Sea Shepherd: a ‘compassionate pirate’

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (the environment organisation’s full title) is Greenpeace’s little activist brother. Paul Watson was the co-founder of Greenpeace America, but left in 1977 because he found it to be too well-behaved. He went on to establish Sea Shepherd, an organisation that uses any means to protect Ocean life.

‘Defend, Conserve, Protect’, is Sea Shepherd’s motto. Their ships are black, with the names of the ten whaling ships they have sunk painted prominently on the side, the ships are topped with a pirate flag.

The ships are feared by whalers, hunters and illegal fishermen alike. “When Japanese whalers spot a Sea Shepherd they’re off,” notes captain Alex Cornelissen, a Dutchman who has captained the Farley Mowat since 2006.

Seal hunt
Last month, Cornelissen’s crew monitored a bloody seal hunt on the Canadian ice fields. Every year, 300,000 seals are killed and their fur is sold to European fashion houses. In spite of promises by the Canadian government to make seal hunts more humane, Sea Shepherd recoded several violations. Mr Cornelissen points out: “We have video proof of hunters skinning seals alive.”

The coastguard was clearly not pleased with prying eyes and caused a collision with the Farley Mowat twice. A week later, fifteen officers entered the ship, arrested the crew, and impounded the ship. Their crime? The ship was 900 metres from the hunting area.

The Farley Mowat crew filmed a seal hunt, which is forbidden by Canadian law. Consequently Mr Cornelissen spent a night in a Canadian cell, and the ship is still chained up in the harbour. Mr Watson says:

“I don’t know if the Dutch government can help us, the ship was outside the 12-mile zone. The coastguard wasn’t looking for drugs or weapons, just videotape. The raid was piracy in itself.”

The Hague may mediate as the Sea Shepherd ships sail under the Dutch flag, this is something Mr Watson is proud of: “The Dutch government understands what we are about. We take action against criminal activity.”

Up to now the Dutch government has resisted pressure from Japan to stop the organisation from sailing under the Dutch flag.

Modern pirates
Since 1977, Sea Shepherd crews have acted like modern-day pirates sinking ten ships without any loss of life. Mr Watson is keen to point out:

“In 31 years of activism, no-one has ever been hurt. Most of the whaling ships were sunk in the harbour.” Violence
Since 1998, no more ships have been sunk, but that doesn’t mean the activists are any less passionate, Alex Cornelissen says:

“On the contrary. We are probably more radical than we have ever been. We just haven’t had the chance to sink another ship.”

Mr Watson explains:

“We aren’t even all that violent. It is Japan, Iceland and Norway that use violence when they violate the whaling ban. Or illegal fishers who make species extinct. And if you take a closer look you will see a trident and a shepherd’s staff on our flag. We are compassionate pirates fighting against piracy for profit. In fact we are pirate hunters.”
Hard action is exactly the image that the organisation would like to preserve, even though this can frighten off potential donors.

Mr Cornelissen says:

“Our recent expeditions have received an enormous amount of publicity in Australia. Children in particular like the pirate flag.” Paul Watson alludes to the historical role of the pirate, he enthuses:

“They fought against corruption and abuse of power. They brought about change”

Change is coming. Recently Sea Shepherd joined the ranks of respectable charities. At the beginning of the year, Sea Shepherd received half a million euros from the Dutch Postcode Lottery. Alex Cornelissen concludes:

“We are very pleased with the recognition. Apparently the time is ripe for an organisation like ours. People know the oceans are being destroyed, and want to put an end to it. That is why they support our work.”

Sea Shepherd: a ‘compassionate pirate’
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