5 Ways Sea Shepherd's Controversial Methods Are Changing the World for Whales

Sea Shepherd fleet throwing a bottle at a whaling ship.

guano / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Let's say it off the bat: we aren't entirely on board with the methods used by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in their fight against the Japanese whaling fleet.

However, it's impossible not to notice that, two decades after they started trolling the Arctic waters, the Sea Shepherd fleet -- led by enigmatic captain Paul Watson -- is making a difference to whales. Here's how.

1. They're decreasing the number of whales killed each year.

A humpback whale diving in Okinawa Japan.

Pete / Getty Images

Planet Green began airing "Whale Wars," a reality show that follows Watson and his crew as they attempt to disrupt Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean, in 2008; in 2009, Watson reported that he believed the Sea Shepherd efforts had prevented the Japanese from meeting their annual quota of 945 whales by 200.

The next year, Watson estimated that the Japanese had only been able to kill half their normal haul.

Though there's been an international moratorium on whaling since 1986, the Japanese maintain they are hunting whales for scientific research purposes; however, they still sell the meat of the whales when they return to land.

2. They're interfering with the whale hunt as a whole.

Japanese locals protesting the Sea Shepherd activists.

Koichi Kamoshida / Staff / Getty Images

Video: YouTube

But damaging the efficiency of the whale hunt was only a precursor to this year's Sea Shepherd success: On February 10, the Japanese announced that they were ending their whaling season nearly a month earlier than usual.

The Japanese cited "safety as a priority" for the sooner-than-planned retreat, and blamed the Sea Shepherd blockades for preventing them from receiving supplies.

When they announced the end of the season, Watson estimated that the Japanese had caught only 30 of the 945 whales they intended to catch since the start of the season in November.

3. They're not just protecting whales.

Bluefin Tuna swimming in a net.

DeepAqua / Getty Images

In June 2010 -- during the off-season for whaling -- the Sea Shepherd crew turned its attention toward another endangered species: bluefin tuna.

In waters off North Africa, the crews threw rotten butter at Libyan and Italian fishing boats to cause a diversion while divers cut underwater nets to release about 800 tuna caught by the fishermen.

The demand for sushi has caused serious overfishing of the bluefin; their population decline led to one recent catch of a 754-pound tuna bringing in nearly $400,000 at the Tsukiji market in Tokyo.

4. They're keeping whales in the news.

Pete Bethune the skipper of the Sea Shepherds.

Sandra Mu / Stringer / Getty Images

The plight of whales hasn't gotten as much press recently as other environmental issues -- and polar bears have almost ousted them as the major animal icon of the movement. But press-savvy Watson is practically a household name, and he's drawing more attention to the whale hunt than it's gotten in years.

When fellow captain Pete Bethune, who was in charge of the anti-whaling catamaran Ady Gil until a Japanese whaler disabled it, claimed that Watson ordered him to scuttle the boat to "garner sympathy", Watson lashed back that Bethune was "disgruntled, angry, and out for revenge" after being fired.

The drama on the high seas has even caught the eyes -- and voices, and wallets -- of celebrities eager to support Sea Shepherd, including Bob Barker (who donated the money for a new ship), Michelle Rodriguez, and Daryl Hannah. And as any polar bear will tell you, getting the world's attention goes a long way toward conservation efforts.

5. They're getting attention.

The skipper of Sea Shepherds stands on a boat.

Cate Gillon / Staff / Getty Images

Lots of attention.

Sea Shepherd refuses to let Japanese whaling activities slide by under the radar, but they're also drawing plenty of attention to their own methods: Bethune was suspended for boarding a Japanese ship; "South Park" took the entire crew to task; and even the Dalai Lama weighed in, urging Sea Shepherd to rely only on non-violent methods.

Whether they meant to or not, the Sea Shepherd crew is opening a global conversation on how far is too far when it comes to protecting endangered species.