Whaling, Protesters, and Strategy
I don’t watch much TV, but one show I do like to catch is Whale Wars. If you don’t know, Whale Wars is a documentary series that follows the activities of the Sea Shepherd Conservations Society (SSCS) who are animal rights activists trying to stop Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean through direct action.
I am no activist, though I do not support whaling. I mostly watch the show because the SSCS troopers are fiercely passionate and tragically incompetent, which makes for great entertainment as they try (and fail) week after week to stop the Japanese from killing whales. Among the more humorous amateur-hour moments are: springing a leak in the Steven Irwin due to running it through ice (the ship is not made for ice), running out of fuel, running out of drinking water (and harvesting icebergs to drink), and discovering that the ship Bob Barker, which the SSCS recently bought for $5 million, wasn’t fast enough to keep up with the Japanese boats. The SSCSbought the Bob Barker specifically for its speed, only to find out it’s too slow.
While I don’t feel strongly enough about whaling to make a monetary donation, as a thank-you for the hours of entertainment I have decided to offer the SSCS some free strategic analysis. Captain Watson has said that he doesn’t value anyone’s opinion outside his own, so I doubt he’ll ever read this, but perhaps it will make its way to some Sea Shepherd somewhere and have a positive impact.
Why the Sea Shepherds are Failing
What is strategy? Do the SSCS and Paul Watson have a good one? Do they even have one at all?
The simplest definition of strategy is the balancing of ends, ways, and means. One begins by defining a desired end state or goal (ends), then (and this is the hard part) balancing that goal with the resources (means) and methods/tactics (ways) available to achieve it.
It is important to note that strategy and tactics are two related but distinctly separate concepts. However, few of the Sea Shepherds seem to know the difference. Recently disowned Captain Pete Bethune of the now-bifurcated Ady Gil once predicted that his air-powered potato gun would become one of the most effective strategies for the SSCS. It goes without saying that a spud gun, while loads of fun, is most certainly not a strategy.
The stated SSCS strategic end state is the economic collapse of the Japanese whaling industry. The SSCS hopes to make it so difficult for the Japanese to hunt whales that it becomes too expensive to be profitable. The problem with this strategic goal is that the Japanese government subsidizes its whaling industry, which makes it almost impossible to attack the whale market economically. In fact, since the SSCS started their campaigning there has been no significant increase in the price of Japanese whale meat. If free market forces were at work the strategy might have a chance, though they would still lack the means to execute it, which leads us to the next strategic issue.
Strategic goals must be balanced with the available means (resources) to achieve them. This equation then gives way to the ways (methods), or what can also be called tactics. Watson has at his disposal two (with the recent sinking of the Ady Gil) ships, the Steven Irwin and the Bob Barker. These ships are the primary means by which SSCS tactics are employed in an effort to realize strategic goals. The SSCS crews harass the whalers, prevent them from killing whales, and if a whale is killed, prevent them from transferring the whale to the factory ship. If a whale does make it to the factory ship, the SSCS attempts to contaminate the meat.
Unfortunately for the SSCS their tactics are severely ineffective. As previously mentioned, the Steve Irwin and the Bob Barker are both too slow to keep up with the Japanese ships. Additionally, the Japanese defensive tactics, namely water cannons and protective nets, nullifies many of the SSCS tactics. Finally, the Japanese have far superior logistics. They are able to stay out at sea for long periods of time whereas the SSCS ships are continually forced to leave the whaling grounds to refuel.
So, we are left with a strategic goal (economic collapse of the whale market) which is unachievable supported by tactics which are ineffective due to resources which are inadequate for the task. In a nutshell, this is why the Sea Shepherds are failing. They just have a really bad strategy.
Measuring the Effectiveness of a Strategy
Aside from the theoretical problems with the SSCS strategy, how do we really know they are failing? Or, in a broader sense, how can we measure the effectiveness of the strategy?
Strategic measurement can be broken down into two broad areas; Measures of Performance (MOP) and Measures of Effectiveness (MOE). MOPs are metrics associated with things the Sea Shepherds do, regardless if those things are effective or not. For example, days spent on the ocean campaigning is a simple MOP. MOEs are metrics associated with the impacts of performance, i.e. effectiveness, and they are both more important and more difficult to measure than MOPs An example of an MOE might be total number of whales killed. However, this might not tell the whole story. The key to good MOEs is establishing causal relationships. For example, there could be many reasons why the number of whales killed is low (whalers spend fewer days hunting, bad weather, ship maintenance, etc). Some better MOEs might be average number of whales killed per day while the SSCS is campaigning versus average killed while SSCS is not present.
In regard to measuring effectiveness, the SSCS is doing a poor job. The SSCS claimed success last year by emphasizing that the Japanese did not meet their whaling quota. Of course, the Japanese are free to set whatever quota they want under international law, so this measure is meaningless. If the Japanese harvest 100% of a 200-whale quota one year, and 75% of a 400-whale quota the next, they have increased their net harvest by 100 whales. The number of whales harvested against the quota is really meaningless. A recent analysis by the conservation website Southern Fried Scientists determined that the SSCS had little or no impact on the whale harvest (read the article at:
While claiming success based on faulty MOEs might be a good information / public relations tactic, the SSCS should not confuse this will actual effectiveness. The truth is that the SSCS campaigns have been utterly ineffective.
A Better Way
The great strategist Sun Tzu advised, “In war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak.” The weak point in the Japanese whaling system is the government subsidies. Eliminate those and the system collapses. Of course, this is a political target which requires the support of the Japanese people to affect change. Unfortunately, the SSCS is making it difficult to build political support against the whaling industry in Japan.
While some may praise the SSCS for publicizing this issue to the masses, the fact is that in Japan the SSCS actions are hardening pro-whaling sentiment. Many in Japan see the SSCS as terrorists at worst. At best, they are resentful of outsiders trying to strong-arm them away from a traditional industry. The SSCS is certainly not saving whales, and may actually be driving the killing of whales by hardening public opinion in Japan and prolonging government financial support for the industry.
So, why do they keep at it? I don’t know the answer, but here is my guess: First, they haven’t done the kind of strategic analysis presented in this article, so they don’t know that they are hurting and not helping. Second, it gives them warm and fuzzy feel-good feelings to be sailing around the ocean looking for whalers. Although ineffective, it makes them feel like they are doing something good. Third, they are simply naïve about what is and is not required to be effective. Peter Hammarstedt is often heard on the show going on about how dedication and passion is all they need and they can accomplish anything. This sounds great, but it’s utter bullshit.
In fact, this type of strategy was tried by the French over 90 years ago in World War I. French Army General Joseph Joffre introduced a doctrine into the French Army in the pre-war years in which morale and courage were thought to be primary factor in determining the outcome of battles. The Army with the highest morale and the most courageous soldiers would prevail. As a result French commanders ordered their soldiers into futile charges against German machine guns in the belief that the courage of the French would win the day.
The results were dismal. In the first month of WWI the French lost 260,000 soldiers. A young French Captain named Charles De Gaulle would later say, “In a moment it is clear that all the courage in the world cannot prevail against gunfire.” The SSCS would be well-advised to listen to De Gaulle. All the passion in the world is useless when you have a flawed strategy.
In conclusion, this all suggests that the SSCS should stop direct action and use their considerable resources to help build political opposition within Japan to whale industry subsidies. This strategy, unlike the current one, is actually achievable and represents a better balance of ends, ways, and means. Greenpeace, perhaps having realized that a bunch of amateurs getting hosed in a rubber dinghy, while entertaining, is nonetheless ineffective, has taken to building political pressure as a way to attack the whaling industry. A shrewd move – I hope the SSCS follows suit.
Check that – I enjoy my Friday nights too much