Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sea Shepherd: Heroics, racism, and conservation

On Facebook I announced a protest in support of the Sea Shepherd anti-whaling protesters, who had their ship Ady Gil rammed by a Japanese whaling ship the other day. One unexpected comment I got was that "their politics are anti-working class and racist" and "totally gross". John Passant has put a more nuanced version of this line on his blog. Well I've got a friend on the Sea Shepherd ship who I'm pretty sure is neither racist nor anti-working-class, so I did a bit of a google search for "Sea Shepherd" and "racist".

It turns out that many of the comments in "support" of Sea Shepherd on many internet news blogs, discussion forums and so on are quite racist against the Japanese. Of course, Sea Shepherd don't only target Japanese whalers, and they can't necessarily be held responsible for the idiots who choose to support them.

You can read some of Sea Shepherd founder/leader Paul Watson's responses to previous accusations of racism on the Sea Shepherd website. For balance, Green Left ran a critical piece on Sea Shepherd in 1998 that seems to present a fairly genuine case of Sea Shepherd stupidly aligning with a far-right racist. Make up your own mind whether this fundamentally tars them as racist; I would tend to say say short-sighted, even foolish, probably, but not necessarily racist.

But why are Sea Shepherd anti-working class? Apparently it's because they are protesting/attacking the whaling fleet workers in their workplace according to the commentator on Facebook. In this line of argument, only the whaling workers themselves can stop the slaughter by the power of industrial action, and by taking direct action to protest against them we are driving them into the arms of their bosses, so to speak.

I do suspect that the Japanese people are the main force that can stop Japanese whaling and I hope the population there does come around to understand that they should. In the meantime though, I doubt that anyone would even know about whaling if it weren't for the protests by groups like Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd. Their spectacular actions do keep the issue on the agenda, if nothing else.

I find it odd to hear that the argument that protesting outside workplaces is off limits for lefties. If it's an important political issue, you have to raise it somehow. And the interests of the working class (let alone all humanity) cannot be reduced to the sum of the individual interests of each workplace added together. The whole is greater (and more complicated) than the sum of its parts.

It's true that protests which are portrayed by the corporate media as "anti-worker" are often perceived that way by the workers themselves. It doesn't help build bridges and that's something that must be considered in a rounded political strategy. I don't know whether Sea Shepherd are particularly useful in this respect, but I doubt the whaling ship workers were about to join the anti-whaling camp any time soon, so it's a pretty academic point. Their actions use a huge sum of money. It probably wouldn't be donated without the spectacular actions they undertake, but such actions also reinforce an elitist concept of environmental action - it's not participatory, it's for the trained commando activists. This is unfortunate, but it's not the end of the world.

On the other hand, simply waiting for everyone to be peacefully and logically convinced of the superior logic or morals of socialism to take action is a recipe for inaction and irrelevance. Interacting with mass consciousness needs bold action; I would not rule out protesting against workers engaged in their work. If no-one protests, they may never realise there is a problem.

Sea Shepherd have also protested against other unsustainable fishing practices like shark fin harvesting.I don't know how "unustainable" whale hunting is, per se, in small enough numbers and of the no-longer-endangered whale species. But that's missing the point. The whole corporate fish harvesting industry is unsustainable. Driftnetting, bottom trawling, plain overfishing, and all the rest is destroying the world's "fish stocks". The fact that we call them "stocks" underlies the problem: they are not some inert resource, or a commodified flock in a pen. They are part of an ecosystem. Overfishing is one of the world's worst ecological/food crises - and while some industrial fishing techniques are particularly bad, like bottom trawling, the whole commercial fishing industry is unsustainable.

The Venezuelan government, as it happens, has taken good actions against unsustainable fishing. In 2001 they enacted a law which prohibited trawling less than 10 kilometres from the mainland (or less than 16 kilometres from island shores). In March 2009 they shored up this law. To quote from Green Left's Federico Fuentes:

On March 14, Chavez decreed a new fishing law, banning industrial trawl-fishing within Venezuela’s territorial waters.

“Trawling fishing destroys the sea, destroys marine species and benefits a minority. This is destructive capitalism”, explained Chavez on his weekly TV show, Alo Presidente the following day. reported on March 17 that the government will invest US$32 million to convert or decommission trawling boats, as well as to development fish-processing plants.

“Thirty trawling ships will be expropriated, Chavez said, due to the refusal of their owners to cooperate with the plans to adapt the boats to uses compliant with the new fishing regulations.” 

Small-scale fisherpeople will have access to the converted boats.

The law has the double effect of empowering small scale and subsistence fisher folk, while destroying the big business fishing industry. Concerted action like this on a world scale might have a huge effect on conserving marine ecosystems. Current commercial fishing is destroying the ocean food chain from the bottom up. I'm all for conservation of marine ecosystems. I'm OK with Sea Shepherd insofar as they have kept some of the issues on the boil, whatever other criticisms can be made of them - and I hope this posting makes clear I'm not an uncritical apologist. But I do hope we see a resurgence of broader marine conservation movements, which is far more important in my humble opinion.


  1. You are the problem not the solution here. Support for an org that deliberately rammed the Ady Gil into the side of the japanese vessel?

    Yes it happened, watch the video. Or do you also beleive that Paul Watson was shot in season one of the reality television show Whale Wars?

    Thje Ady Gil has now spilled 15 thousand gallons of fuel into the ocean.

    This is not conservation. This is a farce for ratings and a cheap media stunt.

  2. Heh, whaling is a horrible thing, but I'm inclined to believe Paul Watson and his upper-level cronies might be worse.

    I mean, what a sleezebag. He and his crew are incompetent manipulators of the highest order, and the basis of this is their television show which at least made some effort to cast them in a positive light.

  3. Watson has picked fights with the Makah Indians for whom whale-hunting is a form of cultural redemption. Here's a good commentary:

  4. Seas shepperds intolerence towards the Japanese culture and customs is dispicable and any celebrities aligning themselves with these racists will eventually come to regret it.

  5. Eating whale meat is not a common Japanese custom. Certainly not these days. My understanding is it's a luxury for the elite, like caviar. Why defend the luxuries of the 1% when the 99% by and large disapprove of their excesses? Whale populations are in some cases recovering from their all-time lows but hardly back to their normal levels.

    Further, all the Sea Shepherd people I've met are anything but racist. They are committed environmentalists.

    I'm quite aware Sea Shepherd have done stupid things. It's not my job to defend everything they say or do. But the comments from Anonymous and fred1949 really don't advance the discussion at all, sorry.


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