The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is a non-profit, registered tax-exempt organization in the United States, and a registered Stichting (foundation) in The Netherlands. It is based in Friday Harbor, WA in the United States, and in Melbourne, Australia for its Southern Hemisphere operations. Members call themselves eco-pirates, undertaking campaigns that the society says are guided by the United Nations World Charter for Nature (1982) and other statutory laws protecting marine species and environments. It operates a fleet of three vessels it calls "Neptune's Navy": the RV Farley Mowat, the MV Steve Irwin, and the RV Sirenian, as well as several smaller boats.
The society was founded in 1977 by Paul Watson, one of the three founders of Greenpeace, after he concluded that "bearing witness" to environmental damage was an inadequate response compared to actual enforcement of international laws, regulations, and treaties.
In contrast to Greenpeace, which maintains a policy of avoiding causing damage to whaling ships in the oceans, Sea Shepherd endorses a deliberate policy of sinking or sabotaging vessels they believe have violated international whaling law. As a result, Greenpeace has officially disavowed any connection to Sea Shepherd and refused to assist their efforts, stating "... we are not going to help people who have said they will use violence. We are here to save the whale, not put the lives of whalers at risk.
Sea Shepherd bases its actions on enforcement of international maritime law under the United Nations World Charter for Nature; however, the organization has no official mandate or authorization to enforce any legislation. Sea Shepherd was deprived of its status as an International Whaling Commission observer after sinking Icelandic vessels in 1986. In 1994, IWC Secretary Ray Gambell stated "the IWC and all its members ardently condemn Sea Shepherd's acts of terrorism. In 2006 the outgoing Vice Chair of the IWC, Horst Kleinschmidt, joined the Board of Sea Shepherd as an advisor. Sea Shepherd is supported by private and corporate donations and operated by volunteers and paid staff, including Watson's current wife. Critics, including its targets, refer to the organization as "pirate[s]" and "terrorist[s]", and consider Sea Shepherd's harassment of targeted fishing and resource-extraction operations to be outside the law. However, Sea Shepherd believe they have a good understanding of the law and operate openly in the UK (where Sea Shepherd UK has charity status) and other countries.
Until recently, countries such as Australia have hesitated to pressure Japan to stop whaling because of concerns about harming trade relations. Sea Shepherd supporters claim that small countries in the IWC that support whaling have been bought by Japanese development aid. Japan is behind only the US as an aid donor. However, the former Australian environment minister, Ian Campbell, stated that the activities of Sea Shepherd "puts the cause of conservation backwards" and urged the organisation to "comply with the law of the sea and not do anything to put at risk other vessels on the high seas and therefore human life". Despite this, Ian Campbell joined the Sea Shepherd advisory board upon retiring from politics.
In the course of these operations, associates of Sea Shepherd have been threatened, endangered, imprisoned and tried for commission of crimes on the high seas including maritime piracy. Paul Watson, the founder of the group, was arrested in 1993 in Canada on charges stemming from actions against Cuban and Spanish fishing boats off the coast of Newfoundland; but he was found not guilty through relying on Canadian ratification of the UN Charter for Nature (1982). In 1997, he was convicted in absentia in Norway on charges of sinking a Norwegian whaling ship, and spent 80 days in jail in the Netherlands, but he was not extradited to face new charges related to the encounter with the Norwegian Coast Guard vessel Andenes in 1994. Costa Rica filed attempted murder charges against Watson for an incident after he caught a Costa Rican fishing boat poaching, but charges were dropped after prosecutors were shown a film of the incident that was shot by a team making a documentary of Sea Shepherd.
Another Animal rights activist, Rod Coronado, who has also had numerous legal problems stemming from his activism, got his start in activism with Sea Shepherd, participating in one of its best-known and most controversial actions, the scuttling of two ships from Iceland's whaling fleet while in port in 1986.
As a result of such activities, several nations, including Japan, have pressed the United States to declare Sea Shepherd a terrorist organization. However, others are more co-operative, and Sea Shepherd currently has working agreements with several countries, including Ecuador, Costa Rica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Indonesia, to help those countries fight poaching, and in the past has worked against poaching in co-operation with the United States government.
Sea Shepherd operations include interdiction against whaling in Antarctic waters of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary of the Southern Ocean, patrols of the Galapagos Islands, and action against Canadian seal hunters. Sea Shepherd has an affiliated organization, O.R.C.A. Force whose president is Watson.
Sea Shepherd claims to have sunk ten whaling ships since 1979, referring to these ships as "pirates". The claimed attacks include:
In 2007, two ships operated by Sea Shepherd (Farley Mowat and Robert Hunter) were struck off the shipping registers of Belize and Britain. Later on that year, the ships received the flag of the Kahnawake Mohawk nation. According to a November 2007 piece in The New Yorker, however, both ships now sail under the Dutch flag.
In December 2007, the ship Robert Hunter was renamed the Steve Irwin.
Between December 2005 and January 2006 Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace vessels were in the Southern Ocean to confront Japanese whalers. Sea Shepherd declared that they would do whatever they considered necessary to prevent the whaling, even if it meant losing their ship. The Farley Mowat rammed a Japanese supply ship called the Oriental Bluebird. On January 16 the organisation declared that their fuel supplies had run out and that they were heading to shore. They claimed credit for chasing the whalers from whaling grounds and hindering operations for over 15 days.
In May 2007, Sea Shepherd announced that they would be sending the Farley Mowat to Iceland in response to that country's statement that they would be resuming commercial hunting of Fin and Minke whales. However, in August of the same year, Sea Shepherd stated that they no longer believed Iceland intended to follow through with the hunting, and the Farley Mowat did not arrive in the Icelandic waters. However, in 2008, the Icelandic Fisheries Minister announced a commercial whaling quota for 40 minke whales and hunting began in May 2008.
The recent 2007–08 Antarctic campaign was named Operation Migaloo, after the only known albino humpback in the world.
On January 15 2008, after attempting to entangle the hunting boat's propeller and throwing bottles of butyric acid onto the decks, two Sea Shepherd members Benjamin Potts and Giles Lane from the Sea Shepherd vessel MV Steve Irwin boarded the Japanese whale-hunting ship Yushin Maru No. 2 in the High Seas of the Antarctic Ocean, using a Zodiac inflatable boat. The crew of the Yushin Maru No. 2 detained the two men for illegal boarding and vandalism. Allegedly, the pair were initially tied to the railings while the ship made a deliberate turn to port, causing the two men to be dipped into the cold Antarctic water. Allegedly, they were then tied to the Satellite transmitter mast for several minutes. The ICR initially denied these reports although Sea Shepherd later released photographs they claimed showed the point where Potts and Lane were tied to the Satellite transmitter mast. Sea Shepherd stated that the pair were attempting to deliver a letter of protest, after many hours during which the Japanese vessels refused to acknowledge any radio contact, with the news that the Japanese whale hunt in Australia's Antarctic waters and Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary had earlier in the day been ruled illegal by the Australian Federal Court. The Japanese stated that it was the Sea Shepherd vessel who refused the radio contact, and the response from the foreign minister of Japan Nobutaka Machimura was that "The arctic territory is not at all internationally recognized. This sentence by the Australian court is based on a wrong assumption. Since both Sea Shepherd and Japan blamed each other for not responding to the radio contact, the two men were finally released from the Japanese ship 17 January, and were handed over to the Australian customs vessel MV Oceanic Viking. The Australian government decided to release them the same day without criminal charges because they "apparently had no intention to commit malicious crimes, such as robbery."
On March 32008 Sea Shepherd members threw bottles of butyric acid and packages of white powder onto the Japanese vessel Nisshin Maru. Three on board were injured, with one allegedly reporting acid in his eyes, according to a report in the Yomiuri Shimbun.. Paul Watson rejected the claims of injury "We filmed and photographed the entire thing. Not a single thing landed anywhere near their crew." and said that only bottles of butyric acid and a slippery powder were thrown by hand onto the whaling ship. The Japanese deputy foreign minister Itsunori Onodera summoned the ambassadors of the Netherlands and Australia and requested to take "immediate and appropriate actions". The Australian ambassador expressed his "sincere regret" to the incident. He also referred to the statement from the Australian foreign minister Stephen Smith who condemned any kind of violence against the Japanese crew members. .
Four days later on 7 March 2008 crew from the Steve Irwin again threw bottles containing butyric acid onto the decks of the Nisshin Maru. The Japanese Coastguard, reportedly armed with sidearms and rifles, responded by throwing flash grenades at the crew of the Steve Irwin, with claims by Sea Shepherd of one crew being slightly injured directly from an explosion. Paul Watson was allegedly hit by a bullet which lodged in his ballistic vest that he was wearing. David Page, the ship's doctor onboard the Steve Irwin, was filmed by Sea Shepherd crew prying a bullet from Watsons's Kevlar vest, and said "You have been hit by a bullet". The Japanese denied the story of Watson and the president of the Japanese Whaling Association (to which the Japanese vessel belongs to) Keiichi Nakajima released a press comment. "Paul Watson is lying and fabricating the story."
Concerning the events of March 3rd and 7th, despite Sea Shepherd and Japan are blaming each other and telling contradicting stories, the International Whaling Commission made a statement about the events and condemned the Sea Shepherd's actions. "The commission and its contracting governments do not condone and in fact condemn any actions that are a risk to human life and property in relation to the activities of vessels at sea."
According to the Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Japan advised the Australian Embassy in Tokyo that a crew member on board the Japanese whaling vessel fired warning shots, but this was later retracted in an update press release.
On September 17th, 2008, Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department has announced that the Interpol has put three Sea Shepherd members on an international wanted list on suspicion of interfering with Japan’s whaling activities in the Antarctic Ocean in February 12th, 2007.
On April 12, 2008, during the 2008 Canadian commercial seal hunt, the M/V Farley Mowat was raided by Canadian coast guard vessels after the ship was said to have encroached on seal hunters off the coast of Newfoundland. During the raid, the captain and first officer were arrested and are awaiting charges. The location of the boat at the time of the seizure is controversial. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society claims the boat was seized illegally in international waters. The Canadian Fisheries minister claims that the boat was seized in Canadian waters, but also that the Fisheries Act gave him authority to order the boarding outside Canada's territorial waters zone of 12 nautical miles.
The captain and first officer made a court appearance on May 1, 2008. On July 2 2008, they entered a plea of not guilty to coming too close to sealers. Trial dates have not been set.