Tag Archives: Sea Shepherd

Blurring Definitions of Naval Power

By Marjorie Greene

My colleague, Joshua Tallis, wrote a recent article on CIMSEC on the current controversy regarding the nature of a navy. The controversy revolves around a recent conversation between CIMSEC members regarding the understanding of a navy’s central organizing principle. It was brought about by concerns raised about the rise of a global non-state fleet of vessels called the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) conducting missions “other than war” such as fisheries enforcement and interdiction of whaling vessels. Of significant concern is the increasing problem of piracy, which is currently introducing a wider maritime security challenge that must be addressed. 

How should states deal with piracy, which is engaged in by non-state actors and prohibited under international law? There is concern that as organizations such as Sea Shepherd continue to expand, the likelihood that they will engage with traditional nation-state navies will increase. Does this suggest there should be a change in Navy lexicon on piracy? Or does it suggest, as Joshua Tallis argues, that we need an updated definition of piracy, which is currently not legitimate because in our system, only the state has the right to exercise violence?

Fundamental to the challenge is the way a military is differentiated from non-state groups either by the scale of the force it can exert or because it is made up of ships that are designed for war. N.A.M. Rodger is cited as an example of a naval historian who defines a navy as a permanent fighting service. In other words, a navy fights.

Blurred Distinction

In her book, How Everything Became War and The Military Became Everything, Rosa Brooks argues that the collapsing barriers between war and peace threaten both America and the world. In her first chapter, Pirates!, she relates the incident on April 8, 2009, in which four young Somali pirates boarded the merchant vessel Maersk Alabama, making it the first U.S – flagged ship to be seized by pirates in nearly two hundred years. Four days later, Navy SEAL snipers shot and killed three of the pirates, rescuing the Maersk Alabama captain and capturing the fourth pirate.

090409-N-0000X-926 INDIAN OCEAN (April 9, 2009) In a still frame from video released by the U.S. Navy taken by the Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle, a 28-foot lifeboat from the U.S.-flagged container ship Maersk Alabama is seen Thursday, April 9, 2009 in the Indian Ocean. (U.S. Navy Photo)
INDIAN OCEAN (April 9, 2009) In a still frame from video released by the U.S. Navy taken by the Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle, a 28-foot lifeboat from the U.S.-flagged container ship Maersk Alabama is seen Thursday, April 9, 2009 in the Indian Ocean. (U.S. Navy Photo)

Ms. Brooks argues that the Navy assault on the Maersk Alabama was in many ways a typical twenty-first century military engagement. “The nature of piracy has changed”, she asserts. Although modern piracy is largely engaged by non-state actors, states are becoming more challenged in counterpiracy operations, which are probably here to stay. “What is the military for in a world in which future threats are as likely to come from non-state actors as they are from the navies of foreign states?” she asks. The boundaries around war, military power, and legitimacy are getting even more blurry and she makes a case that America may pay a price.

A Larger Issue

Several members of the academic community have begun to raise much broader issues about the nature of contemporary warfare and the changes in the roles of the military vis-à-vis the different civilian actors with whom it works. For example, in her book, Borderless Wars: Civil-Military Disorder and Legal Uncertainty, Antonia Chayes speaks of how civil-military relations have become blurred in the attempt to adapt to festering gray area conflict situations. Rosa Brooks book looks not only at the impact of war’s blurriness on the Navy’s patrol of the seas for pirates. Rather, it points out that there are many other problems today’s military personnel are being asked to perform, such as training Afghan judges, building Ebola isolation wards, and eavesdropping on electronic communications. The need for deeper civil-military integration, especially for Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief, is another emerging mission that has also been discussed on CIMSEC and elsewhere.

In general, Rosa Brooks argues that we are tackling problems that are too narrow and that states should find new ways to redefine the military, which, in her view, has become a one-stop-shopping solution to global problems. In this sense, we do need updated definitions of not only piracy, but of the increasing interaction of the roles of military and civilian organizations in maintaining maritime security in the world. This interaction has been largely caused by the ambiguity in current international conflicts between states that occupy the space between war and peace – sometimes called the “Gray Zone.”

The Gray Zone

 In the last few years, there has been increasing interest in what has been called a “Gray Zone” between traditional notions of war and peace. Again, this concept is introduced by Rosa Brooks, where she cites the May 19, 2015 article by David Barno and Nora Bensahel in War on the Rocks that describes Gray Zone challenges, including cyber and globalization, that is characterized by intense political, economic, international, and military competition more fervent in nature than normal steady-state diplomacy, yet short of conventional war.

CNA’s Special Operations Program has been monitoring Gray Zone developments in which the traditional mode of competing is political warfare. The Gray Zone requires intensive interagency cooperation and may need a new national security structure that make current military campaign models obsolete. Do we need two militaries – one for military  combat operations and one for Gray Zone conflicts? Do we need to determine what Gray Zone success looks like and establish meaningful criteria for measuring the effectiveness of such operations? These are areas of analysis that will lead to new laws, politics, and institutions premised on the assumptions  – according to Rosa Brooks – that the U.S. will forever remain unable to draw sharp boundaries between war and peace and will frequently find itself in the space between, a space that Sea Shepherd occupies.


The current CIMSEC discussion on the nature of piracy and non-state navies is part of a larger dialogue on a range of DoD responses to piracy that are already underway. In her recent book, Rosa Brooks introduces many underlying questions that go beyond the definition of a Navy. One question is how deeper civil-military integration will occur as more “soft power” missions are undertaken in the future. Should the military continue to expand its activities into traditional civilian spheres, or should it re-define the laws of war to accommodate the Gray Zone between war and peace and change the way it defines the military’s role in this zone? I recommend the book as a thoughtful look at the increasingly blurred boundaries between “war” and “not-war” and the call for creative new ways to reinvent our military, to protect human dignity, and to prevent abuses of power.

Marjorie Greene is a Research Analyst with the Center for Naval Analyses. She has more than 25 years’ management experience in both government and commercial organizations and has recently specialized in finding S&T solutions for the U. S. Marine Corps. She earned a B.S. in mathematics from Creighton University, an M.A. in mathematics from the University of Nebraska, and completed her Ph.D. course work in Operations Research from The Johns Hopkins University. The views expressed here are her own.

Featured Image: Sea Shepherd vessels the Atlas Cove (left) and the Bob Barker patrolling the Southern Ocean. (Photo: Simon Ager/Sea Shepherd Global)

Legitimacy at Sea: Is Sea Shepherd a Navy or Piracy?

By Joshua Tallis

A recent pair of dueling articles on CIMSEC sparked a firestorm of debate. The point of contention: does the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s (SSCS) fleet of whaler-chasing ships constituted a navy? The conversation was lively, informed, and freewheeling, bouncing from historical examples of British privateers to modern day terrorists in a bid to pin down a surprisingly elusive understanding of a navy’s central organizing principle. Interspersed throughout this debate is a conversation on legitimacy and how it relates to defining a navy. Legitimacy touches on nearly every component of the arguments put forth by both the Affirmative and Negative articles. It is my belief that the resolution to this debate lies, in large part, on how we interpret such a loaded word.

Legitimacy and the State

When we are talking about legitimacy in the realm of politics and violence, the most fundamental question in international relations is who has the monopoly over the legitimate use of force (a la Max Weber). In the Westphalian system (which, despite news of its untimely demise, is still very much in force), only the state has the right to exercise violence. Legitimacy, violence, and the state are inexorably intertwined. And, as the Negative article points out, violence is truly at the center of this debate. Navies fight; an organization that is not coercive in nature could not even make the prima facie case for being a navy.

As a consequence of this nearly 400 year old understanding of sovereign legitimacy, very few would argue that a non-state body has the legitimacy to exercise violence. Even the nations that allow Sea Shepherd to operate from their ports, as the Affirmative article notes does happen, would never permit the organization to roguishly harass, ram, or board ships in their territorial waters. In the more extreme instances where a state authorizes Sea Shepherd’s involvement in kinetic maritime security operations (as detailed in the comments by Captain Paul Watson, ostensibly the actual founder of Sea Shepherd), the very sanctioning of the use of violence by the state reinforces the argument that only the state has the authority to legitimately employ force.

The associated argument that some states do not de jure recognize countries like Israel or Taiwan, and thus defining a navy need not be tied to a nation’s legitimacy, is creative but erroneous. Such a claim obfuscates the reality of their universal de facto recognition as sovereign states around the world, despite occasional political fictions maintained for domestic expediency.

More to the point, legitimacy is granted as much (if not more) by domestic consent than external validation. Under this interpretation, we could more reasonably debate the merits of regarding something like Hezbollah’s maritime components as a Navy, since the group has some internal validity and some external recognition. Of course, labels like paramilitary or terrorist organization are more appropriate even in that instance, as the group’s position as a sub-state entity clearly invalidates the notion that it has a monopoly over the legitimate use of force.

Legitimacy and Semantics

This question of legitimacy also bears on the historical point brought up by the Affirmative article of eighteenth century privateers. Putting aside that contemporary, professional navies would have been unlikely to regard licensed privateers as peers (despite the quite genuine might of the latter), the fundamental point that the sovereign granted letters of marque to deputize privateer fleets again underscores the notion that legitimacy for violence stems from the authority of the state.

This last point informs an argument in the Negative article that a military is differentiated from non-state groups by the scale of the force it can exert. A navy, it argues, has warfighting capacity that exceeds the capability or intention of a non-state group like Sea Shepherd. Such an argument is semiotic, a way of understanding something through comparison to known others. The problem, however, is that a semiotic (and not theoretical) definition is vulnerable to false equivalencies. If a privateer fleet rivaled the local power of the Royal Navy, as some pirate bands did in the Golden Age of Piracy, a semiotic definition would backfire and elevate them to the status of a navy. Today, if a non-state actor (say a cartel) had the power to topple a small Caribbean nation, would the cartel be a military? Using the monopoly over the legitimate use of violence as our yardstick, the answer is clearly no. This approach negates the need entirely to define navies by their fighting capacity (something small states will be happy to hear).

The MY Steve Irwin going up river through Tower Bridge London 12 September 2011. (Wikimedia Commons)
The MY Steve Irwin going up river through Tower Bridge London 12 September 2011. (Wikimedia Commons)

There are, of course, other important questions raised in this debate. Most centrally, why does a fleet have to be a navy? If we already have a word to describe a collection of ships, is it valuable to take a concept like navy (however nebulous, at least you ‘know it when you see it’) and widen its use so far you risk entirely deflating it? The answer may well be yes, but it needs defending. Lexicons, even if somewhat amorphous, have inherent value. The Affirmative’s argument about a post ­Westphalian system is an admirable attempt to define the need for that new lexicon, though one I find highly premature (and I staked a dissertation on elevating the significance of non­state actors).

Defining Piracy

Finally, if (as I have argued) Sea Shepherd cannot be regarded as a navy because its use of violence is either illegitimate or state­sanctioned, a follow on question emerges: is Sea Shepherd piracy? The answer, like the former debate, is far from clear. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) defines piracy as “any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft…” UNCLOS has, in the past, come under fire for separating piracy and armed robbery at sea by drawing an artificial distinction between acts of predation within or without territorial seas. As a consequence, many bodies (including the UN Security Council) prefer some version of the International Maritime Bureau’s definition, which is less territorially focused and more functional. According to the IMB, piracy is “an act of boarding or attempting to board any ship with the apparent intent to commit theft or any other crime and with the apparent intent or capability to use force in the furtherance of that act.”

East Indiaman Kent battling Confiance, a privateer vessel commanded by French corsair Robert Surcouf in October 1800, as depicted in a painting by Ambroise Louis Garneray. (Wikimedia Commons)
East Indiaman Kent battling Confiance, a privateer vessel commanded by French corsair Robert Surcouf in October 1800, as depicted in a painting by Ambroise Louis Garneray. (Wikimedia Commons)

The problem, here, with either of these two most common definitions (legal or de facto) is that Sea Shepherd clearly employs coercion or force for political ends, not personal or private ends. Political ends are not a component of these definitions. One option, of course, is to argue that there exists an even greater need for a change in the lexicon on piracy than on navies.

Refining Piracy

Pirates the world over operate for a mixture of both private economic and broader political objectives. Pirates off Nigeria steal oil not only for financial gain, but to help fund political agendas as well (piracy typically peaks near elections in Nigeria). Pirates in Somalia hijack ships for astounding ransoms. They also cloak themselves in narratives of defending territorial waters against the predations of multinationals depleting fishing stocks and dumping toxic chemicals. Even the privateers of old, who often morphed into pirates themselves, attempted to form politically independent units in the Bahamas or Madagascar and fought in part to defend this short lived independence from the British or French monarchies. Jacobite-leaning pirates in the Caribbean even considered trying to help reinstate the Stuart line.

Instead of revolutionizing the use of the term navy, therefore, might we instead simply apply the term piracy as it conforms to its historical character, inclusive of both private and political ends?


Sea Shepherd’s fleet does engage in maritime violence and coercive acts. This was a prima facie requirement for even debating its eligibility as a navy. As Captain Watson noted in the comments of the original article, “Since Sea Shepherd was established in 1977 we have rammed more ships, sunk more ships, boarded more ships and blockaded more harbours than most of the world’s Navies.”

Without commenting on the ethics of Sea Shepherd, the organization’s coercive actions are clearly illegitimate in the current international system. Consequently, Sea Shepherd might fit far better into an updated definition of piracy than of navy. Such a definition, which conforms to piracy as it has been practiced for centuries, recognizes not only the pursuit of private wealth, but also the role of pirates’ political agendas—even if those pirates are fighting for ocean conservation.

Joshua Tallis is a Research Analyst at CNA Corporation, a nonprofit research and analysis organization located in Arlington, VA. He completed his PhD in International Relations at the University of St Andrews’ Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. The views and opinions in this article are his own and do not necessarily represent the position of his employer.

Featured Image: Sea Shepherd ship MV Gojira, presently the MV Brigitte Bardot. (Sea Shepherd photo)

Sea Shepherd in Latin America

The Southern Tide

Written by W. Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“The security environment in Latin America and the Caribbean is characterized by complex, diverse, and non-traditional challenges to U.S. interests.” Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, before the 114th Congress Senate Armed Services Committee, 10 March 2016.

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

Nowadays, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and private military companies (PMCs) are deploying their own vessels to the open seas in order to have a greater role in protecting maritime traffic or the maritime ecosystem. When it comes to Latin America, one NGO in particular has made a name for itself in the past decade and a half: the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.


Sea Shepherd is arguably most well-known for Whale Wars, a television show broadcasted by Animal Planet documenting activities by the organization’s vessels as they attempt to stop Japanese whale hunters in the Antarctic. However, Sea Shepherd also carries out operations around the world. When it comes to Latin America, the organization has been active throughout region, especially in Central America, Ecuador, and Mexico.

Regarding Central America, Sea Shepherd was first active in Guatemala in 2002, when the Ocean Warrior, commanded by the famous Paul Watson (founder and president of Sea Shepherd), attempted to crack down on illegal fishing in the Caribbean. The operation ended with an incident between Watson and the Costa Rican government that has had repercussions to this day (we will discuss it in the following section).

Sea Shepherd returned to Guatemala the following decade: in 2014 the organization’s 35 meter interceptor, the Brigitte Bardot, helped crack down on marlin poachers. A 2014 article in the Tico Times explains how “for the next several weeks, the Brigitte Bardot will be based out of Port San José, on Guatemala’s southern Pacific coast in the department of Escuíntla, with eight Sea Shepherd crew on board, along with Guatemalan Naval and police officers.” The presence of local security officials aboard the vessel is an important fact as they are ultimately in charge of arresting suspects.

The Sea Shepherd-donated vessel Sirenian (now Yoshka) on patrol in the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Credit: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
The Sea Shepherd-donated vessel Sirenian (now Yoshka) on patrol in the Galapagos Marine Reserve. (Sea Shepherd Conservation Society photo)

As for Ecuador, Sea Shepherd has been in the South Pacific for over a decade to protect the Galapagos Islands. As early as 2002, the organization’s Sirenean was active in the Galapagos against illegal fishing. Years later in 2007, Sea Shepherd’s activists worked with Ecuadorean law enforcement to crack down on sea cucumber poachers. The bilateral relationship took a leap forward this past March, when Sea Shepherd signed an agreement with Quito to support the protection of the islands for the next four years. A March 11 press release explains,

“Sea Shepherd has previously used an innovative approach to conservation needs that have been used in cooperation with public institutions such as the Galapagos National Park, the National Police and the legal system…Sea Shepherd’s previous conservation work in the Galapagos includes the installation of an AIS system, donation of a patrol vessel, police communications equipment, a legal reform and capacity building program and a marine conservation book.”

There already appear to be quick results, as in May Sea Shepherd and Ecuadorean authorities presented a new environmental penal code.

Concerning Mexico, the organization’s sailing ketch Martin Sheen participated in 2015’s Operation Milagro, which focused on “protecting the endangered vaquita in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez.” The operation occurred as part of an agreement between Sea Shepherd and Mexico’s National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP) and the Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA) to protect the vaquita (a porpoise) and other marine fauna. The apparent success of Operation Milagro prompted a new initiative this year: Operation Angel de la Guarda, via which Sea Shepherd’s “anti-poaching vessel, the M/V Farley Mowat, is partnering with the Mexican Navy and environmental protection agency PROFEPA to patrol against totoaba poaching.”

Finally, it is worth mentioning that Sea Shepherd also participates in regional conferences that address environmental crimes. For example, in 2013, the organization presented a video on shark fishing at the Fifth Latin-American Congress of Environmental Prosecutors, held in Bogotá, Colombia.

Sea Shepherd crew members and Mexican Sailors save an entangled humpback whale during Operation Milagro. Credit: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
Sea Shepherd crew members and Mexican Sailors save an entangled humpback whale during Operation Milagro. (Sea Shepherd Conservation Society photo)

The Costa Rica Incident

In spite of successful partnerships and initiatives with various Western Hemisphere nations, it is important to stress that Sea Shepherd’s relationship with the region has not been trouble-free. Namely the organization’s founder Paul Watson is wanted by the Costa Rican government.

A brief summary of the 2002 incident should suffice: the Ocean Warrior, commanded by Paul Watson, patrolled Guatemalan waters looking for vessels engaged in shark fishing. It was in this mission that Watson located a Costa Rican vessel, the Varadero I. There are conflicting reports on what happened afterwards: the Ocean Warrior detained the Varadero I, and either the fishing vessel managed to flee, or Guatemalan authorities requested Watson to release the fishing boat. Watson then docked the Ocean Warrior in Costa Rica, where local authorities arrested him and charged him with attempted murder and shipwrecking. The charges were ultimately dropped, but because of Watson’s failure to appear in court for subsequent hearings, “Costa Rica court declared Watson as a rebel and issued a warrant of arrest for violation of ship traffic.”

To this day there is a request for Watson’s extradition by the Costa Rican government. He was detained in Germany in 2012 as INTERPOL posted a Red Notice, or international wanted person alert, for him (he is also wanted by Japan) but he was later freed. Watson filed a petition of his own against San Jose in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2015.

The Future of NGOs and Maritime Security

Several NGOs, both international and domestic, operate in Latin America to address maritime affairs; however, Sea Shepherd appears to be the only entity that has vessels helping Latin American governments. The one arguable exception would be Greenpeace as its vessel, Arctic Sunrise, docked in Argentina in the late 1990s and early 2000s to protest river pollution and promote wind energy. Nevertheless, the difference is that Greenpeace’s vessel was utilized as a publicity stunt to bring attention to an issue, while Sea Shepherd has deployed its vessels to Latin American waters to actively combat illegal fishing.

A graphic collection of maritime NGOs. The ones depicted here are amongst 40+ that joined together 2015 to campaign against plastics in the ocean. Credit: Future 500
A graphic collection of maritime NGOs. The ones depicted here are amongst 40+ that joined together 2015 to campaign against plastics in the ocean. (Future 500)

Thus, Sea Shepherd serves as an important precedent for future partnerships, as states may request maritime conservation support not just from other governments and multinational organizations, but also from NGOs. A key issue for future agreements will probably be that local security officers must be aboard any NGO vessels to carry out arrests. For example, Sea Shepherd’s Brigitte Bardot embarked Guatemalan law enforcement in 2014, probably to avoid another Costa Rica-type incident. A similar situation occurred in Ecuador in 2003 when the Sirenean, with Galapagos National Park Rangers and Ecuadorian Naval crew aboard, stopped a poaching ship.

Another issue that may hinder future agreements is whether governmental objectives are in harmony with those of Sea Shepherd or other organizations. Without a doubt, there is always the possibility of an incident derailing a partnership.For example, while the Quito-Sea Shepherd alliance appears strong, there was at least one incident between them in 2007 when Sea Shepherd representative Sean O’Hearn was deported from Ecuador.

Final Thoughts

In the 21st century, maritime enforcement affairs are no longer confined to governments and their maritime forces, be they navies or coast guards. Economic and technological development as well as vibrant civic societies have helped create global NGOs that do more than organize mailing campaigns or protests ashore, they are also acquiring platforms to take their activities to the open seas.

In spite of the Costa Rican incident and the legal limitations this places on Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson, his organization has managed to make a positive name for itself among governments in Ecuador, Guatemala, and Mexico. Case in point, a 2015 press release by the Mexican Ministry of Natural Resources announcing the partnership with Sea Shepherd to protect the vaquita explains that “[Sea Shepherd] has great experience regarding the protection of maritime resources, it has recently collaborated with Ecuador to stop illegal fishing.” In other words, Sea Shepherd’s success in Ecuador is helping it gain new allies in the region, the problem with Costa Rica notwithstanding.

Partnerships akin to what Sea Shepherd has accomplished in these nations may become a model for other Latin American and extra-hemispheric governments to imitate in the near future, if they can find NGOs with appropriate naval platforms, acceptable modus operandi, and similar objectives.

*The author contacted Sea Shepherd Conservation Society for input to this analysis but has not yet received a response at time of publication.

**The idea for this analysis came from a discussion entitled “A New Role for Non-State Actors in the Growing Competition for Strategic Marine Resources,” co-hosted by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC).

W. Alejandro Sanchez is a researcher who focuses on geopolitical, military, and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_SanchezThe views presented in this essay are his sole responsibility and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which he is associated.

Featured Image: Sea Shepherd negotiators and crew pose on the Brigitte Bardot in port at San José, Guatemala, after a joint patrol agreement was reached with the government. (Courtesy Water Quest)

Is Sea Shepherd a Navy? A CIMSEC Debate

A lively Twitter conversation between CIMSEC members Chris Rawley, Claude Berube, and Ryan Mewett regarding the nature of a Navy, specifically whether or not the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s (SSCS) fleet constitutes such a force, inspired the following debate. Mr. Rawley and Mr. Berube have taken the affirmative position while Mr. Mewett has taken the negative position.

Affirmative: Neptune’s Navy: A Navy by any Other Name…

By Chris Rawley and Claude Berube

A rarely asked but fundamental question is: how do we define a navy? The answer might appear to be self-evident. Merriam-Webster defines a navy as: the part of a country’s military forces that fights at sea; a group of ships; a nation’s ships of war and logistic support; and the complete naval establishment of a nation including yards, stations, ships, and personnel. But are these criteria accurate or sufficient in the twentieth century? The authors assert that under a more appropriate definition, the maritime arm of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) is a navy. How does Sea Shepherd meet those criteria?

  1. “…a group of ships…” Certainly Sea Shepherd meets this first criteria. It operates a fleet of ships that include former U.S. Coast Guard cutters, a former weather survey ship, a former fisheries protection ship, and others. But a “group of ships” could also allude to a commercial shipping fleet or even a cruise line.
  2. “…yards, stations, ships and personnel…” Sea Shepherd has paid staff as well as thousands of volunteers operating globally.
  3. “…forces that fight at sea…” Although its ships have operated for forty years, the organization gained notoriety with its operations in the Southern Ocean, chronicled on cable television’s “Whale Wars.” Sea Shepherd ships searched for, located, pursued, and challenged Japanese whaling ships. Elsewhere, Sea Shepherd has worked with countries and even Interpol. During Operation Thunder, SSCS vessels chased an illegal fishing trawler 10,000 nautical miles, until the ship was scuttled off the west coast of Africa and the violators were brought to justice.

A Post-Westphalian Model

Taken collectively, the above three criteria suggest that Sea Shepherd has a navy, but perhaps the most important traditional component of the above definitions is that a navy must be an arm of a nation. State recognition may not be a necessary criteria in the 21st century. For example, Israel and Taiwan both maintain navies. But 31 United Nations member states do not recognize Israel as a nation, and only 21 UN member states recognized the Republic of China (Taiwan.)  Does this mean Taiwan’s 116 ships do not constitute a navy to countries that do not recognize it? Does this mean Israel’s eleven corvettes and missile boats, five submarines and forty-five patrol boats do not constitute a navy in the eyes of countries that do not recognize it?

Indeed, the United States’ own history suggests that one need not be a recognized national entity to maintain a navy. No country immediately recognized the legitimacy of the thirteen colonies. Though there was a Continental sea-shepherd-logoNavy, the Continental Congress as well as states authorized letters of marque to privateers and several states created their own navies. At first, the navy relied on converted merchant ships until warships could be built from the keel up. The same has been true for Sea Shepherd which had – until this summer – relied on purchasing former commercial or governmental ships. This has changed with the M/Y OCEAN WARRIOR, their first purpose-built ship built from the keel up at Damen Shipyard.


The fundamental issue of a national navy in the twenty-first century may not exclusively be a nation of borders which often contains conflicting political views, but might also include an international organization of like-minded individuals who seek policy changes that are effectively executed through its maritime branch. What is more important than borders, the traditional definition of a nation, is that an organization have legitimacy. Sea Shepherd is a non-profit organization with offices in numerous countries and authorization to operate out of a number of foreign ports, such as those in Australia. Sea Shepherd derives its legitimacy from the countries that support or condone it. It has now operated with several countries (Ecuador, Sao Tome and Principe, Gabon and others) to serve as a maritime law enforcement agency. And, as noted earlier, it has worked with Interpol on at least one major operation. SSCS has also been subject to litigation for their actions, but so have more traditional navies and their representatives. To fund the OCEAN WARRIOR, Sea Shepherd received money through the Dutch Postcode Lottery, after competing with other organizations.

Several of Sea Shepherd’s ships. (Sea Shepherd photo)

Sea Shepherd isn’t alone in this new breed of non-state Navies. The Migrant Offshore Aid Station, or MOAS, stood up in 2014 to rescue migrants in the Mediterranean Sea. Since then, the organization’s professional and volunteer crews, along with their two ocean going vessels, Schiebel S-100 camcopters drones, and small boats have rescued more than 24,000 people in the central Mediterranean and Aegean seas. Earthrace Conservation, founded by former Sea Shepherd member Pete Bethune and staffed by former special operators, has also conducted wildlife protection missions in conjunction with a number of foreign militaries and maritime law enforcement agencies. Earthrace is currently crowd-funding the construction of a new sea-going fast patrol trimaran.

More than a Fleet in Being

One of the distinguishing characteristics of navies from coast guards is that navies perform missions in support of global interests. Many navies do not or rarely conduct blue water operations and have more regional interests – or simply do not have the political will or financial ability to operate globally. Ships are certainly the core of a navy, but without the funding, logistical support, and perhaps most importantly, trained professionals, they are dead in the water. Sea Shepherd refers to their missions as “direct action,” which is not analogous to combat, as their objective is to protect wildlife rather than pursue violent clashes with other naval forces. However, SSCS tactics – which include disrupting other vessels and boardings (sometimes with host nation military riders embarked) – are analogous to maritime security and presence missions common to many navies in peacetime.

Sea Shepherd operates its ships in the Southern Ocean, the Pacific, the Mediterranean, and the Atlantic. Sea Shepherd has an order of battle – an ocean going fleet – of at least eight vessels. Its volunteer crews often make several multi-month voyages, giving them more at-sea experience than many navies whose sailors may make one or two deployments before returning to civilian life. Only the largest of the world’s navies routinely operate aircraft off their ships. SSCS’ small naval aviation arm consists of a variety of unmanned air systems and helicopters and is vital for over-the-horizon scouting during open ocean pursuit missions.


While the definition of a navy may be debated, the fact that Sea Shepherd has a fleet that conducts global operations to promote or enforce policies and has gained legitimacy from nations suggests that it qualifies as a navy. Moreover, as Sea Shepherd and other like-minded organizations continue to expand and professionalize, the likelihood that they will engage – either positively or negatively – with traditional nation-state navies will increase.

Negative: Sea Shepherd’s Fleet is not a Navy

By Ryan Mewett

The trawler Thunder, sinking in seemingly calm waters after being pursued by the SSCS. (AFP/Getty)

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is an organized, committed activist group and a noteworthy non-state actor with coherent political objectives and worldwide reach. It operates a fleet of nine vessels with varying operational capabilities on missions around the globe. Best known for its depiction in the reality television series Whale Wars, SSCS conducts operations ranging from cooperation with coast guards and constabulary navies in fisheries enforcement to harassment and attempted interdiction of whaling vessels. Last year, two SSCS vessels pursued a trawler with a history of illegal fishing for over three months, covering more than 10,000 nautical miles of ocean before the trawler sank, likely scuttled by its crew. During the chase, the SSCS crews demanded the suspect vessel stop fishing, threatened law enforcement action, and ultimately prevented it from fishing by cutting its nets. The recently launched MV Ocean Warrior, the organization’s first purpose-built vessel, is reportedly capable of speeds of up to 30 knots, may support helicopter operations, and is scheduled for its first anti-whaling operation to begin later this month. For all this, Sea Shepherd’s fleet is not a navy.

Sea Shepherd's Ocean Warrior (Sea Shepherd photo)
Sea Shepherd’s Ocean Warrior (Sea Shepherd photo)

It is deceptively difficult to define just what exactly a navy is, though any definition is bound to be descriptive in nature. Is a navy defined by its mission? In the most general sense, we might say that navies pursue political ends through the use of force at sea – but the same is true of maritime terrorists. Is a navy defined by a set of attributes? We might say a navy is a fleet of ships that is organized, centrally and hierarchically controlled, with a clear mission, that takes purposeful action to achieve its objectives. Alas, for any set of attributes, we can cite examples that are clearly not navies (in this case, say, Carnival Cruise Line or Maersk Lines, each of which check all of these boxes). Even prominent naval theorists are silent on the point: neither Mahan nor Corbett offers a definition, though Mahan tellingly notes in The Influence of Seapower Upon History, 1660-1783 that “[t]he necessity of a navy … springs therefore from the existence of peaceful shipping, and disappears with it…,” seemingly suggests that a navy’s fundamental role is ensuring the safe conduct of commercial traffic on the sea. The naval historian N.A.M. Rodger posits a definition based on common usage: “The common sense of the word [navy] as we use it today refers in this context to a permanent fighting service made up of ships designed for war, manned by professionals and supported by an administrative and technical infrastructure.”

I propose that each of these attempts at definition contain necessary attributes of a navy, but only Rodger’s includes the crucial point: a navy fights. Any plausible definition of a navy will include a variety of descriptions on the nature of the organization and its objectives, but I challenge the reader to define it in a way that both includes organizations that obviously are navies and excludes organizations that clearly are not without reference to this fundamental – and the burden of a positive definition must lay with those who would class Sea Shepherd’s fleet as a navy.

We can find a productive comparison with the example of organized violent actors on land. Clearly, there is a wide range of organized groups that use force to achieve their objectives: armies, police forces, terrorists, gangs, and some criminal enterprises, to name a few. Armies, police, and terrorists all pursue political objectives. What then separates armies from police and terrorists? It is not enough to say that they act on behalf of a state, because we can think of groups we would have no trouble referring to as “armies” who are non-state actors, including insurgent groups like the Viet Cong or guerrilla armies like Hezbollah’s. There is, however, a fundamental capability difference between armies on the one hand, and other groups like police or terrorists on the other. The non-army groups are limited in their ability to use force; they are capable of using violence for political ends against unorganized or unarmed opposition, but cannot stand and fight against an equivalent group. (As this capability approaches the margins of the scale, the group becomes more like an army; a SWAT team is more a unit of a paramilitary army than a police squad, and terrorists who attack hard targets are more accurately guerrillas.)

In the same vein, a seagoing organization– in addition to being organized, having hierarchical command and control, pursuing political objectives, as well as perhaps having other characteristics not discussed – must have the capability to fight to be truly classed as a navy. That fighting capability is what permits the navy to exercise the core function from which other roles stem: to exert some level of sea control, on a scale from outright command to simple denial, in pursuit of political objectives against a competitive, capable opponent. An actor whose ultimate recourse is to another legitimate authority that truly will use force cannot credibly be said to exercise sea control. The Tamil Tigers had a navy. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society does not.

Continue the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #whatisanavy.

Claude Berube teaches at the United States Naval Academy. He has published three non-fiction books and two novels. Follow him on Twitter @cgberube.  

Captain Chris Rawley is a surface warfare officer and entrepreneur. Follow him on Twitter @navaldrones.

Ryan Mewett is an active duty submarine officer in the United States Navy. Follow him on Twitter @REMewett.

The opinions and assertions contained herein are the private opinions of the authors and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Department of Defense, the United States Government, the U.S. Naval Academy, or the United States Navy.

Featured image: SSCS’s Bob Barker alongside an iceberg. (Jim Watters / Sea Shepherd Australia Ltd)