Home > Culture, Ends Ways and Means, Socio-Cultural Systems, Strategy, Systems Thinking > Whaling, Protestors, and Strategy Part II

Whaling, Protestors, and Strategy Part II

September 16, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

I received quite a response to the post on Whale Wars and the Sea Shepherd’s effectiveness.  I am going to attempt to answer all the comments, questions, and criticisms brought up by readers.

First things first: the corrections dept – or let’s call them updates.  In my original post I stated that the Bob Barker was unable to keep up with the Japanese whaling fleet.  In a later episode, the Seas Shepherds (SS) were able to tweak the engine enough to get some additional speed, and thereby keep up.  Second, it turns out Pete Bethune was not disowned after all – the SS simply told the Japanese judiciary that Bethune would no longer participate in SS operations.  After Bethune was released, the SSs indicated they had no intention of following through on that promise.  I’m not going to debate the idea of lying; deception is a viable strategy.

Now then, the most passionate opposition to my post came from David Comarow.  Here is a summarized list of his points (not including the updates listed previously):

  • The appearance of incompetence is largely a function of television editing, which shows the most compelling (not necessarily significant) moments.
  • The number of whales killed compared to the quota is a good measure of effectiveness
  • The SS have made millions of people aware of the horrors of whaling.
  • The tactics of the SS are setting the stage for a political solution
  • There is a growing mountain of [uneaten] whale meat in Japan.  (I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but I presume this is an indicator that SS tactics are changing the minds of Japanese consumers about whale meat).

Thanks again David for the comments.  To begin to address these comments, let us first start by mapping the Japanese whaling ecosystem as it pertains to the SS and their strategy:


This is a simplified systems diagram for how the whole system functions.   It shows the multiple variables in the system and the effect they have on each other (increase or decrease, represented by the plus and minus signs).  What can this tell us about the best way to attack this system?

First of all, let’s consider the SS strategy; to make whale meat too expensive, causing a drop in demand and subsequent drop in profitability for the whalers.  You can see in the diagram the SS actions cause an increase in whale meat cost.  David contends they also cause a decrease in whale meat demand.  I can’t say if that is true, so I put ?? next to the +- indicator.  What the diagram allows us to see is that it is irrelevant! Why?  Because of the missing “invisible hand.”  In a normal economy price is coupled to supply and demand.  But not here (this is shown by the dotted arrow).  There are only two factors that affect the cost of the meat; SS actions and Japan Government subsidies, and the SS actions to increase the price are easily offset by the subsidies which decrease the price.  This is why the SS strategy can’t work. It doesn’t matter how expensive you make the meat – the cost is underwritten by government subsidies.

Now, lets take a look at the other two outputs from SS actions.

First, it increases Japanese support for whaling.  Importantly, this may or may not result in increased whale meat demand.  Why?  Because in Japan the SS are seen as terrorists.  Even if you don’t eat whale meat, that doesn’t mean you are going to ally yourself with a terrorist ideology.  This popular support translates to political support for government subsidies, which in turn regulate the price of whale meat, keeping it affordable.  You can follow the loop all the way around and see how the SS undermine their own strategy!

Second, it increases public awareness (outside Japan) and by extension, increases anti-whaling sentiment.  While there is no doubt that the show increases awareness and anti-whaling sentiment, it is a dead end.  The Japanese are a very homogenous, high context culture.  That means that they are very sensitive when it comes to “in” groups and “out” groups.  It also means they are sensitive to “losing face.”  For our purposes, it means that public sentiment outside Japan has little or no effect on Japanese sentiment (and by extension, political support) because foreigners are an “out” group.  In fact, the more you tell the Japanese what to do, the less likely they are to comply.

There is another show on Animal Planet now about a gentleman trying to stop the dolphin hunt.  In an interview he talks about how the Japanese will “have to” stop the hunt when the international pressure becomes to great.  It is tragic how culture-centric we are as westerners.  We think that everyone sees the world as we do and responds to stimulus as we do.  Remember the words of Sun Tzu: Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster.

In any case, what does all this tell us about strategy?  In my view, it says that the key to the system, or the weak link if you will, is the government subsidies.  Without those, the whole system collapses.  Yet, the SS actions increase support for government subsidies.  This dynamic is not unique to SS.  We (humans) are programmed to think in linear, cause and effect terms.  But, the world is really more complex – more like a spaghetti bowl of inter-related variables.

Now that you see how I view the system, you can see why I reached the conclusions I did.  Going back to David’s points, let me answer them in turn:

  • The appearance of incompetence is largely a function of television editing.  Maybe so, but the resemblance of Watson and Hammarstedt to The Skipper and Gilligan is eerie, don’t you think?  Kidding aside, appearances are secondary to the strategy, which I still say is failing.
  • The number of whales killed compared to the quota is a good measure of effectiveness.  I guess we’ll just disagree on this.  I reiterate – you can say that the Japanese fell short of their quota, but what does that really mean?  If last year they took 100 whales out of a 100 whale quota, they took 100% of quota.  If this year, they took 100 whales out of a 200 quota, then they took 50% of their quota.  But really, is that a 50% decrease?  Or a 50% increase in SS effectiveness?  Watson is playing with numbers.  While that is good strategic communications (the message is “we are winning” because retired game show hosts don’t donate $5 million to a loser), but we shouldn’t confuse spin with actual effectiveness.
  • The SS have made millions of people aware of the horrors of whaling.  True, but I don’t think it matters as explained in the systems model.
  • The tactics of the SS are setting the stage for a political solution.  As long as the Japanese view SS as terrorists, this is like saying that 9/11 set the stage for political reconciliation in the Middle East – not really.
  • There is a growing mountain of [uneaten] whale meat in Japan.  Yet the price of whale meat remains unaffected.  I go back to the model – supply and demand is not regulating price, which is why the SS economic attack is bound to fail. I’d like to finish up this post by addressing the question from Shah, who asks if SS, or perhaps alternative strategies, would be effective to combat over-fishing by nations in their economic exclusionary zone (EEZ; waters from 0 to 200 miles off the coast of a sovereign state in which that state has exclusive rights to economic activity, such as fishing, oil drilling, etc…)The answer is, I don’t know.  My advice would be to first map the ecosystem as I have done above for the whaling economy in Japan, then find the weak spot where you can apply pressure.  The answer is likely to be different in each case because the politics, economics, and socio-cultural factors will all be different.  I go back to the basics of strategy – it is a balancing of strategic outcomes/goals (ends) with the ways (tactics/methods) and means (resources) to accomplish them.
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    1. DavidP
      November 18, 2010 at 6:53 pm

      Great analysis.

      Just a couple of points of info.

      1. Apparently Peter Bethune and the SSCS have had a long simmering dispute that became public about a month ago. Mr Bethune was told he wasn’t welcome on the upcoming campaign and he is now forming his own ocean conservation organization.
      2. The surplus whale meat myth. Japan maintains a stock of whale meat that increases at the end of the whaling season and decrease until the next whaling season. This allows whale meat to be found year round not just ‘in season’. Similar to what many countries do with seasonal items. The amount in storage over time has remained stable for at least the last 5 years.
      3. Japan has started to import whale meat from Iceland to supplement their own catch, and yes the government subsidizes the price of the imported meat to maintain the desired price. So even if the SSCS has reduced the desired number of whales killed by Japan, it is just offset by Iceland killing more whales and selling them to Japan.

      And of course my point #3 brings up the question of why the SSCS doesn’t use their direct action against the other 2 major whaling countries, Iceland and Norway? Is it cultural and/or racial bias? Is it in the belief that direct action against Iceland and Norway would result in counter action by the respective navies? It may be some combination or something I haven’t considered, but it is an interesting question.

      • November 19, 2010 at 3:30 am


        Thanks for the feedback. You have an interesting idea reference SSCS inaction against European whalers. It’s only speculation, but I think that white people compromise the vast majority of Mr. Watson’s fundraising base. We humans identify with people that look like us, therefore, he might be wary of the perceptions of attacking white people vs. non-white people. It could also be that, being that he is wanted as a criminal in some countries, he may not have the port access to contest whaling in other waters.

    2. Elinor
      November 23, 2010 at 11:12 am

      Many thanks for two very interesting posts. I am still not sure I agree about the ineffectiveness of the campaign, for a few reasons:

      1. Although actual kill numbers seem to be increasing would Japan still reach their kill quotas if Sea Shepherd wasn’t there. I appreciate the comparison carried out by Southern Fried Science but I wonder whether Japan would still manage to kill more given their investment in extra vessels and perhaps the remaining whale populations effect these types of comparisons. I think the difference between quota and kill numbers is more complicated than SFS have suggested. Even if the kill numbers would be higher without Sea Shepherd what is the point of saving 500 whales given your systems diagram? I think given that whales are endangered saving any individuals is a good result, despite a possibly ineffective strategy to shut down whaling…

      2. The raising of public awareness outside of Japan will have one large effect, that countries such as Australia, New Zealand and France will prevent Japan from whaling in their territories in the Southern Ocean. Australia acted on this earlier in the year, although I’m not sure where this is at now.

      3. By gradually increasing the government subsisdies year on year as SS try and increase their effectiveness (in reducing actual kills whilst perhaps not an immediate end to whaling in the s. ocean), this may cause a rethink within government? I am not entirely convinced by this myself given your argument about cultural attitudes above, but surely making government subsisides increase year on year will be having greater effect in causing a negative view of whaling – perhaps gradual war of attrition. However, I am not sure of the money involved and I suspect it is no more than that used to prop up industries such as nuclear elsewhere.

      4. Take another look at the SFS graphs for reasons why SS are in the southern ocean. Although Norway kills are high Agenda 21 is in that area, and SS have limited resources. Also there is ICS opposition to the Japanese quotas and the southern ocean is a whale sanctuary since the 1990s I think they have a pretty good reason for choosing that area to work in. Given their limited resources they have to choose somewhere and I was pretty surprised at the suggestion it is because of skin colour! Certainly Whale Wars is all about the boats not the people on them (except the SS crew).

      I can see your arguments but I do wonder whether more whales will be saved in this, allbeit somewhat flawed, strategy than a more lobbying based strategy, which is slow and in my experience often inneffective unless direct action raises awareness and political pressure. Do you think Greenpeace would have been able to make any progress if SS wasn’t on the scene? I wonder whether they would have only been able to reduce quotas (which were perhaps inflated in the first place). The outcome of their excellent campaign by two activists to highlight the trade in whale meat was very disappointing.

      I’m still thinking…

      • DavidP
        November 23, 2010 at 12:16 pm

        Just a few comments.

        1. Minke whales, the main target of Japan in the Southern Ocean (over 99%), are not endangered. In fact most whale species are not endangered.

        2. Australia, New Zealand and France don’t have territories in the Southern Ocean; such claims to the waters around Antarctica are not allowed by the Antarctic Treaty. Of the three, Australia does attempt to make a claim but over 90% of the world doesn’t acknowledge their claim. And Australia’s case in the ICJ, which won’t be decided until 2011 or 2012 at the earliest, specifically does not make any claims about Australia’s territory claim. Their case is completely based on IWC regulations.

        3. The Japanese government has a budget of over $1.1 trillion. Whaling is subsidized to the tune of less than $500 million (and probably less than $250 million). So it represents less than 0.05% of the budget and even that is partially offset by the required sale of the excess meat, making it less than 0.02%; and for that money they employee hundreds of whalers and their supporting companies, so it is similar to the Obama stimulus plan. The national pride, mentioned by SFS, and the economic benefit probably far outweigh any negatives. Also don’t forget that almost 1/3 of the Japanese whaling does not even occur in the Southern Ocean, it occurs in the North Pacific where the SSCS has never interfered. So Japan could just raise their quota in the North to 1,500 whales while not even going to the Southern Ocean, same number of whales killed (and more whales from endangered or vulnerable species) with no SSCS to get in the way.

        4. First Agenda 21 does about nothing. The Japanese, as far as Minke whales are concerned, is exempt from the IWC’s sanctuary. And when the SSCS tried in past years interfering with Norway and Iceland they were chased away by the military, something they don’t have to worry about in the Southern Ocean. So I believe their choice of target area is more based on perceived safety from prosecution but there does seem to be a racial overtone. I mean their campaign against Tuna fishing in the Mediterranean, blamed the Tuna situation on Japan even as they attacked Maltese fishermen.

        As to Greenpeace’s methods, they got the Europeans to ban Canadian seal products. By shutting down much of the demand they made it uneconomical to continue sealing for most of the sealers. While the SSCS’s direct action against the sealers resulted in them losing a ship and having two of their members found guilty in court. So it appears in the real world, Greenpeace has had success while the SSCS has not.

    3. Elinor
      November 23, 2010 at 1:51 pm

      Ok, it seems I was lacking some information, and you cleared up the budget situation, confirming my suspiscions.

      Whilst the minke whale is indeed not classified as endangered this is only because of a lack of data, which may result in it being classified as endangered or least concern. However, I think the IWC concern is also enough justification that the Japanese are overstepping reasonable ‘research’ quotas.

      And, why no progress by Greenpeace on whales then? in both Japan (which may perhaps be hindered by SS given the arguments above) or in Norway? If the SS strategy is inherently flawed (even if they do manage to stay with the fleet and stop whaling activities for longer and longer durations over the years to come) what is the best strategy for reducing government subsidies? Who should be doing the prohibiting / enforcing? Is it a matter of raising concerns and opposition amongst the population in Japan?

      • November 28, 2010 at 10:51 pm


        Thanks for your feedback.

        With respect to the effectiveness of the SSCS, it is important to look at tactics vs. strategy. Tactics win battles, but strategy wins wars.

        No doubt, the SSCS tactics in the Southern Ocean may prevent Japan from harvesting a few whales – and maybe even more than a few. However, this comes at high strategic price – the hardening of pro-whaling sentiment in Japan. So while the SSCS may save a few whales this year, their tactics make it more difficult to end whaling in Japan. Therefore, whaling will go on longer and more whales will be lost in the long run.

    4. DavidP
      November 23, 2010 at 3:18 pm

      I am not sure what the best strategy in Japan would be as I don’t have much experience with the Japanese political system. But my understanding is that Greenpeace has said that the actions of the SSCS have hurt and set back any gains they had made in Japan.

      Iceland and the Faroe Islands are both recieving pressure from the EU to stop whaling. Iceland has been threatened that they will not be allowed to join the EU if the keep whaling and many economists believe that Iceland needs the support of the EU to survive. The Faroe Islands are an autonomous province of Denmark and there is increasing pressure on Denmark to enforce EU regulations on the Faroe Islands, while the Faroe Islands claim that they are exempt from those regulations. But if Denmark faces the loss of EU monies they may set the Faroe Islands free and the Faroe Islands have a very restricted economy that probably can’t sustain itself. Meaning they would be forced to accept the EU ban on whaling.

      Norway is another spot that I am not very well informed about, politically. But I understand that their whale hunt has been decreasing recently mostly due to decreased demand and because of their lack of reservations under CITES they can’t export whale meat to Japan as Iceland can. So at appears that Norway’s whaling will fade out due to low demand making it uneconomical (except possibly for some aboriginal whaling). Campaigns like what Greenpeace does can speed up the drop in demand.

      Slow and steady change may not be sexy, and those that are involved don’t get the ‘hero’ status, but it is what, in my opinion, will ultimately stop large scale whaling.

      • November 28, 2010 at 10:46 pm


        Thanks for the comments. I think you hit the nail on the head when you say, “Slow and steady change may not be sexy, and those that are involved don’t get the ‘hero’ status, but it is what, in my opinion, will ultimately stop large scale whaling.”

        No doubt that Paul Watson and the SSCS are at least as interested in “sexy hero” status as they are whales…

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