Can the Vigilantes of Marine Conservation Change Their Tack?

Posted by in Marine Conservation News

Last January, the flagship of Sea Shepherds Conservation Society (SSCS), the Steve Irwin, adorned with the notorious Jolly Roger-esk flag, was patrolling the high seas for unlawful fishing.

Sea Shepherd logo

The Shepherds came across six Chinese fishing vessels in the South Indian Ocean, using illegal driftnets. When one of the vessels detected the Steve Irwin approaching, they abandoned their driftnet and fled. By gathering evidence, reporting it to the Government of China, and herding the fishing fleet back into Chinese Ports, Sea Shepherds were able to shut down illegal activity without aggression or direct contact with the vessels.

This relatively passive tactic was unconventional for the SSCS, an organization most famously known for their “direct-action” conservation methods of ramming into illegal whaling boats (see: Whale Wars) or using water cannons to hose down shark finning vessels (see: Sharkwater).       Direct-action tactics like those of the SSCS remain controversial, and are often perceived as addressing the symptoms but not the underlying cause of inadequate regulations on the high seas and subsequent IUU fishing. While these past stunts succeeded in saving a multitude of marine mammals (Jackson, 2013) and provided the Shepherds with massive public support (Enders, 2015), the unethical and violent nature of their tactics has also provoked animosity from governments and scientists alike. While I find myself on the latter side of the argument, I will play devil’s advocate in this Op-Ed, in hopes to present evidence that Sea Shepherds are making strides to shift their identity from radical pirates to rational eco-defenders (Stuart et al., 2013). So let’s take a look at what good they’ve done recently:

Historically, under the command of founder Paul Watson, the SSCS has taken action without consulting law-enforcement agencies (Nagtzaam & Lentini, 2007/8). However, Operation Driftnet as described above, was a significant moment for Sea Shepherds, as it required constructive collaboration with government authorities, ending in a suspension of fishing licences from the fleet at fault, and a letter of gratitude from the Chinese Minister of Agriculture. It seems as though more recent directors of Sea Shepherds are, to a greater extent, serious about changing their image.

“The days of smoke flares are over…we are following a different course, looking more at fact gathering and the law”

– a remark from Gary Stokes, the director of Sea Shepherds South Asia (Heaver, 2016).

In the 2015 Operation Icefish, SSCS set out to find the “Bandit Six”: a wanted fleet using illegal fishing gear to poach vulnerable Toothfish in the remote Southern Ocean. By collaborating with various police, coast guards and fisheries officers, the SSCS used non-violent action to track down the fleet and have them detained for IUU fishing, while also retrieving 72 km of gillnets from the ocean (Gatehouse, J).

Left: Gillnet retrieval operation. Right: Dead toothfish, knotted in the retrieved gillnet.
Photos: Jeff Wirth

In Mexico, Sea Shepherds are now collaborating with authorities to protect the endangered vaquita, a victim to the nets that poachers use to hunt the economically valuable totoaba fish. (Ryan, 2017). This video presents the operation in action:


if you believe Sea Shepherds are successfully ditching their hot-headed tactics for more constructive efforts, you can donate or volunteer here. However, If you still question the ethics behind their work, consider supporting other conservation organizations like Oceana.



Burke, V. (2015). Sea shepherd – sustainability, conservation and civic action. Ethos, 23(2), 19-21.

Enders, C. (2015, June 05). Can Sea Shepherd survive its own success? Retrieved February 04, 2017, from

Gatehouse, J. (2015). Thunder gone under: After a chase lasting 110 days–the world’s longest maritime pursuit–the sea shepherd society finally got its catch Rogers Publishing Ltd.

Heaver, S. (2016, July 28). Sea Shepherd takes fight to Chinese fleets fishing illegally. Retrieved February 05, 2017, from

Jackson, E. (2013). Environmental Direct Action: Tactics for Environmental Policy Change. (Honors Undergraduate thesis, University of Indiana, US). Retrieved from

Nagtzaam, G., & Lentini, P. (2007;2008;). Vigilantes on the high seas?: The sea shepherds and political violence. Terrorism and Political Violence, 20(1), 110-133. doi:10.1080/09546550701723658

Ryan, M. (2017, January 05). Sea Shepherd & Mexican Navy Catch Six Illegal Fishing Crews In Sea Of Cortez. Retrieved February 5, 2017, from

Stuart, A., Thomas, E. F., Donaghue, N., & Russell, A. (2013). “We may be pirates, but we are not protesters”: Identity in the sea shepherd conservation society. Political Psychology, 34(5), 753-777. doi:10.1111/pops.12016