We talk to marine conservation charity Sea Shepherd about working towards ending the destruction of habitats and the slaughter of wildlife
Not many charities would use a skull and cross bone for their logo. But then there are a lot of things Sea Shepherd does differently to everyone else. With stories about having tyres slashed, and being sued, as well as highlighting government sanctioned seal culls among other unpopular schemes, this is one conservation group that truly puts saving the animals at the heart of everything it does.
“We used to have a whale logo,” explains chief operations officer Robert Read. “We have a bit of an edge, we have a reputation that works for us. Years ago, we were sinking illegal whaling ships. People were calling us pirates, so we decided we might as well have a pirate flag. However big we get, there will always be that element of us being a grass roots organisation.”
And the organisation is growing and evolving. It all started in 1977, when founder Captain Paul Watson left Greenpeace to set up the Earthforce Environmental Society, which campaigned against and investigated the ivory trade. In 1979, the captain commanded a ship called the Sea Shepherd across the Atlantic to protect seals – spraying the babies with indelible organic dye, rendering their pelts worthless.
Paul and his crew sprayed over 1,000 seals before being arrested. Over the next three decades, the missions were no less audacious, bringing attention to the mass slaughter or marine life, and picking up loyal volunteers along the way.
“We have become a number of different entities now,” explains Robert. “Partly because we were getting so big, it was difficult to run our operations from one office in America, so now we also have a UK branch and others.
“This is one conservation group that truly puts saving the animals at the heart of everything it does.”
“But we were also getting sued – Sea Shepherd USA had an injunction taken out against it after following Japanese Whaling ships, so the Australian branch took over that campaign.”
The charity protects all marine life, as Robert puts it: “We look after krill to whales. You have massive krill fishing fleets to make krill oil. Now krill forms the basis of the entire food chain – it’s something that requires attention.”
An exciting development in conservation technology has been the use of drones. Sea Shepherd has been at the forefront of this – not only using drones, but using ones that can withstand the rigours of flying over salt water, and even filming under water. One of Sea Shepherd’s current UK projects, tackling seal-shooting marksmen, is relying on the technology to track the illegal shooters, and film them.
Robert says: “The parts were sent over from America, then the whole thing had to be assembled, which took about seven weeks. Our drone can fly very quickly – at about 40 miles per hour, and it’s got a good long range camera.
“Something else that’s been really useful is the drones spotting seabirds trapped in salmon nets. We’ve been able to record, and even free some of the birds, so there is that crossover with the aerial capability. We have live streaming from the camera.”
“Many of the volunteers who are omnivores at the start of a mission become vegans.”
According to Robert, the campaign against seal shooting has been very effective so far.
“You had these permits issued by Marine Scotland, but it was a system with absolutely no monitoring. On top of that, the people reporting the number of seal shootings were the shooters themselves, so I you have people who despise these seals because they are eating into salmon stocks, and they are indiscriminately shooting, then under reporting them.”
He thinks the charity’s efforts have had a huge impact on the number of seals being shot. But it hasn’t been easy, with volunteers from Sea Shepherd facing hostility from salmon net men, as well as some of the locals in the towns they targeted.
“Some residents would be really supportive of what we’re doing, but would be really secretive. So they’d bring you a packet of biscuits – that was the strangest way people invited us into the communities.
But they were in this position where you have towns relying on tourism, and shooters having a free for all. You might have seals being shot in front of cottages, or near beaches where there are children playing. We had reports of people’s tyres being slashed after they’d spoken out about the shootings. We had our own tyres slashed.”
With the potential for intimidation, the work obviously requires commitment. “It can be very intense if you’re on board,” says Robert. “There are no luxuries on the Sea Shepherd ships, there may even be some hot bunking going on at the end of a long, tiring shift. We take on people who may not be skilled yet, but are so passionate about saving marine life – we can train them.
“We have seen people give up everything, sell their houses, leave their partners to join up with us. And hey, why not?”
When on board the ships, or working with the organisation, everyone eats vegan food. As Robert says, the charity doesn’t eat animals while it’s saving animals. And in fact many of the volunteers who are omnivores at the start of a mission become vegans after enjoying the delicious recipes. This is just one of the ways Sea Shepherd is different to other charities, which may raise money to save one animal – while slaughtering another to eat.
“We rely entirely on donations and on selling merchandise,” Robert says. “We get no government funding – we’re not terribly popular with a lot of governments, as some of the things we fight against have been sanctioned by government.
“Unlike other charities, we don’t hassle people in the street, we don’t raise money like that. But I believe that makes our donors very loyal to us. A huge amount of the money donated to us goes towards direct conservation action. Out of every £1, I estimate 90p is used directly to save marine life. We are efficient: when we need a boat, we will buy a second hand one that is about to be scrapped, and then restore it ourselves.”
“When we need a boat, we will buy a second hand one that is about to be scrapped, and then restore it ourselves”
There are a number of ongoing projects globally that the various arms of the charity are working on, including the fight against the slaughter of whales in the Faroe Islands. Sea Shepherd will continue to protect these species in their unique, effective way. “We are bit different to lots of other conservations groups,” says Robert. “There are not many groups in the world defending sea cucumbers.”
Find out more at seashepherd.org.uk