smelling butyric acid onto vessels at sea, boarding whaling vessels to protest while at sea, and seizing and destroying drift nets at sea. Sea Shepherd argues that these tactics are necessary to uncover and impede actions that violate international laws protecting wildlife, as the international community has shown itself unwilling or unable to stop species-endangering whaling and fishing practices.

Sea Shepherd staff and equipment have also been on the receiving end of physical violence by members of the fishing industry. In November 1998, Makah seized an inflatable boat belonging to the group and threw rocks at the Sea Shepherd's Sirenian in response to protests over their whale hunt. In 2005, 11 Sea Shepherd crew were involved in an altercation with sealers while on the ice. The sealers were not charged with any crime, but the activists were arrested and later convicted for approaching too close to the hunt. In 2008, fishermen in the French islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon cut the mooring lines of the Farley Mowat after hearing Watson make disparaging comments about the deaths of four seal hunters.

In 2009, Paul Watson claimed the organization has sunk ten whaling ships while also destroying millions of dollars worth of equipment. Their practice of attacking and sinking other ships has led to reports of injuries to other sailors as well as the Sea Shepherd crew, including concussions and complications from chemical attacks. Watson considers the actions of Sea Shepherd to be against criminal operations and has called the group an anti-poaching organization. Critics claim that Sea Shepherd's actions constitute violations of international law, while Watson has stated that Sea Shepherd believes that their actions constitute an attempt to enforce international conservation laws and international maritime law under the World Charter for Nature adopted by the United Nations. Australia has declared Japan's hunt in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary to be illegal, and federal court judge Jim Allsop has stated "there is no practical mechanism by which orders of this court can be enforced". The lack of official enforcement mechanisms in that law prompted Sea Shepherd to adopt, without official sanction, what it sees as a law enforcement mission. A 2008 academic paper by researchers at Monash University in Melbourne, Victoria, concluded that Sea Shepherd's approach could constitute vigilantism, because its seeks to enforce a legal status quo in the face of the international community's "inabilities or unwillingness to do so".

Public relations

MV Bob Barker in port 2010-03-06
A $5 million donation from Bob Barker facilitated the purchase of the MY Bob Barker, pictured here docked in Hobart, Tasmania.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has received attention from the press and been called "media savvy". The group has worked with journalists and has made statements through press releases to spread its message during various campaigns.

Watson's public relations efforts are shown in an episode of Whale Wars when he creates an international "media storm" after two crewmembers are detained on a Japanese whaling vessel. In his book, Earthforce!, Watson advises readers to make up facts and figures when they need to, and to deliver them to reporters confidently. He also states that the "truth is irrelevant" due to the nature of mass media. In response to criticism that he manipulates the media, Watson has stated: "What we do is provide the media with the kind of stories they can't resist... and this is how we bring attention to what's happening to the whales, the seals, the sharks and the other marine conservation campaigns we're involved in."

Sea Shepherd has also used satellite uplinks, webcams, and internet blogging during its operations in the Southern Ocean, and has invited the media to ride along. In 2006, representatives from Seven network and National Geographic magazine, along with documentary filmmakers, accompanied the group. In a television series entitled Whale Wars, Discovery Communications, Inc. documented Sea Shepherd's 2008/09 Antarctic campaign against Japanese whalers, following events on the Steve Irwin. The program premiered on November 7, 2008, on Discovery's Animal Planet network.

Aerial perspective of the Sea Shepherd docked at the Docklands, Feb 2019
Aerial perspective of the Sea Shepherd docked at the Victoria Harbour Promenade, Waterfront end of Enterprize Way, Docklands, February 2019

Sea Shepherd has received financial contributions from celebrities and businessmen such as entrepreneur Steve Wynn, television personality Bob Barker, and John Paul DeJoria, as well as other celebrities. Martin Sheen, Daryl Hannah, and Richard Dean Anderson have joined the group during protests. Actors including Edward Norton, Pierce Brosnan, Christian Bale, Clive Standen and Emily Deschanel have supported the group through contributions, while William Shatner has also been mentioned as supporting the group. Actress and model Pamela Anderson is an active spokesperson for the group, has participated in several campaigns, served on the board of directors and is a close friend of founder Paul Watson. In 2007, actor Heath Ledger conceived and directed a music video of the Modest Mouse song "King Rat", intended to raise awareness of the whale hunts taking place each year off the coast of his native Australia. Although Ledger died before the video could be completed, others finished it in his honor and debuted the video online in August 2009. Proceeds from iTunes sales of the video in its first month of release were donated to Sea Shepherd.

From the music industry, Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Leona Lewis, Rick Rubin, and the groups Hawkwind, The Red Paintings, Propagandhi, Gojira, Parkway Drive, Heaven Shall Burn, Stick to Your Guns, The Amity Affliction and Architects have financially supported Sea Shepherd. Architects vocalist Sam Carter is also one of Sea Shepherd's British ambassadors. Vegan straight edge band Earth Crisis and Zoltán Téglás of Ignite support SSCS, among other environmental organizations, dedicating songs such as "So Others Live" and "Ultramilitance" to them. Giacomo "Josh" Giorgi, vocalist of now-defunct Italian straight edge hardcore band To Kill is the bosun's mate aboard the MY Steve Irwin. In 2009, professional surfer Kelly Slater joined a Quiksilver Australia/Sea Shepherd partnership featuring a fund-raising clothing line, including board shorts designed by Slater. In 2013 alt-metal band Klogr started supporting Sea Shepherd in Europe through the videos "Guinea Pigs" (2013) and "Zero Tolerance" (2014), featuring images from Sea Shepherd documentaries filmed in Taiji and other missions.

The Lush cosmetics company joined with Sea Shepherd to raise awareness about the practice of shark finning in 2008. Lush produced 'Shark Fin Soap' (punning on 'shark fin soup'); all sale proceeds were directed to Sea Shepherd.

In Tasmania, Sea Shepherd has been banned from participation in the Australian Wooden Boat Festival on the grounds that its presence could jeopardize the reputation of the organization which aims to celebrate maritime heritage, but not modern maritime issues in Australian waters.

For years, Mexico depended on Sea Shepherd to remove the illegal nets that trap and drown vaquita porpoises in the Gulf of California. In January 2021, Sea Shepherds had to leave the Gulf after a New Year's Eve attack where a fisherman rammed a Sea Shepherd vessel. One fisherman died of injuries sustained during the attack. Mexico has invited Sea Shepherd back to help save the vaquita, but won't allow them to remove nets.

Fleet of ships

The MY Steve Irwin in September 2011, sailing up river under Tower Bridge in London
Neptune Navy - MY Sam Simon-Hobart 2012
The MY Sam Simon in Hobart, Tasmania, December 2012
MY Bob Barker at Circular Quay Sydney
MY Bob Barker berthed at Circular Quay in Sydney, Australia, in 2012

Sea Shepherd refer to the ships it has operated as Neptune's Navy. As of 2021, the conservation society operates 12 ships: Ocean Warrior, Brigitte Bardot, Bob Barker, Steve Irwin, Sam Simon, John Paul DeJoria, Farley Mowat, Sharpie, Jairo Mora Sandoval, White Holly, Martin Sheen and Sea Eagle.

The Steve Irwin was obtained in 2007 and originally called the Robert Hunter, named in honor of Robert Hunter, co-founder of Greenpeace. Irwin's widow, Terri, gave her support to Sea Shepherd, saying: "Whales have always been in Steve's heart and in 2006 he was investigating the possibility of joining the Sea Shepherd on part of its journey to defend these beautiful animals." The other ship, the 1200 ton Bob Barker, was named after well-known television game show host and animal activist Bob Barker, who made the purchase in Ghana of the retired Norwegian whaling vessel possible with a donation of US$5 million. In February 2010, the Bob Barker collided with the Japanese whaling vessel Yushin Maru No. 3, tearing a gash in the hull of the Bob Barker. In December 2014, the Bob Barker began its pursuit of the illegal fishing vessel, the FV Thunder, part of the Bandit 6 and involved in illegally fishing the Patagonian toothfish, which became the longest chase in nautical history covering over 10,000 nautical miles and lasting 110 days.

The group also formerly operated the Farley Mowat (impounded by the Canadian government, with Sea Shepherd having stated that they have no intention of paying the legal fines and berthage fees to recover their now obsolete vessel) and the Ady Gil, formerly known as the Earthrace (sunk after a collision with the MV Shōnan Maru 2 whaling security vessel in early 2010) as well as a number of earlier vessels.

Sea Shepherd acquired the Ocean 7 Adventurer for its 2010/11 campaign against Japanese whaling in the Antarctic. In November 2010, Mayor Brad Pettitt of Fremantle, Western Australia, christened the vessel Gojira with Fremantle as its home port, making this the first Sea Shepherd ship registered in Australia, with an Australian crew. The Gojira was renamed MV Brigitte Bardot in May 2011 after complaints of copyright infringement by Toho.

For the 2011–2012 Antarctic campaign, the organization acquired drone aircraft to assist in their surveillance of the whaling ships.

In July 2012, Sam Simon, a co-creator of The Simpsons, reportedly donated money to purchase the fourth vessel, a former German icebreaker. The actual ship however turned out to be a former Japanese weather survey vessel, now called the MY Sam Simon.

On October 18, 2014, the actor Martin Sheen unveiled Sea Shepherd's newest vessel, R/V Martin Sheen, named in his honor, and captained by Oona Layolle of France. The name of this vessel carries the prefix "R/V" because it will be engaged in direct action as a research vessel.

In January 2015, two decommissioned, 30-knot, Island-class Coast Guard cutters were spotted flying the Sea Shepherd flag in Annapolis Yacht Basin. In June 2015, Sea Shepherd revealed on their website that they had purchased these vessels. One is named MY Farley Mowat, after an earlier vessel impounded by the Canadian government, and the other was named MY Jules Verne, after the author of the novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but was renamed MV John Paul DeJoria on January 31, 2017.

On December 7, 2017, the organization announced the acquisition of a third Island Class Cutter thanks to a donation from Chris Sharp, a biotech businessman. The vessel was named MV Sharpie, and for its maiden mission it will join Operation Milagro in the Gulf of California to help save the endangered vaquita porpoise.

The ships of the fleet have flown the flags of a variety of different nations. Canada, Belize, UK and Togo have revoked the registrations of various vessels. Both the Steve Irwin and Bob Barker ships now sail under Dutch flag leading to direct complaints by the Japanese government towards Dutch ambassadors. The Netherlands consequently considered revoking the registrations for both vessels but finally decided not to do so.

In the media

Sea Shepherd's campaigns have been documented in the Netflix documentary Seaspiracy, TV series Whale Wars, and TV series Ocean Warriors produced by Animal Planet/Discovery Channel, and in books by current and past members including:

  • Laura Dakin, Cookin' Up a Storm: Stories and Recipes from Sea Shepherd's Anti-Whaling Campaigns (March 16, 2015; Book Publishing Company). ISBN: 978-1570673122
  • Raffaella Tolicetti, Think! Eat! Act!: A Sea Shepherd Chef's Vegan Cookbook (July 24, 2014; Microcosm Publishing). ISBN: 9781621066668
  • Laurens de Groot, Hunting the Hunters: At war with the whalers (January 2, 2014; Adlard Coles). ISBN: 978-1472903648.
  • Rik Scarce, Eco-Warriors: Understanding the Radical Environmental Movement, second revised ed. (1990; Left Coast Press, 2005), Ch. 6. ISBN: 978-1-59874-028-8
  • Paul Watson, Seal Wars: Twenty-five Years in the Front Lines with the Harp Seals (2002; Firefly Books, 2003). ISBN: 978-1-55297-751-4
  • Paul Watson, Ocean Warrior: My Battle to End the Illegal Slaughter on the High Seas (1994; Key Porter Books, 1996). ISBN: 978-1-55013-599-2
  • David B. Morris, Earth Warrior: Overboard with Paul Watson and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (1995; Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing). ISBN: 1-55591-203-6
  • Paul Watson, Earthforce! An Earth Warrior's Guide to Strategy (1993; Los Angeles: Chaco Press). ISBN: 0-9616019-5-7
  • Paul Watson, Sea Shepherd : My Fight For Whales And Seals (1980; W. W. Norton and Company). ISBN: 978-0393335804

See also

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