Sea Shepherd and climate action: on the frontline since 1977

Friday, 19 Nov, 2021

- Commentary by Sea Shepherd Australia's Managing Director, Jeff Hansen. 

While Sea Shepherd is most well-known for our whale defence missions, when deliberating our campaigns, we look at four key threats to the ocean: illegal fishing, climate change, ocean plastics and threats to vulnerable and endangered species. If we are serious about protecting the ocean, we must play a key role in each, and we are.

However, because all our campaigns aim to restore ocean health or are directly linked to climate fights, the reality is that all Sea Shepherd campaigns are mitigating the climate emergency at hand, and here’s why.

The M/V Steve Irwin in the Kimberley, WA as part of our campaign to stop the development of a gas hub through a humpback whale nursery.

The ocean is like a giant carbon sponge or carbon sink, absorbing all the excess carbon from the atmosphere, taking it down to the depths and keeping it there. Since the start of the industrial revolution, the ocean has absorbed almost half of all our carbon dioxide emissions. However, this has come at a big cost to the most vital of species, namely phytoplankton, with numbers falling by as much as 40% in recent years. This is because when water absorbs CO2, it becomes more acidic. When you have this acidification, calcifying plankton and shells made from calcium carbonate start to dissolve.

These tiny plants absorb carbon and give us most of the air we breathe, and alarmingly, we are missing as much as 40%. Not only that, phytoplankton is the basis of life in the ocean food web, on which the entire ecosystem survives. Krill eat the phytoplankton, whales eat the krill, sharks eat the fish that eat the krill that eat the plankton, and so on.

In the BBC’s latest series A Perfect Planet, Sir David Attenborough states, “The oceans are being damaged in another way. Research suggests that overfishing has removed as much as 90% of all large predatory fish, and fewer fish means a marine system that stores less carbon."

This is where we come in with our campaigns to combat illegal fishing.

Sea Shepherd’s illegal fishing campaigns with our government partners have resulted in the arrests of over 70 illegal fishing vessels in African waters. We provide the ships, crew and fuel, while our government partners provide the enforcement to make the arrests. This can be seen in A Perfect Planet, where Sir David Attenborough himself narrates our work in Gabon, West Africa.

"When areas of ocean are protected, marine life can recover. Marine life here now has a chance. Currently around 5% of the oceans are protected, but there is a global campaign to raise that to 30%. If we can do that, many of the planet's more vulnerable species can recover.”

- Sir David Attenborough
Overfishing impacts the ocean's ability to store carbon.

Marine Debris Campaigns

The plastic industry is one of the most greenhouse gas-intensive industries in the manufacturing sector, and this is only set to grow. As our climate changes, the planet gets hotter. This, in turn, means plastic breaks down into more methane and ethylene, increasing the rate of climate change, and thus perpetuating the cycle.

Recycling is simply not a solution; there's more than enough plastic produced that we could ever need or use. We don't need to make any more or conduct exploration for raw materials such as oil and gas that are driving the climate crisis.

The sad reality is that plastic is right through the ocean food chain, to the ocean's depths from the Arctic to Antarctica, with evidence suggesting that even plankton are ingesting ever-greater quantities of microplastics, reducing the growth of microalgae and the efficiency of photosynthesis. So, not only are we seeing reduced numbers of phytoplankton from the burning of fossil fuels, but producing more microplastics could also degrade plankton's ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 

Microplastics also act like sponges, absorbing toxic chemicals that we have put into the atmosphere that have entered our ocean. We really have much work to do, and Sea Shepherd is on the frontline with our Marine Debris Campaign.

Since its inception, Sea Shepherd's Marine Debris Campaign has removed millions of pieces of marine debris from our coasts and waterways - tonnes of toxic trash that was choking our ocean - and with every piece removed, a potential marine life is saved.

Sea Shepherd volunteers and crew have more than made a difference in protecting marine life and the climate fight. These campaigns harness the energy, passion and conviction of tens of thousands of volunteers over hundreds of clean-ups, from around our community coastlines to remote locations like Cocos Keeling Islands, Moreton Island, Ningaloo, Christmas Island and North East Arnhem Land.

Not only do these campaigns provide direct relief to our ocean and marine life, the data we collect is also used in our various state and federal government enquiry submissions and bills aimed at tighter regulations and turning off the plastic production tap. There can be no justification whatsoever for the expansion of the toxic plastic industry, for a multitude of reasons.

Microplastics are ingested by marine animals including plankton that play a critical role in taking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Campaigns against the expansion of polluting fossil fuels

From the Kimberley to the Great Australia Bight, Sea Shepherd has been proud to stand with Traditional Owners, communities and organisations standing strong for a liveable climate. To date, we have been a part of some amazing victories.

Together, we were successful in stopping the world’s biggest gas hub from going through the middle of the world’s largest humpback whale nursery off the Kimberley coast. Together, we were also successful in knocking out Big Oil giants BP, Chevron and Equinor from drilling for oil in the Great Australian Bight; one of the world's last big, intact marine wilderness areas. We currently also stand proudly with the Stop Adani Alliance and the many groups opposing Woodside's Scarborough Gas project off the Western Australian coast.

Abbot Point Coal Terminal - Operation Reef Defence.

Threats to Vulnerable and Endangered species

We know that the healthier our ocean is, the greater it stands a chance in fighting the impacts of climate change, and a healthy ocean is one that is rich in biodiversity. This is why we have made a stand when Threatened and Endangered species have needed action, from protecting endangered Australian sea lions (Great Australian Bight), to great white sharks (WA shark cull), to hawksbill and green sea turtles in Papua New Guinea.

In terms of whales, their flocculent plumes nutrify the ocean, feeding phytoplankton, meaning the more whales we have in our ocean, the more phytoplankton, meaning less carbon in our atmosphere and more oxygen. 

The last IPCC Report stated that we are at Code Red in our planet's climate emergency, stressing that globally we need to be net-zero by 2030. With each whale sequestering 33 tons of carbon in its lifetime, this shows once again that Sea Shepherd's work of directly defending whales over more than four decades has been critical in the climate fight.

Southern right whales of the Great Australian Bight. Whales help reduce carbon and produce oxygen.

So as you can see, it’s very clear that since Captain Paul Watson founded Sea Shepherd in 1977, Sea Shepherd has been on the frontline of mitigating the climate emergency we are in.

In fact, Paul was writing about this problem forty years ago, when his opinions were dismissed alongside other voices of ecological realism and sanity.

"Climate change cannot be reversed, but we can help humanity and all other species threatened by the consequences to survive. The basic laws of ecology will determine those consequences, the laws governing diversity, interdependence and finite resources.”

- Captain Paul Watson, Sea Shepherd Founder

While world leaders have met to talk about action and targets, for decades Sea Shepherd has been relentlessly delivering real, tangible results for the ocean. Tackling the key threats, protecting life and biodiversity in our ocean; the world’s greatest carbon sink that drives the earth’s climate.

In Sir David Attenborough’s address at the recent COP26 meeting in Glasgow, he stated that “our motivation should not be fear, but hope”. I wholeheartedly agree with Sir David, for we need hope for action, and likewise, there is also no hope without action. So onwards we must forge, shoulder to shoulder, leaving no one behind, because change is opportunity in disguise!

The cost of renewables coming down and the lack of investment in fossil fuels is driving change. However, cost should not even be a concern, for we did not worry about costs of action with previous wars or fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. The reality is that all the previous world's wars and COVID losses will seem insignificant to what is coming down the line if we do not address the climate emergency at hand.

When we bring children into this world, we are instantly wrapped around their little fingers and fall in love in a heartbeat. Yet, all a child really needs is clean air, water, food, a liveable climate and love. These are the things that connect and bind us across this blue planet.

For over four decades, Sea Shepherd has been there, holding the course, holding the line and giving our ocean just that little bit more time for humanity to wake up.

End fossil fuel subsidies, support renewables, cease all plastic production, protect the ocean and let it recover and thrive, go plant-based, end all native logging and rejuvenate lands. The solutions are all there. We know what we need to do.

Together, let's stand on the right side of history and fight for the one thing worth fighting for on this planet, life!

The ocean provides us with up to 80% of the air we breathe, and thus the words of Paul Watson always ring true, that “if the ocean dies, we die." 

Putting our ocean first is putting humanity first and a liveable climate for all life. 

For the ocean and for future generations,

Jeff Hansen,
Managing Director, Sea Shepherd Australia


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