Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Sea Sheperd, good or bad for oceans?

Is Sea Sheperd advancing the cause of ocean conservation?

I hesitate to wade into this argument, but here goes.

Over on Southern Fried Science there's been a debate about Sea Sheperd Conservation Society. A blogger there doesn't think Sea Sheperd helps conserve sharks. After reading a defense of Sea Sheperd in a guest post there, I posted a comment. Here it is, fyi, edited slightly to make sense by itself. Feel free to comment here or over on Southern Fried Science.

The heart of the matter is two linked questions: 1. Does Sea Sheperd advance or hinder the cause of ocean conservation. 2. Are the actions of Sea Shepard morally OK?

As an ocean conservationist, I think Sea Sheperd hinders my cause. They alienate many people who are otherwise supportive. And the actions are not morally OK because they rely on a basis of perceived moral superiority over Sea Sheperd’s opponents.

Sea Sheperd exemplifies a certain type of activity that feels good but lacks substance. That type of activity is allowing oneself to feel morally superior to one’s opponent in an argument, and then using that feeling of superiority to justify almost anything. How many arguments are really so simple and black and white that it’s ok to feel morally superior to one’s opponent? Precious few.

But Sea Sheperd is attractive because it’s always rewarding to shout and scream and rage and act up about whatever one believes. It’s rewarding and reinforces feelings of superiority. It feels good, and masquerades as action.

Meanwhile, in the real world of making change, Sea Sheperd’s actions have created polarization and made actual conservation progress more difficult. Actual conservation progress involves hard work. It involves finding shared values and workable solutions to a dilema. Few people who are harming ocean ecosystems actually want to cause harm. They usually have reasons for doing what they’re doing, and they’re not simply bad reasons like greed.

Sea Sheperd perpetuates a cowboy movie view of the world, find the black hat bad guys and take matters into your own hands to “take care” of the bad guys. That’s a comforting view of the world, but it’s way too simplistic to be viable.

And...I think ocean conservationists have an obligation to speak out against so-called conservationists who are doing negative things. That's why I'm wading in.

Please keep comments on topic and civil. Disagreement is great, so long as it doesn't degenerate into name-calling and other bad stuff. I'll remove objectionable comments.


WhySharksMatter said...

Thanks for the link again, Mark!

Just to let everyone now, the original post I wrote is now closed for comments because there are over 100 of them and it is getting hard to follow.

I agree with what you wrote here 100%.

David J. Hirsh said...

Great post, Marc. I knew there's good a reason a cool gal like Elinor married you!

Anonymous said...

the moral high-ground issue is a difficult one. How many people who are holding this high ground would embrace a former opponent who is persuaded by their argument, and who subsequently changes their views?

If they can't embrace former foes, they're just using the cause, not fighting for it.

Horizon Charters Guadalupe Cage Diving said...

I would also like to say Kudos for a well reasoned and thought out post.

Making people "radical" is easy, and I think SSCS trades on that format all too well. Hate, anger, and fist shaking are lower emotions and easy to stir.

Real conservation is goal and results oriented. To that end, understanding, compromise, and negotiation are the hallmarks to real and lasting change.

Conservation starts with this premise, "Perhaps they have a right to do what they do" and works from there.

This form of conservation is not easy but when you have a clear victory like the Maldives this week - you come to realize how it CAN be done.

Anonymous said...

Although SSCS does tarnish marine conservation credibility, I have a viscereal, postive response - it's somehow heartwarming to see somebody taking action versus just talking. Throwing a few stink bombs to save some whales from "scientific research". Diplomacy and patience and creative mutually-beneficial scenarios are the real way to go, I know, but as I said, I may silently cheer them on.

I would like, though, to one day disucss this statement, maybe over a few beers: "They usually have reasons for doing what they’re doing, and they’re not simply bad reasons like greed."

PS Blogfish rocks.

- Marine Boy

Mark Powell said...

Marine Boy, OK you're on. Let me know how to find you.

I took a fork in a road a few years back. I went to college instead of continuing to fish commercially. I was fishing a bit and hanging out and heard the stories of the "gold rush" happening, especially up in Alaska.

I could have gone north. But I went to college instead and got seduced into being a scholar for a while. I got more years of skoolin' than are good for a person.

I know people who did go north. Some are liberal over-thinkers like me, some are not. I can identify with some. One friend made a pile of money so big it's scary. Most that I know are not bad people, and they're ambitious but not greedy. Some have fairly big boats. There but for who knows what go I.

People are people, whether they fish or rage against fishing. Whether they drive cars or rage against driving cars.

So there are bad people in fishing and bad people in environmentalism. No vocation or avocation has a monopoly on goodness or badness. Quirky, contingent happenstance makes us do what we do.

Hating someone because they do what they do is stupid. Hating is stupid. Moral superiority is so damn easy that it's tempting...but ultimately unsatisfying except for mental midgets.

I could go on, but why would I?

Mark Powell said...

..oh yeah, about the visceral positive response, Marine Boy, I know what you mean. Once I wanted so much to blow up a certain dam that I ached.

But spiking trees or throwing stink bombs is like junk food. Tastes great, less filling. It satisfies only so long as one doesn't bother trying to see the other side's view.

And there's always an other side.

WhySharksMatter said...

Well said, Mark.

Anonymous said...

I think you are projecting with the “they feel morally superior” pseudo psychoanalysis and it doesn’t really add much to your argument.

Basically, the Sea Shepards are upholding the law, like if you saw a mugging and intervened because no police were around or they couldn’t be bothered to protect and serve (loose analogy to illustrate a broader point, please don’t dwell on it). If there were vessels policing the waters we would accept the use of force far greater than ramming and water cannons to uphold the law. We’d expect police officers patrolling the waters to point guns and use them when necessary.

The fish hook lady thing is just publicity. It’s done to get attention; it worked because we are talking about it. Unfortunately well-reasoned debates among conservationists, government official and industry leaders don’t make the news, sensationalism does. I’m not a proponent of it, but I certainly understand why an organization would engage in it if they were desperate to bring wider attention to issues that absolutely needs it. We are literally counting the years in our own lifetimes until these marine animals go extinct.

It’s unfortunate that the Sea Shepherds interfere with public image while people sit around and debate and comment and judge morality and choose sides and be political about things, but at least they are doing what should be happening anyway. Again. Limits on excessive whaling and shark fishing laws exist, Japan among other nations have signed the legislation, but there is no compliance, no enforcement and no political pressure, so unregulated hunting continues.

If it’s okay to make excuses for people harming the ecosystem that have other reasons than greed than it certainly excusable for people defending the ecosystem as best they can who certainly have motivations more compelling than “This is my job, I don’t want to harm the ocean, but the extinction of a species and ecological harm infracted is not my concern. I can get away with it, so I do.”

The two linked “heart of the matter” questions seem irrelevant to what the Sea Shepherds are about. Seems more like we are discussing two approaches:

1. Do nothing. Sorry, I mean talk about it and hold debates and hearings and issue more reports and find shared values and discuss it with industries and make some labeling for consumers and create more legislation that won’t be enforced anyway and pretty much be ineffective and have whales and sharks disappear. We can then shrug our shoulders and say we tried everything we could and lay blame of failure on some tiny organization with one ship cruising around the Pacific Ocean because they alienated supporters. Please, the fastest way to get rid of the Sea Shepherds is to get government authorities to uphold the established laws.

2. Or do something. The fishermen breaking the laws don’t care about our well-reasoned objections. They seem to get the message when another boat gets in their way or rams them. Again, the Sea Shepherds are enforcing the law that’s why no country has pressed charges against them; a trail held against the Sea Shepherds would bring to international light that the country the trail is held in is grossly negligent in enforcing their own fishing industries. So do something, something besides talk and maybe, just maybe have some effect or at least slow down the destruction or bring much needed critical attention to the issue. Maybe it’s all in vain, and action ultimately results in failure, but at least while others were intellectualizing, compromising, and criticizing, the Sea Shepherds really are trying everything they can.

The Sea Sheperds are the Tankman in a marine Tiananmen Square.

Mark Powell said...

Wow, the previous "anonymous" commment thoroughly validates my point of view. Thanks anonymous. I rest my case.

Anonymous said...

In this world there are doers and there are talkers--It will always be the doers that will cause change. i think it is the height of pretense to accuse the other guy of perceived moral superiority, when it could very easily apply to the one making the accusation...

Maybe i missed it, but i don't recall ANY bloggers who had the brass to do what the SSCS does; make their case--buy a ship--and take the battle TO the enemy.

Blogging may be fun, safe and entertaining, but it doesn't get between the the harpoon and the whale.

I admire the SSCS for their boldness and their willingness to actually DO something to help protect OUR oceans and the life it harbors.


(loves the sea)

Amanda Crowe said...

The sharks are in desperate need of conservation, and we just might be their last hope. Sea Shepherd remains on the front-lines of the battle for shark conservation, an issue that is one of the greatest marine conservation concerns globally.

Anonymous said...

Currently watching the Sea Shepherd show on TV. I agree with what you wrote here totally...stumbled across this as I was looking for more information on whaling, out of curiosity. Seems to me, on the issue of whaling, it is a sustainable activity but the Japanese have a sort of monopoly on pursuing the whales.

Wikipedia provides a few figures that, when you calculate the percentage of the population taken annually, give you a number that less than one-half of a percent. It may be true that their intentions are skewed, but harassing the fisherman is only going to make the matter worse...where a diplomatic approach might actually help lead to a well-managed sustainable harvest.

Anyways...good commentary!

Anonymous said...

The sea shepherds are not heroes. They sure as hell are not conservationists. If you people really think that because they "take the fight to the bad guys" way of thinking is good, well, you are wrong. The sea shepherds are pompous, antagonist that like to think highly of themselves. They harass people, not the "evil" whalers and fishermen, but also the general public into helping them. They use coercion to lure poor naive suckers into donating to their cause. Their pompous "captain" Watson, had the Ady Gil sunk so that people think the Japanese whaling fleet are bad and evil. Then when Peter Bethune, and the owner of the Ady Gil confronted Watson, he kicked Bethune out of the organization. Now, he has multiple legal issues, and he is running and hiding. Yeah, I'd can them heroes.