Time to Embrace the Inner Pirate?

Is a little civil disobedience justified in the name of our oceans?

Sailing World

Sea Shepherd

One of the Sea Shepherd's fleet approaches a whaling ship.

In case you missed it there is a pitched battle going on down in the Southern Ocean, between the ships of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and the Japanese whaling fleet. It's a battle that has been going on for years, and has been featured on the surprisingly engrossing TV show called Whale Wars. Usually, the skirmishing involves a lot of close passes, shouting, water cannons, and the throwing of stink bombs. Occasionally, though, it spins out of control and escalates into the danger zone, and in 2010 the drama included the sinking of a Sea Shepherd vessel called the _Ady Gil_.

This past week, things got pretty heated again, with multiple collisions between Sea Shepherd's Bob Barker, the Japanese whaling ship Nisshin Maru, and a South Korean tanker trying to conduct a re-fueling operation. Here's some video Sea Shepherd released:

Here’s the video Japan’s Institute For Cetacean Research (the Japanese say they are legally whaling for research purposes) released:

Accusations of blame, as well as these "he said/she said" videos, flew back and forth. And halfway across the world, a U.S. judge issued a ruling that said Sea Shepherd's efforts to impede and stop the Japanese Antarctic whaling program amount to piracy.

Sea Shepherd naturally is doing what it can to avoid any legal liability for its harassment of the Japanese whaling fleet (changing the flagging on its vessels, for example, so it can claim not to be under U.S. legal jurisdiction). But the technical legal debate over whether Sea Shepherd is breaking any laws surely cannot obscure the plain fact that Sea Shepherd's actions do not comport in any way with plain understandings of maritime law and the safe conduct of vessels at sea.

Here's how the U.S. Judge characterized the matter:
"When you ram ships; hurl glass containers of acid; drag metal-reinforced ropes in the water to damage propellers and rudders; launch smoke bombs and flares with hooks; and point high-powered lasers at other ships, you are, without a doubt, a pirate, no matter how high-minded you believe your purpose to be."

Photo: Billy Danger ©Sea Shepherd Australia Ltd

Sea Shepherd, like any good pirate, scoffs at the pirate label. But I am OK with it. Instead of legal hair-splitting over whether the Sea Shepherdites are pirates, and having the right or wrong of Sea Shepherd's actions turn on global pettifoggery, I am comfortable with the idea that they are outside the law. In fact, I think it is justified. Call it "Not Very Civil Disobedience."

What? What are you advocating? Chaos will ensue. Once legal norms are breached we will have terror and mayhem on the high seas. Erm, I don’t think so, anymore than we had mayhem following the lunch counter sit-ins during the civil rights era. Sea Shepherd is engaged in a very specific form of civil disobedience, with a very specific target, in service of a specific ethical argument. If you believe in that argument--that whales are highly sentient, intelligent creatures that deserve protection from an anachronistic practice (whaling)--then you, too, probably want Japanese whaling shut down more than you want Sea Shepherd shut down.

Even if you don't agree with that argument (and if you don't, Sea Shepherd explains in detail what they are up to, and why, here), I doubt you expect the rest of the world's shipping to start behaving in the same way. I would feel differently if Sea Shepherd was shooting torpedoes at the Japanese whaling fleet (though I know people who would applaud that, too). Instead, I find the laws and protections offered to whales outdated, leaky with loopholes, and inadequate to the times. And while Sea Shepherd pushes the limits in fighting that wrong, they seem to be pretty good at doing as much as required to have an impact on Japanese whaling, while staying on the right side of the line demarcating direct aggression or violence.

As a sailor and conservationist, I love the ocean and the creatures in it. So if what Sea Shepherd is doing is eco-piracy, I’d in fact like a little more of it, especially with regard to sharks. The oceans we know are slowly and inexorably being polluted, fished-out, and transformed, despite existing legal regimes. We can have legal correctness or our oceans, but until we have more comprehensive legal protections for the oceans, it does not seem that we can have them both. So maybe a little civil or uncivil disobedience is just what is needed to wake everyone up.