Can Sea Shepherd change hearts and minds with hostile tactics?

After its seeming victory over Japan’s whaling industry this year (as evidenced by the forced cancellation of this season’s whale hunt in the Southern Ocean), the controversial anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd has set its sights on bluefin tuna poachers—in the waters off Libya, no less. The activists will be equipped with bulletproof vests and backed by a helicopter. According to MSNBC:

Sea Shepherd will send two boats into the war zone — the 190-foot Steve Irwin, named after the Australian conservationist, and the 115-foot Gojira — said Paul Watson, founder of the group based in Friday Harbor, Wash.

Watson said he’ll captain the larger boat, which has a helicopter and was recently repainted in blue/gray/black camouflage colors. The smaller, faster boat will act as a scout, looking for targets.

The boats will carry divers ready to cut the nets of fishing boats to free the tuna. Last year, Sea Shepherd cut the net of one boat in the area, freeing about 800 fish, Watson said.

The crews plan to set sail from Cannes, France, around June 1.

Given the extremely dire condition of bluefin tuna stocks—which, by some estimates, have plummeted 80 percent in recent years—aggressive tactics such as net cutting may perhaps be justifiable. But, as is always the concern with Sea Shepherd, does its cache of sophisticated battle-ready gear—which at times has included non-lethal weapons—inspire the opposition to use greater violence and ultimately undermine its ability to gain public sympathy or change destructive cultural habits?

In regards to whaling, an argument could be made that since Japanese whale meat consumption has dropped significantly over the last several decades, the culture war has already been won. Therefore, Sea Shepherd’s responsibility isn’t to engage a Japanese public that largely already understands the perils of whaling, but rather to snuff out the last remaining vestiges of the industry.

Even if this logic is sound, it overlooks why there is still a whaling industry in Japan. As Howard Schiffman, professor of International Environmental Governance at New York University, recently told me, “The government subsidizes the ‘research’ hunts and some meat goes to market, but I think Japan is hanging on to whaling for nationalistic reasons.”

If that’s the case, there is still important work to be done on the societal and cultural level. Hostile, if not violent, conflict on the high seas has the propensity to impede that work by making Sea Shepherd look less like protectors of endangered marine life and more like a threat to Japanese identity. Furthermore, since Japan is the world’s largest consumer of bluefin tuna, Sea Shepherd really should have an interest in running a campaign that garners sympathy for the cause (which could lead to conversion), not hatred (which might lead to further entrenched nationalism).

An example of how this is done can be found in the 2010 book Re:Imaging Change [PM Press]. Much to the chagrin of Sea Shepherd founder and longtime Greenpeace foe Paul Watson, authors Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning explain how Greenpeace shifted cultural perceptions against whaling by mixing “media savy, nonviolent direct action and the Quaker tradition of ‘bearing witness.’”

Greenpeace knew they could never intervene at every point of destruction and save every whale, so they set out to change the way the dominant culture thought of whaling—to change the story of whaling.

Greenpeace campaigners asked themselves , what is the popular understanding of whaling, and where did it come from? They realized that people knew relatively little about whales, and that much of what they thought they knew came from a book that was commonly read in high schools: Herman Melville’s 19th century novel Moby Dick. The vision of whaling presented in Moby Dick depicts heroic whalers taking to the sea in tiny boats and risking their lives to battle giant, evil whales.

But by the late 20th century, whaling was an industrial enterprise. Giant factory whaling ships dwarfed the endangered mammals, slaughtering them en masse in a manner that was neither heroic nor risky. Greenpeace new they had to expose the invisible reality of industrial whaling… The iconic images they createred were of Greenpeace activists in small Zodiac boats placing themselves directly between the giant factory whaling ships and the whales. It was dangerous and activists did get hurt… The actions showed it was the activists , not the whalers, who were the courageous people on small boats risking their lives—not to kill whlaes, but to save them. In this new narrative whales were not big and evil; rather it was the giant whaling ships that were the dangerous monsters. The whales were helpless victims and became sympathetic and worthy of protection. The Greenpeace activists (and the burgeoning environmental movement they represented) became the heroes. The story changed and the roles of the hero, victim, and villian shifted.

It’s a shame that Sea Shepherd doesn’t take advantage of this dynamic. Even more troubling, however, would be if they ended up shifting the roles of the hero, victim and villian back in favor of the industry. That would undoubtedly make it more difficult to get bluefin tuna added to the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which would give it the protection it needs.

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