What to Know About the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

By Martha Chitwood , last updated December 22, 2011

As conflict continues between environmental activists and the whaling industry worldwide, you may want to know more about the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and its ongoing clashes with whaling advocates and various governments. Viewers of the Animal Planet program “Whale Wars” have come to know Sea Shepherd and its outspoken founder Paul Watson, and a lawsuit filed by Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research against Sea Shepherd and Watson in U.S. District Court in December 2011 promises to give the organization an even higher profile.

Mission and Reputation

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is an international nonprofit organization that seeks to end the destruction of ocean habitat and the slaughter of marine wildlife worldwide. The group's methods include what they call “direct-action tactics,” which often include confrontational techniques such as boarding hostile vessels and even at times sinking them. Sea Shepherd received a 4-star rating for overall financial health and responsibility in 2011 from Charity Navigator, a nonprofit organization that evaluates the financial practices of other nonprofits.


Sea Shepherd began in 1977 after Paul Watson, a founding member of Greenpeace Canada, broke with that organization over disagreements about his aggressive activist style. Watson formed his own group, Earthforce Environmental Society, based in Vancouver. Earthforce's first initiative was land-based, a 1978 field investigation of elephant poaching in east Africa. Later that same year, the organization purchased a ship, christened her “Sea Shepherd,” and embarked on the first oceangoing campaign: a journey to the Arctic ice floes to protect seals from slaughter. After moving on to several high-profile, dramatic maneuvers to stop pirate whalers in international waters, Earthforce eventually changed its name to Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and was incorporated as a charitable organization in the state of Oregon in 1981.

A History of Action

Over the decades, Paul Watson and the volunteer crews of various Sea Shepherd vessels have been occasionally attacked or arrested as a result of their sometimes aggressive interventions against fishing boats, whaling operations, seal hunters and others whose practices threaten the continued existence of threatened marine wildlife populations. The persistence of Sea Shepherd workers has resulted in some victories, including increased public awareness of the tuna industry's threat to dolphins, leading to the eventual ban on dolphin killing practices in tuna fisheries.

“Whale Wars”

The activities of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society came to the attention of a wider audience in 2008, when the Animal Planet cable channel debuted “Whale Wars,” a weekly series documenting Sea Shepherd efforts to stop illegal Japanese whaling operations in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary off Antarctica. The high-seas drama that the show captures on camera has attracted growing numbers of viewers and garnered several Emmy nominations.

Legal Action

In December 2011, Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research sued in U.S. District Court, seeking an injunction against Sea Shepherd's anti-whaling activities. The whaling industry advocacy organization asserts that Paul Watson's and his volunteers' actions put human lives in danger and must be stopped. Whether this legal maneuver ultimately serves to restrict Sea Shepherd Conservation Society from continuing to fulfill its mission, or it ends up being just another bump in Sea Shepherd's long road of protest and struggle, remains to be seen.

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