Setting the Record Straight: Captain Paul Watson’s Departure from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (USA)

In recent conservation news, Captain Paul Watson, Founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society resigned in late July, 2022 from the organization he created and has fiercely led for close to half a century. A lifelong Environmental Activist, Watson founded Sea Shepherd in 1977 and has dedicated his life to the preservation and protection of biodiversity of oceans and marine life.

Throughout the years Sea Shepherd has made global headlines for its innovative tactics to stop illegal poaching and end wildlife slaughter in the world’s oceans. The #1 Animal Planet TV series Whale Wars gained worldwide recognition for the organization’s relentless campaign to end Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean: a victory that earned Watson international eco-celebrity status.

Watson’s recent decision comes after the USA Board of Directors has decided to turn away from the organization’s fundamental mission and motto to defend, conserve, and protect marine wildlife species and habitat through frontline direct action campaigns. Abandoning Watson’s core values, vision and the critical issues he and his crews have been bravely confronting for decades on the high seas, Sea Shepherd USA will shift its focus to elite, donor funded, scientific-based research endeavors.

“It is with great relief that as of July 27th, 2022, I have ceased my employment and cut all ties with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (USA),” he shared publicly in a resignation letter to his supporter base.  

Watson is of course no stranger to conflict. As the youngest founding member of Greenpeace, he was removed from the organization in 1977 for being perceived as too “divisive” in his approach. However Watson never intended to lead a banner waving ‘protest’ organization and thus launched the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, often referred to as ‘Neptune’s Navy,’ in order to actively uphold and enforce international conservation laws.

“My role is to rock the boat, to make waves, to provoke people to think about the damage we are collectively inflicting upon biodiversity and the interdependence of life in the ocean. The current USA Board seeks to turn our vessels away from confronting illegal poachers that prey on endangered species and instead seeks to turn our fleet into non-controversial research vessels,” he explained in his resignation.

Paul Watson Media. Image Credit: Deborah Bassett

Over the past few years Watson has been visibly marginalized from the organization that he created in the USA. He was forced off the Board of Directors and denied the freedom to organize strategic frontline campaigns that have shaped what Sea Shepherd has become and continues to be outside the borders of the United States. Reduced to being a paid figurehead, many of his close associates were terminated and directors that supported his fundamental values were removed. 

This bonafide coup d’etat, led by Chairmen of the Board, Paul Labombard, who goes by the alias, Pritam Singh, a high net worth real estate developer based in Woodstock, VT, has been described by former employees as a “hostile takeover” of Sea Shepherd USA. Watson and many other close affiliates are reportedly being silenced from speaking publicly about the current situation. A former chapter coordinator who wished to remain anonymous due to fear of legal retaliation from Singh and his high powered cronies, shared: 

“Former staff and volunteers are being bullied through aggressive emails, threatening legal action if they speak out against the current regime. Watson has been denied access to anything Sea Shepherd USA related, including his own images. He has been removed from the website’s history, although they continue to use his intellectual property throughout it and profit from retail sales using the organization’s logo that he created decades ago.”

Art Work: John Tribolet

It appears that Sea Shepherd USA has been hijacked by people who have never been involved in Sea Shepherd campaigns, aside from Singh who owns a sportsmen fishing lodge in Alaska. Every other Sea Shepherd group around the world disagrees with the recent direction to diminish this effective global movement. And it appears that the current Board of Directors, all who have been appointed by Singh, are causing significant damage to both the operations and credibility of the organization.

For example, just a couple of years ago, Sea Shepherd USA had six ships:

  • The Farley Mowat – former US Coast Guard Patrol boat
  • The Sharpie – former US Coast Guard Patrol boat
  • The John Paul DeJoria – former US Coast Guard Patrol boat
  • The Brigitte Bardot – high-speed Trimaran
  • The White Holly – Former US Coast Guard buoy tender
  • The Martin Sheen – sailing ketch

The USA Board has already scrapped The Sharpie, The John Paul DeJoria and The White Holly. The Brigitte Bardot was also sold, despite Brigitte Bardot purchasing new engines for the vessel just prior to the sale. The Martin Sheen has also been sold, unbeknownst to some of the patrons who have maintained these ships for years through generous donations and costly repairs.

Former Sea Shepherd Captain and Director of Ship Operations, Locky Maclean, offered to buy The White Holly for future conservation efforts. The decision to scrap it has been extremely disappointing to him and the many volunteers who spent long hours outfitting and maintaining a vessel that was perfectly operational. According to Maclean:

“As Ship Operations Director in 2018, I was extremely grateful for the donation of the White Holly by French philanthropist Benoit Vuillet. We crossed the Panama Canal and promptly attended to cleaning up Isla Del Coco National Park in collaboration with Costa Rica’s National Parks service rangers, and the Environment Ministry. It was a successful mission, collecting over 34 tons of derelict long lines and other fishing gear, as well as clearing the island of decades worth of debris. I made two attempts to buy the ship from the organization to save her from being scrapped for future conservation efforts. To this day, I cannot understand why the vessel was sent to the graveyard–she was a historical ship, in good condition, fuel efficient, with a proud crew who looked after her. It was truly disconcerting to hear she was dismantled for scrap metal.”

White Holly Scrapped. Image Credot” Astilleros Marcesa 

Furthermore, the current Board of Directors recently purchased the vessel Sharkwater against the advice of Captain Paul Watson. The Sharkwater is a luxury dive boat which requires expensive repairs and, as such, not an appropriate vessel for historical Sea Shepherd campaigns. With the purchase of the Sharkwater, the Board has publicly boasted that Sea Shepherd USA is expanding the Sea Shepherd fleet, despite the fact that they are in the process of abolishing it.

According to the Sea Shepherd USA website, “As recently as July 8th 2022, we took possession of the MV Sharkwater, now the largest ship in the SSCS fleet of five vessels. This historic vessel will help us in Operation Milagro to protect the world’s most endangered marine mammal, the vaquita porpoise.”

The Shepherd USA website currently cites that “Sea Shepherd’s work in the Gulf of California, in partnership with the Mexican Navy, is expanding and giving the vaquita a significantly improved chance for survival.” 

Sea Shepherd USA continues to send out emails and campaign flyers in the mail attempting to solicit donations for the Milagro campaign in order to “continue our fight”. Yet the campaign has been suspended this year because the Mexican navy, after years of Sea Shepherd support, partnership and success–under Watson’s reign–is now able to handle it internally. This achievement has always been Watson’s goal; to empower others as environmental stewards of their own backyard.

They also recently released a news story on ABC San Diego’s Channel 10 of the John Paul DeJoria vessel being attacked while pulling nets in the Vaquita Refuge in Mexico.The story was presented as a current event. Yet the vessel in the film was actually the Farley Mowat, and the video, interviews and actions happened over two years previous. The USA Board is also releasing false information that the Vaquita numbers are increasing when in fact the numbers are decreasing.

Furthermore, the Sea Shepherd USA website claims that the Sharkwater vessel will be “be particularly effective in the fight against IUU in the Pacific Ocean,” and that they are “partners with Sea Shepherd UK in fighting the slaughter of White Dolphins and Pilot Whales in the Faroe Islands and Sea Shepherd Brazil in protecting the River Dolphin of the Amazon.” The USA Board is not only taking false credit for the above actions of Sea Shepherd Global vessels and crew, but they are NOT supporting the operations of these ships and campaigns. 

To many loyal colleagues, allies and fans, Paul Watson IS Sea Shepherd, and supporters from every corner of the globe have expressed disappointment over Watson’s departure from Sea Shepherd USA and disapproval of its new direction. Many have shared their allegiance to Captain Watson across social media platforms. In a recent Facebook post, Former Director of Sea Shepherd Asia, Gary Stokes, remarked:

“It is clear to see that the Board of Directors of Sea Shepherd USA wants to erase the past 40+ years of Sea Shepherd history (and victories) and opt to change the world’s most effective Direct Action Ocean Conservation organization into a watered-down scientific fleet working with fishery scientists that up until now have slated Sea Shepherd’s actions. Gone will be the days of any direct action, something Sea Shepherd is famous for, and that which is much needed given the dire state of our ocean. Even the US Navy and former Secretary of State John Kerry recognized the effectiveness of Sea Shepherd’s role.”

Yet the current USA Board of Directors, including Singh, an avid sports fisherman, Dr. Dianna Reiss, a dedicated advocate of cetacean captivity and George Neugent, former County Commissioner in the Florida Keys, home to some of Singh’s major development deals, claim Watson is too controversial to lead the organization and in essence the very movement he created. Some critics, including David Grimm of Science Magazine, have gone so far as to call him a “pirate and a terrorist”— entirely false, if not, defamatory statements. The bottom line is that Sea Shepherd has never been convicted of a felony crime and has won all civil lawsuits ever brought against them.

Paul Watson Early Days. Image Credit: Sea Shepherd UK

Watson simply does not negotiate with eco-terrorists who pillage the Earth and plunder the Oceans, nor does he back down, but he has always knows precisely where to draw the line. That’s what sets Paul Watson apart from the rest and makes him considered by many as a modern day hero, living legend, and peaceful warrior all in one. As he once stated, “I didn’t come here to watch them kill whales. I came here to stop them.” And so he has, through a strategy he has often referred to as “aggressive non-violence.”

In a 2020 article with In Depth Magazine he explained, “We are very proud of the fact that we have never caused a single injury to anybody in our history and never sustained any injuries. But we have shut down hundreds of illegal operations through aggressive nonviolence. So we get accused of a lot of things. When anybody calls me an eco-terrorist I say, no, I never worked for Monsanto, so that doesn’t really fit. They can call us whatever they want, but the fact is, we don’t hurt people.”

It is this fearless determination, lack of compromise and countless victories that have earned him prestigious awards and recognition from numerous heads of state, CEOs, scientists, artists, actors and even His Holiness, The Dalai Lama. He has been the keynote speaker at multiple TED Talks to FBI Headquarters at Quantico. He has received the Amazon Peace Prize, the Jules Verne Environmental Award (Only the 2nd person to receive it since Jacques Cousteau), and the George H Bush Daily Points of Light Award. Time Magazine once designated him as one of the “Environmental Heroes of the 20th Century.”

Throughout his leadership of over 45 years, Sea Shepherd ended illegal whaling in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, saving over 6,500 whales. They shut down every single pirate whaling operation in the North Atlantic. They shut down drift net fishing and launched successful campaigns to recover ghost nets and marine debris. Sea Shepherd also formed numerous alliances with governments and NGOs around the globe to patrol and protect threatened marine areas and species from illegal poaching and habitat destruction. They have provided assets, funding, intelligence and the know-how to enforce conservation law where it is most needed, and oftentimes most neglected. 

With Watson at the helm, Sea Shepherd established its first official government partnership beginning in Ecuador in 1999 by securing a surveillance system in the Galapagos National Park and supplying the park with a patrol vessel to counter illegal poaching and wildlife trafficking, which is still successfully in operation today. Other current partnerships in Africa with Namibia, Tanzania, Gabon, and Liberia, to name just a few, were established by Sea Shepherd Global, not by Sea Shepherd USA, although Mr. Singh apparently enjoys taking credit for the work being carried out by an entirely autonomous organization.

To this end, there has been much concern within the conservation community regarding how Sea Shepherd USA will continue to manage existing donations for “direct action” with the recent termination of such campaigns. Added Stokes:

“What is very apparent and distasteful (and illegal) is using the work of Sea Shepherd Global (a completely separate organization) to raise donations, misleading US citizens into thinking Sea Shepherd USA is carrying out IUU fishing patrols in collaboration with African governments, as just one example. This is just not the case.”

According to another former Chapter Coordinator, “Sea Shepherd USA continues to accept “On Shore Volunteer” applications on their website for a $30 fee, although the site has had its “Chapters” section removed and on the “Get Involved/Volunteer” section it reads, “At this time we are not accepting Onshore Volunteer applications from areas that do not have an official chapter.” New applicants are still sending in their crew application fees, as well as donations, under the false guise of supporting conservation in action. So where are these monies actually going?”

The USA Board’s recents actions to shut down chapters in the USA is further sabotaging the decades of work carried out by these chapters, who annually contribute hundreds of thousands in donations at local outreach and fundraising events. There is a significant dollar amount in merchandise sales and direct donations garnered at local events, beach cleanups, and ship tours. One must seriously question the leadership and decision making of any 501 c3 non profit that would willingly cut off a substantial annual revenue stream and disregard the dedication and hard work of thousands of On Shore Volunteers. 

At this time, Sea Shepherd USA Chief of Operations, David Hance was not available for comment on any of  the above matters. Hance, a former Los Angeles police officer, was “arrested and arraigned in 2007 for fraud on a felony warrant for 487 (A) PC Grand Theft and Receiving Stolen Property,” according to the LAPD website. He currently leads the Sea Shepherd USA staff, which now has an allocation of $2 million annually per year for employee salaries, which is publicly accessible information through the IRS.

The direction of the USA Board aims to bring scientific staff and researchers, many who are already heavily funded through research grants, on board. Yet one of the greatest strengths of Sea Shepherd’s historically grassroots structure has been in providing the all-volunteer international crew members with the opportunity to learn about ocean conservation through direct action. 

Sea Shepherd US Board of Director, Roger Payne, stated in a recent Science Magazine article that he “hopes to use $100,000 of donor funds for an echosounder to acoustically measure fish populations.” Payne, whose son was recently appointed as Director of Science for the organization, and who currently resides on Singh’s property in Vermont,added: “Sea Shepherd ships could bring researchers onboard to document animal populations and behavior, as well as water conditions such as temperature and salinity.”

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society was never intended to be “Semester at Sea,” and there are numerous organizations, foundations and NGOs carrying out important scientific research as their primary focus. Addressing 11th hour ocean atrocities through documentation, intervention, confrontation, research and partnerships within the boundaries of practicality and the law has always been the aim of Paul Watson’s Sea Shepherd. And he has been clear to point out that while scientific research has always been a part of the Sea Shepherd model, it has not been the organization’s top priority. Watson wrote:

“What we have provided is a unique function: a fearless leadership to intervene against poachers on the high seas, to document and to stop illegal acts that would otherwise go unnoticed and unchallenged. Sea Shepherd has always, and must always go where others fear to go, to say the things that must be said and to tackle the obstacles fearlessly and with great resolve.”

Captain Paul Waston, who has led more expeditions to Antarctica than Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton put together–in the name of conservation–has always reiterated Shackleton’s message that he didn’t want paid experts, he wanted a crew who could get him to and from the pole alive. As he has been often quoted, “you can not pay for passion.”

Captain Paul Watson Antarctica. Image Credit: Barbara Veiga

Just one of many of those passionate volunteers is Swedish-American Peter Hammarstedt, who started his activist career at the ripe old age of 18, learned the ropes on Sea Shepherd’s numerous Antarctica missions, and climbed the ranks to become one of the organization’s most accomplished captains. After close to 20 years of service, he is currently leading poaching patrols throughout Africa and is a board member of Sea Shepherd Global and Sea Shepherd Australia. This is the type of determination, dedication and courage that has embodied the mission of Sea Shepherd from the start. 

The current USA Board has also decided to turn away from its dedicated vegan policy on board its ships. And while Sea Shepherd may be known first and foremost as an ocean conservation organization, animal rights and welfare have certianly played an integral role in upholding the integrity of the cause. One simply can not save the oceans while eating the very species they are fighting to protect. According to veteran Chief Cook and Sea Shepherd Australia Board member, Laura Dakin:

“Not only does Sea Shepherd Global run incredibly effective direct action campaigns, they also recognise the real importance of maintaining vegan ships. In my opinion this highlights the organization’s commitment to protecting marine wildlife, and all life. It would be a huge step in the wrong direction to reverse the subtle, yet very crucial role, a plant-based diet plays in conservation.“

Regarding these new directions that the present Board of Sea Shepherd USA has decided upon, Watson stated: 

“This is not a path that I can in good conscience support nor participate in. I have not changed my objectives or resolve, and I refuse to change and adopt an approach that diminishes the incredible movement that we have created over the last four and a half decades, a movement that continues to grow outside the borders of the United States.”

The late Dr. Sidney Holt, who is credited as a founder of Fisheries Science and remains an Honorary Sea Shepherd Advisory Board Member perhaps put it best, “Sea Shepherd’s work has a spiritual effect on people. Everywhere I go, people say what Sea Shepherd is doing is great. People say it’s about time we stop passing resolutions and actually DO something – Sea Shepherd is doing that!” said Holt.

Added Gary Stokes: “It is a sad state of affairs for a great organization with such a history of effecting change on the high seas. I will continue to support the great work being done by Sea Shepherd Global who I now see as the REAL Sea Shepherd. I feel for the volunteers on the ships of Sea Shepherd USA whose intentions are pure but are now pawns in a power play, led by wealthy investors, not conservationists.”

Captain Paul Watson remains on the Board of Sea Shepherd Global and will continue to support Global ships, officers, crews and campaigns. Sea Shepherd Global continues to be an interventionist, anti-poaching organization with crews deployed around the world.

“We are Sea Shepherd,” he stated. “We are direct action motivated by imagination, persistence, and courage. My future lies with the people from around the world who have made and continue to make Sea Shepherd the most influential, passionate, and effective marine conservation movement on this planet.”
For more information and to learn how you may continue to support Captain Paul Watson and Sea Shepherd Global, please visit: www.seashepherdglobal.org/


Deborah Bassett
Non Profit Consultant
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