Can We Trust the Sea Shepherds?

Will the Sea Shepherds turn its wrath on recreational fishing?

Be free bluefin!

Be free bluefin!

A Sea Shepherds' boat rams a holding pen, releasing 800 bluefin tuna caught by Maltese tuna seiners in the Mediterranean Sea.Courtesy Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

I'm not sure how I feel about the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, but I watch its Whale Wars TV show regularly. I also celebrated when a British court dismissed a lawsuit brought against the non-profit group by Maltese tuna wranglers after a Sea Shepherd boat rammed a tuna pen in the Mediterranean, releasing some 800 bluefin tuna.

My first encounter with the Sea Shepherds occurred around 1988 when I was a member of the Gillnet Committee, a group of recreational angling interests and marine scientests brought together by the late California Assemblywoman Doris Allen (R-Cypress). Our goal was to rid California ocean waters of inshore set gillnets, and during one meeting, a member of the Sea Shepherds asked to speak with us. I recall his all-black attire and dedication to ocean conservation. But mostly I remember his polite offer to organize covert, dastardly acts -- such as scuttling gillnet boats as they sat at the dock -- on behalf of our cause. We thanked him for his time, but just as politely declined the offer, being that it was, like, illegal and violent and all.

Assemblywoman Allen eventually went on to author and promote Proposition 132 -- the anti-gillnet initiative -- which, with the help of organizations such as United Anglers of Southern California, was approved by voters during the November 1990 California election and became a state constituional amendment, the first law of its kind in the United States.

While Prop 132 proved to me that you can work within the system to promote fisheries conservation, I still admire the Sea Shepherds' rebellious spunk, but as with a high-spirited horse, always wonder when it will turn its wrath on me. On us. On recreational fishermen.

The group's website says its mission is to end the destruction of habitat and slaughter of wildlife in the world's oceans in order to conserve and protect ecosystems and species. Sounds like our credo. But then it goes on to state that the Sea Shepherds use direct-action tactics to investigate, document, and take action when necessary to expose and confront illegal activities on the high seas.

For now, I think the Sea Shepherds will focus on commercial interests like the bluefin tuna netters, as well as whalers. So law-abiding recreational anglers are safe from their rage (I have visions of the Sea Shepherds' Bob Barker ramming a long-range sportifishing boat off Guadalupe Island). And if the Sea Shepherds' efforts to help bluefin tuna populations pay off, so much the better. And I will continue to watch Whale Wars. Even though Sea Shepherd crew members seem to bumble a lot and are prone to mistakes, mishaps and equipment malfunctions -- many born of the crew's inexperience and lack of training -- I want to believe that they know in their hearts that recreational fishermen were the first marine conservationists. And like the first Sea Shepherd I met in 1988, they should seek to help us, not ram us.