Silencing the Shepherd

What happens when activist voices are silenced? Two lifelong environmental activists respond in their own unique way. 

The world’s biggest climate negotiations are taking place in November 2022 in Egypt. The UN’s 27th Conference of Parties, or COP27, gathers governments to agree to limits on carbon emissions and also to funding adaptations needed for life on a warming planet.

The greatest impacts of global warming include loss of biodiversity, more extreme and frequent weather events and environmental degradation. It is largely the most vulnerable communities on the planet that have been and continue to face these challenges. Pakistan for example is still recovering six months after devastating flooding killed thousands and displaced almost 8 million.

The latest report by the IPCC, the global panel of scientists leading work on climate change, notes that the “vulnerability of ecosystems and people to climate change differs substantially among and within regions, driven by patterns of intersecting socio-economic development, unsustainable ocean and land use, inequity, marginalization, historical and ongoing patterns of inequity such as colonialism, and governance.”

As activists gather at COP27, two longtime pioneers of environmental activism, Dr. Sylvia Earle and Captain Paul Watson, gave the keynote addresses at the 2022 Ohana Music Festival in southern California. Ohana’s Storytelling in The Cove stage brought together leading conservationists and environmentalists such as Earle and Watson, as well as researchers, and professional surfers.

Dr. Sylvia Earle, known affectionately as “Her Deepness” for her life-long work to conserve ocean ecosystems and species, and Captain Paul Watson, the alternately praised and heckled “pirate” of the open seas, committed to doing whatever it takes to stop illegal whaling and fishing, spoke to the gathered crowds. 

“We shouldn’t be looking at life in the ocean as a grocery store where everything is free. When you take [life] out you’re damaging the very system that keeps us alive. …but maybe we can change when we know that our lives depend on really caring for life, rather than killing,” Dr. Earle said. 

Their lifelong and absolute commitment to protecting the ocean and its creatures against all the odds has raised awareness of the cause and inspired many to get involved. Their dedication to speaking inconvenient truths has also made their lives difficult, especially when it means standing up to powerful corporate interests and muddling government bureaucracies. 

What do these two activists have in common? They do not quit even in the face of being silenced by intimidation in various forms. What happens to the movement when activist voices are silenced? For Paul Watson, the answer is clear. 

“You can take down an individual, you can take down an organization, but you can’t destroy a movement.” 

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Pioneering Oceanic Knowledge

Dr. Sylvia Earle was the first person to freely walk the ocean floor alone. She was also one of the first scientists to use SCUBA to document marine life firsthand, pioneered deep sea exploration, undersea research, and also won many firsts for women in science, such as leading the first all-female team on a NASA deep-sea mission. She has dedicated her life to raising awareness, love and knowledge about one of the least explored places on the planet. 

“We’ll never make peace with ourselves if we don’t first make peace with nature,” Dr. Earle said to applause at the Ohana Festival.  

In 1990, she was appointed to the chief scientist role at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), one of America’s oldest scientific bodies. The NOAA is tasked with understanding and predicting changes in climate, weather, ocean and coasts, and also conserving and managing coastal and marine ecosystems. By a strange historical twist, the NOAA sits under the US Department of Commerce. 

Dr. Earle, the first woman to lead the government body, was quite possibly the perfect candidate to lead an agency in charge of protection of marine ecosystems. And yet, she left NOAA just two years in, alluding to frustrations with bureaucracy and the fact that she could get more done outside of the government than from within. 

Reuters quoted her at the time: “As private citizen Earle, I will be able to do and say things that are not appropriate for a senior official of the United States government," Dr. Earle said. “I will be able to actively seek - not just to advocate - a healthy and sustainable marine environment," she said.

From Stifled To Speaking Out

While Dr. Earle was hoping to make waves at NOAA, she decided ultimately to move on rather than be stifled by a slow-moving bureaucracy under an administration that appeared not to prioritize environmental protection. 

Indeed she spent the next decades working on deep ocean exploration and conservation. In 1992 she set up her own company, Deep Ocean Exploration and Research (now DOER Marine), which builds submersibles for ocean exploration. 

With her wealth of first-hand knowledge of the ocean, she has used all the channels at her disposal to talk about the importance of protecting key areas, particularly on the high seas. In 2009, she founded the non-profit Mission Blue to “inspire action to explore and protect the ocean,” because she knows she cannot do it alone. Everyone has to get involved. 

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The Wonder Of Hope Spots

Through what Dr. Earle brightly calls “Hope Spots,” marine areas where life can thrive, she wants to grow a movement of passionate ocean activists, locally and globally. Dr. Earle’s Hope Spots are areas with astonishing biodiversity, rare species or other ecological significance crucial to the health of the ocean. There are currently 147 Hope Spots worldwide covering over 57 million square kilometers of ocean, from the open seas to coastal zones, from Antarctica to the tropics.

Hope Spots go beyond business as usual by engaging and supporting local communities to steward and protect the marine areas so species and ecosystems can thrive again. One example is Kahalu‘u Bay in Hawaii, home to several endangered species including  ʻIlio holo i ka uaua (Hawaiian monk seals), Koholā (humpback whales), Honu (green turtles) and Honu‘ea (hawksbill turtles). 

Dr. Earle’s Hope Spots inspire the wonder and awe that she feels in the ocean.

Hope Spots go beyond business as usual by engaging and supporting local communities to steward and protect the marine areas so species and ecosystems can thrive again.

“With scientists around the world, I've been looking at the 99 percent of the ocean that is open to fishing – and mining, and drilling, and dumping, and whatever – to search out hope spots, and try to find ways to give them and us a secure future,” she shared from the TED stage in 2009, as she received the TED prize. 

Earle knows it takes a movement of people to create change in a world bent on exploitative and extractive practices. She knows how important it is to get the message out and urges each and every one us to get involved. 

“I wish you would use all means at your disposal – films, expeditions, the web, new submarines – and campaign to ignite public support for a global network of marine protected areas – hope spots large enough to save and restore the ocean, the blue heart of the planet.”

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The Pirate Saving Whales

Captain Paul Watson, who contributed to the founding of Greenpeace in the 70s, set up the non-profit Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in 1977 to patrol the open seas and interfere with illegal sealing, fishing and whaling vessels worldwide. He wanted to be more effective in actually stopping the killing of endangered and rare creatures, rather than simply protesting as the bloodshed continued.

He uses unconventional tactics such as scuttling ships in harbor by opening their sea valves to let water in, throwing stink bombs on deck, and using “prop foulers,” by dropping ropes in the water to sabotage a ship’s propellers. Watson has been accused by many, including his former organization Greenpeace, of “eco-terrorism.” But for Watson, the use of this term is irrelevant. What counts is the numbers of whales saved. Unfazed by people’s opinions of him, he has been focused on action to save animals since his childhood. 

On Ohana’s Storytelling in The Cove stage, Watson describes the origins of his lifelong activism. As a young boy in Eastern Canada he spent an idyllic summer swimming with a family of beavers. The next summer he returned but the beavers were gone.

“Trappers had come through. So I walked the trap lines freeing the animals and breaking the traps. And I’ve kind of been doing that ever since,” he says.

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Unconventional Tactics

Watson is singularly and absolutely committed to his mission to stop whales, seals and other sea creatures from being killed. This means using aggressive tactics on high-risk missions to the remote high seas, confronting often aggressive and militarized vessels in the middle of the ocean. 

Watson’s tactics might be unconventional, but he maintains that Sea Shepherd follows the United Nations mandate under the World Charter for Nature, which “empowers any nongovernmental organization or individual to uphold international conservation law in areas beyond national jurisdiction and specifically on the high seas.” 

Section 21e says “States and, to the extent that they are able, other public authorities, international organizations, individuals, groups and corporations shall: … (e) Safeguard and conserve nature in areas beyond national jurisdiction.” 

He also points out that no one has died as a result of any Sea Shepherd operations. And his tactics and use of media have focused the attention he wants on illegal killing of ocean creatures. His methods have also gotten him into trouble, particularly with whaling nations, who have often tried to silence Sea Shepherd in various ways.

Japan left the IWC in 2019 and continues to catch whales commercially. The Japanese Institute of Cetacean Research claims to be catching whales for research purposes, but Watson and others are highly skeptical.

There has been a moratorium on commercial whaling since 1982, but the International Whaling Commission (IWC) still allows catching and killing whales for research purposes. Historic whaling nations Norway and Iceland establish their own catch limits, and according to IWC, provide information on catches and associated scientific data to the Commission. Japan left the IWC in 2019 and continues to catch whales commercially. The Japanese Institute of Cetacean Research claims to be catching whales for research purposes, but Watson and others are highly skeptical.

In this context, Watson feels there is no one really stopping whaling and illegal fishing either on the high seas or even closer to shore. So Sea Shepherd does the work. Sea Shepherd activists have blocked harbors in Canada, scuttled whaling ships in Iceland and Norway, battled with ships off the coast of Guatemala and in the Mediterranean and chased Japanese whaling research ships across the wide waters of Antartica.

Watson has been pursued by all these nations and more, seeking to arrest and detain him on a variety of charges, refusing him entry visas, and requesting his extradition, including Interpol red alerts at the request of both Costa Rica and Japan.

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Silencing The Shepherd

Surprisingly after decades of this work seeking to stop the killing and raise the alarm, Watson cut ties with Sea Shepherd US in July 2022, saying that he had been undermined, marginalized and ignored. He described being pushed out of the organization that he founded in a written statement on his Facebook page. 

“I was removed from the Board of Directors, my advice ignored, my close associates terminated and directors that supported me were removed. I was reduced to being a paid figurehead, denied the freedom to organize campaigns and the freedom to express the strong opinions that I have held for decades, opinions and campaigns that have shaped what Sea Shepherd has become and continues to be outside the borders of the United States.”

His intense activism, uncompromising tactics and unwillingness to be silent are the hallmarks of his life’s work.

“My role is to rock the boat, to make waves, to provoke people to think about the damage we are collectively inflicting upon diversity and interdependence of life in the ocean,” Watson says of his function as activist. Yet, it seems this very activism silenced him at Sea Shepherd US.

Watson however, like Dr. Sylvia Earle, won’t be silenced for long. Soon after leaving Sea Shepherd USA in 2022, he set up the Captain Paul Watson Foundation to continue the work he began. The Foundation focuses on “protection and conservation of the ocean through direct intervention supported by documentation, research activities and partnerships.”

More Protest, More Suppression

As the world increasingly contends with the very real impacts of the climate crisis, including degradation of ecosystems, loss of species, rising temperatures, and extreme weather events, more and more people are following Earle and Watson’s lead across a wide range of climate and environmental justice issues. People are taking to the streets, advocating for change, and speaking out to the powers that be. And with this movement for change, more and more people are meeting similar challenges.

Watson notes in a 2021 interview with Our Epic Ocean that many activists all over the world, and particularly of those in the Global South, are being silenced and disappeared with little coverage in the mainstream media.

“You don’t hear about it. It’s not on the front page of any newspaper. And most of the activists [killed] unfortunately were indigenous peoples in Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica,” Watson says.

Global Witness, a nonprofit that monitors climate justice and environmental activism around the world reports that over 200 activists, largely Indigenous people in Latin America, were killed trying to protect land and other common resources in 2021 alone. Countless more activists seeking a more just and sustainable world have faced intimidation, surveillance, or criminalization. 

In 2021, over 400 climate scientists, including some authors of the UN’s IPCC reports, signed a public letter denouncing intimidation and violence against environmental activists. They wrote: “Those who put their voices and bodies on the line to raise the alarm are being threatened and silenced by the very countries they seek to protect. We are gravely concerned about the increasing criminalization and targeting of climate protestors around the world.” 

Many countries particularly in the West are tightening laws around protest in response to the growing demonstrations around climate justice, big oil, environmental destruction, capitalist exploitation and corporate extraction. Legal cases are ongoing for around 1,000 people in the UK who participated in Extinction Rebellion protests in 2021.

When You Are Silenced, Keep Going

No matter how often he is silenced, Captain Paul Watson will keep fighting to protect the animals he loves, to create organizations and build movements of people committed to saving defenseless sea creatures.

For her part, Dr. Earle at 87 is far from retiring. She’s still in a wetsuit exploring underwater realms near her home in Florida.

“It’s nothing like the paradise that I knew,” Earle tells CNN of Florida waters. “Nature is resilient, that’s cause for hope. But we need to give nature a break, take the pressure off.”

She wants to enchant a whole planet to care about the ocean and her dream is to offer the experience of deep-sea exploration to more people as a way to inspire them to care and protect.

Far from silent, these two voices continue to inspire us to action, as they shout from the rooftops of their love for ocean life and the ways we can each get involved in saving it. 

Key Takeaways