Human Journey

What gives Greenpeace the right?

I’m here in the high arctic waters off Svalbard (78º N; way up there!) as a guest for a few days aboard Greenpeace’s ship Arctic Sunrise. I wonder if we’re doing the right thing.

We’re here because warming waters have brought cod and other valued fish northward, and upon them are huge fishing boats capable of following to the end of the Earth, dragging the nets that have ruined seafloors and depleted fish in many parts of the world.

We are here to call for a balance between exploitation and protection. We’re here “bearing witness,” which means getting close to working trawlers and taking lots of photos.

But while zooming around trawlers in our speedboat, a troubling thought kept recurring: What gives us the right? Is it wrong-headed to want to protect the seafloor? Here are these ships catching food for people and we’re saying, “This far, no further.” They want food and jobs and money. We speak of deep anemones and sea-pens; we worry about fragile corals.

Are we doing something valid or just harassing these fishing crews? Are we doing enough good to justify it? Where is the line?


Spanish fishing trawler. Credit: Carl Safina
Spanish fishing trawler. Credit: Carl Safina

I shared my thoughts with Captain Mike Fincken, who has been with Greenpeace for 20 years, 10 years a captain. He’s South African. To avoid compulsory 2-year military service during the violent era of Apartheid, he spent 13 years at sea. He’s been arrested for participating in a blockade to prevent a coal ship from entering Rotterdam Harbor. He says that two days in a windowless cell where the fluorescent lights were never turned off was a good experience—quite enough time to see what it was like in jail.

He surprised me by saying that he and the rest of the crew and the Greenpeace organization itself are always asking themselves the same question I was asking: Are we doing the right thing? Is it necessary? I admired that openness and honesty. So we talked.

Captain Mike Fincken and 3rd Officer Helena DeCarlos. Credit: Carl Safina
Captain Mike Fincken and 3rd Officer Helena DeCarlos. Credit: Carl Safina

We talked first about people getting hurt. Captain Mike told me that when Greenpeace’s ship Rainbow Warrior was sunk in New Zealand in 1985 by the French Secret Service, the French made no attempt—no anonymous phone call—to warn anyone to evacuate. The crew aboard was having a birthday party when a bomb attached to the hull exploded, killing a photographer. Thirty years later the diver who attached the bomb apologized. He said he’d been lied to, that he’d been told that the ship was sponsored by the Soviet Union.

And what was Rainbow Warrior doing in New Zealand? It was sailing into waters where the French were exploding atomic bombs in the atmosphere, trying to disrupt those explosions and stop the destruction of tropical islands and the radioactive fallout.

So who were the criminals?

Mike says Greenpeace takes great care to avoid hurting anyone. Here on this cruise, Greenpeace notifies fishing ships before launching our photographic boats. They don’t ask permission but they make a courtesy call. The boats might not welcome us (though some are in fact friendly), but they know we aren’t here to physically disrupt anything.

Daniella Montalto has the Spanish boat on Channel 10. Credit: Carl Safina
Daniella Montalto has the Spanish boat on Channel 10. Credit: Carl Safina

The main game here is a long one: provide the documentation to support efforts to protect large areas here before the seafloor is in fact ruined by trawling, as has happened elsewhere. And already, major seafood catchers have voluntarily agreed not to expand into untrawled areas. And mega-retailers including McDonald’s have agreed not to buy fish from companies that violate the agreement. So if McDonald’s thinks this is right—.

Mike told of having protested “monster boats,” fishing ships 350 feet long. They fish off West Africa where governments are in no position to protest or enforce their waters. They don’t even raise the nets but send vacuum hoses into them so they can keep catching 24/7. Most of the fish are turned to fishmeal, converted to livestock feed and fertilizer.

During those protests the crews attached large buoys to the net to, yes, interfere with the fishing, fishing that is so damaging that well-functioning governments do not allow those trawlers in their waters. One of Greenpeace’s boats got its propeller tangled in the net and flipped. The incident caused Greenpeace to reevaluate its safety protocols.

Mike says that Greenpeace has never hurt anyone and never aims to harm property. They take the “peace” in their name seriously. They evaluate risk before launching actions, to ensure no injury. Their actions are mainly theatrical, hanging banners and the like.

And for safety reasons they tend these days to avoid any contact with fishing operations. (Greenpeace is widely confused with Sea Shepherd, which has rammed fishing and whaling boats—and been rammed—and undertaken other actions designed to damage property and so disrupt the ability of the boats to continue their operations. While I admire Sea Shepherd’s nerve and share their anger, I don’t support some of their strategies because I suspect they’re counter-productive. Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd are wholly independent.)

This ship itself had been impounded after the crew attempted to hang a banner on a Russian oil rig in the Arctic, and its crew imprisoned in Russia facing sentences of 5 to 10 years—for hanging a banner (they were pardoned after a couple of months). Later an international court found Russia’s capture of the ship illegal, because Greenpeace’s ship had maintained the legal distance from the oil-rig.

Returning from photographing trawler. Credit: Carl Safina
Returning from photographing trawler. Credit: Carl Safina

A German photographer on board with us is banned from the U.S. for life. During the days of the U.S.’s “star wars” plan to put orbiting bombs in space, he had taken part in a protest. The protesters sought to delay the launch of a dummy missile by sneaking onto a military base to plant balloons that would get in the way of the missile and prevent the launch.

Balloons, not bombs—wouldn’t that be nice. But he’s banned from the U.S. I can think of many things that should get people banned. Balloons aren’t one of them.

So governments and laws aren’t always a good guide to who is right and who is wrong and what speaks to justice. And if you protest, governments and despoilers will sometimes push back hard. Life isn’t always fair or just. Sometimes someone has to say so, and show a path to better ways.

So is it wrong to peacefully—though sometimes dramatically—protest activities that cause much harm to the living world and our life-support systems?

In these waters and shores we are cruising, walruses had been hunted to near-annihilation. Then whales. Then people came for coal. Now it’s fish. This is why our mission—keeping an eye on what’s happening, showing and sharing what it’s like here, advancing a conversation about keeping some places safe from humanity—can be useful at this time.

The ship carries a totem gifted by Canada’s Kwakiutl Nation during a mission to protest nuclear testing. So, what is to some illegal harassment is to others the sacred mission of peaceful warriors.

Greenpeace is simply trying to say, with photos, “Go slow. Leave some.” That’s all.

6 tons of fish caught in two hours. Credit: Carl Safina
Six tons of fish caught in four hours. Credit: Carl Safina

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Carl Safina’s recent bestselling book Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel is newly out in paperback. See Carl’s TED talk here. He is Stony Brook University’s Endowed Professor for Nature and Humanity, and founder of The Safina Center.

Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.
  • Captain Paul Watson

    So should we keep bearing witness as the Ocean does, should we continue to hang banners and take pictures as biodiversity is diminished more and more with the passing of each year. Within the last year Sea Shepherd has permanently shut down six Antarctic toothfish poaching ships, six illegal Chinese drift netters in the Indian Ocean, arrested three Chinese trawlers in Gabonese waters, confiscated over 50 nets and long lines in the Sea of Cortez and rescued hundreds of animals caught in the nets including a Humpback whale. We arrested a dozen poachers in the Gulf of California, cleaned beaches around the world, exposed illegal shark finning globally, rescued sharks, cleaned hundreds of ghost nets from the sea and Safina describes these results as counter-productive? I left Greenpeace because I was tired of hanging banners as the Ocean dies before my eyes. Greenpeace is free to take all the pictures they want and hang banners until the cows come home but to state that Sea Shepherd activities are counter-productive is simply misleading. What is bearing witness anyway? I view it as cowardice.

    • I didn’t describe the results you list as counter-productive, Paul. I said I think some of Sea Shepherd’s strategies might be counter-productive. I see a difference. Japan subsidizes a money-losing whale killing industry. They’ve had thirty years of bad press and lost court cases. One must ask why they continue and where one’s work factors in. Perhaps the worst thing whale-lovers can do to Japan’s whale boats at this point is to ignore them, because their subsidies may depend on Japan’s preoccupation with not “losing face.” It’s a psychological consideration. It’s possible that as much as we hate the whale boats, they need vigorous protest in order to continue. Batman needs the Joker, after all. Different methods work better for different audiences. There is the public to win, and politicians and government bureaucrats. The ethos changes from one generation to the next and working on ethos change is a strategy, too. Some strategies have short-term and others longer-term results. Many people are turned off by violence and vigilantism. Those tactics in themselves help shape the ethos toward conservation and the perception of conservationists and our cause. As for your question about, “What is bearing witness?,” it’s pretty interesting that you claim not to know. Witnessing is seeing for yourself. Bearing witness is taking the responsibility of insisting that others see and confront what you have seen. Many of the people who must know what is going on will never see it first hand. It must be brought to them. That’s what bearing witness is. If we allow that it is cowardice, we must allow that hurting bad guys is weak on long-term strategy. No one knows the right answer or the right balance exactly. But if you do the same thing for decades and the same problems continue, or worsen, something isn’t working. All conservationists and all activists and in fact all mission-driven people must consider that. I know I do about my own work, about what worked and failed and why, and how to do things more effectively. There is room and need for different strategies. Thank you for writing and thank you for your committed work in the world. What it doesn’t have is cowardice, I’ll certainly grant you that.

  • John Tribolet

    The greedy fishing fleets are the criminals, and yes, a presence and documentation of the raping of the oceans NEED to be done.

  • Roy Mulder

    It is always disappointing to see people who would rather chastise kindred spirits rather than to support each other. I respect that both organizations have their own mandates and operating procedures. I fail to see the benefits of working against each other, rather than supporting each other.
    To go as far as accusing Greenpeace of cowardice, is quite far off of the mark. This organization was amongst the first to put their lives on the line when no one else would step up to protect the environment.
    Paul Watson has been one of the few (and is not the only) who has taken direct actions to interrupt whaling and other invasive fishing programs by poachers. This does not give him the right to claim he is right and others are wrong in their approach. As a fellow environmentalist, I often encounter people who immediately put up walls because they associate my work as a marine conservationist to what organizations like Sea Shepard does. It often works against me as I talk to people who support marine conservation, yet stay out of it, because of people like Paul. I could say exactly the same thing about Greenpeace.
    This does not mean that I don’t appreciate the ground breaking work that is being done through different approaches. According to Paul I must be the ultimate coward, as I believe that I can affect change without physical confrontation. I do it using digital media, government meetings, stakeholder outreach and children’s programming. For me the doors of government and institutions open up allowing for dialogue and change. I suspect Paul wouldn’t get through those doors even if he tried.
    I see all paths as leading to the top of the mountain, or in this case the bottom of the sea. We need to get along together and work cooperatively without name calling like grade schoolers. It is clear that the world needs all of us to help, as governments dither and allow the rape of the ocean. We need to stop the negative energy and infighting that undermines all of our credibility.
    It is critical that we find the common ground and work towards it together. Perhaps then we can see which methodologies work best and all adopt the ones that work. The key is to respect each other and find that common ground.
    In my opinion there are far too many speciesist approaches. I think we would all be better off to work towards full no-take marine sanctuaries all over the world. A common goal that we all would benefit from. Imagine if all of us worked in that direction what we could do…

  • Alexander Sánchez

    Hi Paul and Carl, I only have a few years of experience under my belt with wild cetaceans (mainly strandings) and captive dolphin issues, but it has been enough time for me to form an opinion on this topic. As a young person (24) I can see why a lot of people my age, and older in many cases, find Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace attractive, and primarily it seems to be because it gives the individual the feeling that they are doing something positive and in a relatively easy way. A non-profit like SS for example will accept you into its ranks easier than a research non-profit, plus it has the “cool factor” that a lot of people are looking for. It is marketed this way, so I could say “good job!”. Both organisations have done many of good things that I agree with, and others that I don’t personally approve of. SS in particular for me was, during a very brief period of time, a very attractive group to become a part of, but I chose to take a step back and consider my options and whether or not it would be the ideal path for me. I chose not to go for it, and the main put-offs were 1) the extreme views or methods at times, and 2) the attitudes of many of the members and supporters. I have many friends in the “activist world”, and the only ones who have become hostile because of me speaking my mind have been SS supporters. There seems to be no place for the open-thinker in SS. You yourself Paul are quite hostile in your comment above, so it isn’t a surprise. So my recommendation to anyone out there is to not become sucked into a sect-like frame of mind, conservation and animal welfare is also about keeping a cool mind, negotiating respectfully, and above all being honest with what is going on and how it is being dealt with. If you want to save the environment, in my opinion there is no other way. Anyway, this is my own personal view based only on my personal experience, and I am sharing it here in case it helps anyone. Good day, and great article mr Safina!

  • Robert Schmidt

    Dave Foreman, one of the founders of Earth First!, discussed varying approaches to saving the environment in his book, Confessions of an Eco-Warrior. He wrote, “The deadliest trait of the True Believer, though, is a loss of tolerance for other approaches, for anyone whose ideas are not ‘politically correct'” (p. 171). There is more than one approach to protecting our oceans.

  • Stacia Tikaani

    I agree that taking an audience and their psychological landscape into consideration is invaluable when developing a strategy, as well as acknowledging that most strategies played out against powerful, corrupt organizations will evolve with both wins and loses. Greenpeace is basically a public awareness campaign organization that risks almost nothing and gains almost nothing except public awareness on big oil. You mention Sea Shepherd’s confrontations with Japanese whalers as a questionable strategy because of the possible negative psychological consequences on the Japanese government, without mentioning the immense, calculable victories accomplished by Sea Shepherd because of that very strategy. The risk/benefit and cost/benefit analysis are high in favor of Sea Shepherd. You also only mention the one controversial strategy Sea Shepherd employed against the Japanese whalers without seemingly taking into consideration Sea Shepherd’s legal team which operates under a very different strategy in the courts, or their collaboration with governments to fight poaching, or their work with other conservation groups to find a solution for plastic pollution. In essence, your comment leaves readers thinking confrontation is Sea Shepherds only strategy and you reinforce that narrative by stating other strategies should be employed for different audiences. You say you didn’t think the positive results Sea Shepherd has had are counterproductive, but they’re not worth mentioning in the context of your article about effective conservation? I know you were on a Greenpeace ship and writing about that experience, but if you found it necessary to publicly compare Greenpeace to Sea Shepherd, I would expect a less biased and misleading account from a reputable journalist. Maybe you could put your body where your mouth is before you write, so you could have a more honest perspective to share with your readers. I’m sure you would have a wonderful time training dogs to sniff out poachers in the Galapagos, or joining me in my community working beside the native tribes and fisherman to save our endangered salmon and keep our endangered orcas from going extinct…. That’s also a Sea Shepherd strategy.

    • Thanks for the added perspective. I’d be happy to talk to you about your work with dogs in Galapagos (very interested, actually) and I am also very interested in hearing more about your work with salmon and native people.

  • Rien Achterberg

    Good article Carl, thanks! I also really appreciate Paul’s comments & the work he has done & continues to do, regardless of the different opinions held against Greenpeace strategies… In my humble eyes, there’re “many roads which lead to Rome” as the old but still valid saying proclaims… I sincerely hope Paul/Sea Shephard & Greenpeace can set their differences aside & pro-actively start to work together in a mutually agreed format towards the protection of our Seas and all that it contains for the sake of the future of all & the generations to come…

  • Rick Oceans

    Thank you Carl, excellent piece with many salient points throughout. As a long time Sea Shepherd supporter and an even longer time Greenpeace supporter I think I can see a tiny corner of the big picture. That big picture for me comes down to a question that Paul Watson asked in his comment, (which I won’t repeat here as a quotation), and can be distilled thusly….How long do we watch, take pretty pictures, discuss, and politically posture while our oceans, (and our planet), are being destroyed by mankinds foolish recklessness?!? I founded a very small and insignificant organization called Cetacean Freedom International a few months ago to inform, inspire, educate, and motivate any who will listen to ACTION. I will not and cannot support illegal or immoral actions for any intended ‘good’ purpose, however, I believe the time is past to talk and/or document mankinds insanity…. When a crazy person treatens the lives of your family, it is inappropriate to stand by taking notes and photographs.

  • Ocean Film Fest India

    Hi Carl, thank you for your views.

    One important point is that bravery and cowardice are in respect to situations involving life and death decisions.

    Here though, the cause is much greater than any one person’s opinion and ways of operation and needs working together.

    We would like to have a panel discussion on this topic in our Film festival and conservation summit.

    Please submit your opinions and inputs to :
    oceanfilmfestindia at gmail dot com

  • Wilma vd Elzen

    Thank You for sharing your intelligent blog Carl <3

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