Captain Paul Watson, Founder Sea Shepherd - Part II

Posted: 2nd December 2017 | Written by: Karen Hockney

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Last week, to mark the 40th anniversary of Sea Shepherd, OnboardOnline chatted to founder Captain Paul Watson about the genesis of the marine conservation movement.

Today, in the final instalment of our exclusive interview, Paul reveals more about his ongoing battles against corrupt governments, the latest news on current operations around the globe, the high profile support that keeps Sea Shepherd buoyant and why he won’t lose faith in humanity doing the right thing. 

In 40 years at the heart of marine conservation, Captain Paul Watson has come up against some very powerful adversaries indeed. Running battles with bureaucracy have left him facing criminal charges from assault to attempted murder as well as extradition requests and allegations of piracy, simply for doing his best to protect ocean life. 

For Paul, who once placed himself between a pod of whales and a group of Russian harpooners in the Pacific, issues like his ongoing battle with the Costa Rican government are just part and parcel of the day job as is the daily bureaucratic harassment and constant legal threats. 

‘In 2002, we assisted the rangers of Cocos Island, a national park off the Costa Rican shore, in arresting an Ecuadorean longliner called the San Jose, which had 400 dead sharks on its deck,’ he explains. 

‘The rangers couldn’t stop them alone so we intervened and it became the first vessel in Costa Rican history to be confiscated by the courts for poaching. We had a lot of support there and were about to sign a deal with Costa Rica’s Ministry of the Environment to assist the rangers.

Trailer: Sharkwater by Rob Stewart

‘Before we could sign, we were making a documentary called Sharkwater with biologist Rob Stewart in Guatemalan waters when we came across a Costa Rican longliner illegally fishing in Guatemala. We began filming them and called the Guatemalan government and they asked if we could stop them, which we did. 

‘When the fishermen got to Costa Rica, they accused me of trying to kill them and I was arrested on eight counts of attempted murder. I wasn’t too concerned about it because everything was documented. We went to court, showed them the film and the case was dismissed. 

‘But a week later, a new judge and new prosecutor charged me with eight counts of criminal assault over the same incident. Again, the charges were dismissed on our evidence and I was given permission to leave Costa Rica. I never heard another thing until 10 years later in 2012 when I was arrested in Germany on an extradition request from Costa Rica. 

‘This time they had changed the charge to shipwreck endangerment and this came a week after the President of Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla, met the Japanese Prime Minister in Tokyo. It was a deal between them!’ 

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Captain Paul Watson - Antarctic Whale Defence Campaign © Sea Shepherd

Paul agreed to stand trial, confident of a successful acquittal as long as the Costa Rican government guaranteed that he would not be extradited to Japan. However, they refused. 

‘What’s more, the Statute of Limitations on that charge expired so we thought it was done with but our Costa Rican lawyer reported that the judge had refused to recognise the Statute of Limitations, so my case is now before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and has been picked up by a European Union Parliamentary Committee which is investigating Interpol for political abuses. 

‘It’s a controversial case and illustrates the immense power Japan has. In 2012, they applied to the US courts to get an injunction against our interventions, which is strange because our ships are Dutch registered and our crew are from all over the world and we are going up against Japanese ships in international waters. 

‘The first judge said no to the injunction because they had come with unclean hands - Japanese whalers are in contempt of the Australian Federal Court, for which they have been fined $1m which they refuse to pay. We went ahead with our mission but suddenly, the 9th Circuit Federal Court of the US overturned the judgment, gave the Japanese their injunction without any explanation and as our vessels had already left, I was charged with 21 counts of contempt as was Sea Shepherd. 

110104 BARBARA VEIGA CAPTAIN PAUL WATSON DURING SKYPE INTERVIEW WITH THE MEDIA ANTARCTICA 600Speaking with the press from Antarctica © Sea Shepherd

‘The following year, another judge ordered a not guilty verdict, which felt good until a year after that, the 9th Circuit Court ignored all that evidence and accused me of being a pirate, ordering me to pay $2,500,000 to the Japanese whalers in legal fees plus damages. 

‘Interestingly, Japan didn’t want to pursue damages because in order to secure them, they would have had to open up their books to quantify the damages and that’s the last thing they wanted to do. However, we sued Japan for piracy so they had to open up their books anyway. They requested mediation and we agreed – otherwise it would have cost us $7m to pursue it through the courts – and we made an agreement with the Japanese that they would give us back the monies we had given them. 

‘We also agreed that anything Sea Shepherd International did would not reflect on Sea Shepherd USA. Even so, they still tried to nail us by freezing our PayPal account and causing us constant harassment.’ 

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Paul on the ice with a seal cub © Sea Shepherd

Paul encounters frustrations on a daily basis as a result of the contradictory nature of so-called laws to protect the environment. 

‘In Canada, if you document or witness a baby seal being killed, believe it or not, that’s a violation of the Seal Protection Act,’ he says wryly. ‘No sealer has ever been arrested under the Seal Protection Act even when we have filmed them carrying out illegal activities -  the only arrests have been of filmmakers, activists and journalists. 

‘Our Icefish campaigns targeted the poachers in the Southern Ocean who were going after Patagonian and Antarctic Toothfish, which are illegally sold as Chilean Seabass. For 10 years, they were on the Interpol Purple List but nobody was doing anything about it. 

‘We decided to go after them two years ago and found them within eight days, setting up a 110-day pursuit which became the longest chase of a poacher in history, from the coast of Antarctica to the West Coast of Africa. They sank their own vessel to destroy the evidence. We hauled in 72 km of net, which weighed 70 tonnes, but we received nothing but criticism and obstruction from governments. Interpol finally came around to working with us because we delivered the evidence to Mauritius but it’s like that all the time. 

‘At the moment, Sea Shepherd France is running Operation Mare Nostrum, removing 2km of ghost nets at Coulombray near Marseille. Immediately, we are being attacked by the powers that be who are threatening to lay charges against us for removing the nets because they were supposed to be removing them. The nets have been there a year undisturbed yet we are accused of interfering with their operations and they now want to send divers to see if we have damaged the underwater eco systems by removing them!’ 

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© Sea Shepherd

I wonder how, in the face of such hypocrisy and double standards, it’s possible to remain optimistic about the future and not become wholly disheartened by the red tape that seems to dog every operation? 

Paul hesitates. ‘Back in 1973, I was a medic in South Dakota defending the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty which gave land to the Lakota people, only for it to be taken back just a few years later. We were surrounded by 3,000 federal troops, FBI, US marshals and the army, which shot 20,000 rounds of ammunition into the village, killing two native Americans and wounded 46. 

‘I went to see protest leader Russell Means (a famous American Indian activist) and asked: ‘We don’t have any hope of winning the conflict so why are we here?’ His answer has stayed with me all my life. He said: ‘We’re not concerned about the odds against us and we’re not concerned about winning or losing. We’re here because it’s the right thing to do and the right place to be. We’re not concerned about tomorrow. What we do in the present will influence what tomorrow will be.’ 

‘That day, I learned that you don’t focus on the future or on winning or losing, you focus on doing your best in the present. I’m not pessimistic about anything. I firmly believe that the solution to any situation, no matter how impossible it might seem, is to search for the impossible answer. 

‘In 1972, the very idea that Nelson Mandela would become President of South Africa was unthinkable and impossible and yet that became a reality.’ 

SA OW crew return from iceberg boat tour2© Sea Shepherd

Paul is also buoyed by the passion and enthusiasm he sees from the younger generation of volunteers. ‘More and more young people are becoming involved and they bring imagination, courage and passion. Those are the three virtues which can change the world. People are dedicating themselves to protecting species or habitats. 

‘Individuals make a difference, governments and corporations don’t solve problems, they cause problems. The answers come from passionate individuals like Dian Fossey, who is the reason why we still have mountain gorillas in Rwanda. I can’t think of anything more satisfying than saving a species from extinction.’ 

Current Campaigns

With that ambition in mind, Sea Shepherd has around 12 campaigns running at a time. At the moment, that includes Operation Virus Hunter in British Colombia, investigating the illegal activities of salmon farmers and the transmission of viruses and parasites from domestic to wild salmon. 

‘Most of these farms are on native American land without permits so they are trespassing,’ explains Paul.  ‘The hereditary chiefs go on board and defy the farmers to arrest them for trespassing. Recent video evidence that a chief brought back shows thousands of herring in the nets so what they’re doing is feeding domestic salmon with wild fish, which is stealing from seals and orcas as well as native people. 

‘Operation Albacore is working with the government of Gabon to stop illegal fishing in Gabonese waters and we are also working in Sicily to stop poaching in their marine reserves. We also have partnerships in Tanzania and Liberia to stop poachers in their waters. 

Playa de Ris AlbacoreNets in Playa de Ris - Operation Albacore © Sea Shepherd

‘Our most dangerous campaign is Operation Nyamba, in Mayotte, a little French island between Mozambique and Madagascar, where they’re poaching turtles and threatening the lives of rangers and even the police. Our crew was stoned and one of our cars was burnt. These people are extremely violent so we are going to hire some former French legionnaires to work as security there. 

‘We have been working in partnership with the Galapagos National Parks for 17 years to protect the Galapagos marine reserve. We spent €1million setting up an AIS tracking system which monitors the entire park boundaries and also provided them with a canine unit, which trains the dogs and when they retire, finds them homes in Ecuador or the US. 

Operation Jeedara in Australia has stopped BP from drilling in the Great Australian Bight and we are trying to protect the Great Barrier Reef.’ 

Sea Shepherd ships practice what they preach – they are vegan, alcohol-free and non smoking and with around 200 volunteers at any one time, Paul says the biggest challenge in staffing is finding a positon for everybody although ‘if you hang around for long enough, we’ll usually find you something! We’ve come a long way since those early days.’ 

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Sea Shepherd crew © Sea Shepherd

High Profile Support

High profile celebrity supporters also help to keep the cause in the public eye. In July, Stella McCartney interviewed Paul for her fashion website as her label launched a backpack made from recycled marine plastic which will donate all profits to Sea Shepherd. 

‘I Iearned from Brigitte Bardot in 1977 when I took her to the ice where the seals were that media coverage is all important,’ adds Paul. ‘Something isn’t real unless it’s on camera, and if it isn’t on camera, it didn’t happen! That visit gave us a boost and Europe banned seal pelts as a result. There’s no point getting a scientist to speak on issues when a movie actor will get the point across much better. Martin Sheen once told me: ‘We don’t really know that much but everybody thinks we do.’ 

‘For some reason, an actor playing a doctor seems to have more credibility than an actual doctor. It’s the media culture we live in. There are four angles – sex, scandal, celebrity and violence. Every story has one of those elements but if you have all four, you have a super story. 

‘On our advisory board, we have Pierce Brosnan, Sean Connery, Richard Dean Anderson, Christian Bale, William Shatner, Christopher Lambert and Martin Sheen. How can we lose? We have two James Bonds, MacGyver, Batman, Captain Kirk, The Highlander and the President of the United States!’ 

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Captain Paul Watson onboard Steve Irwin © Sea Shepherd

As to his hopes for Sea Shepherd’s next goals and environmental issues in general, Paul is typically upbeat about the future. 

‘I think we are buying time and space so that we can have a more enlightened culture,’ he says. ‘That will come about when people understand how intimately we are connected to the natural world. We have to learn to live in harmony with all the other species and understand that they are more important than us. 

‘Without phytoplankton, we don’t exist. Without bees and worms, we don’t exist. We need to respect them and live within the boundaries and laws of ecology. That will begin to happen because people respond when things start to affect them personally and the environmental eco-systems begin to break down. 

‘It’s usually the case with humans that it’s too little too late but if we’re lucky, it won’t be too late and we will be able to salvage a lot of this. We are part of the eco-systems worldwide, we’re not dominant. Each one of us is helpless by ourselves but you don’t need a majority to succeed. 

‘According to the history of every social movement in the world – from anti-slavery to revolutions – all you need is 7%. Once you have that, you can change everything. We have about 2% right now so we have to move it up a little but it can be done.’

Find out More: The Part Time Heroes Protecting our Oceans


Related Articles:
Interview: Captain Paul Watson - Part 1
Sea Shepherd - Cool Ships and Conservation
Sea Shepherd's Operation Nemesis
Captain Wyanda Lublink - Sea Shepherd's MY Steve Irwin
Captain Adam Meyerson - Sea Shepherd's MY Ocean Warrior

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