Paul Watson: 'There's no rest on planetary duty'
Paul Watson doesn't stay on dry land very much. Last year the tireless eco-warrior was at sea for 50 weeks, and this year he has spent just one week at his home in Washington State. As he puts it: "There's no rest when you're on planetary duty."..
Arranging an interview takes time, and I am asked not to discuss the whereabouts of his hotel with anyone in advance because, his press officer reveals, "there have been death threats"..
When I finally meet Captain Watson, it is in an over-heated London hotel room. He is wearing a black T-shirt decorated with the logo for Sea Shepherd, the direct-action conservation group that he heads, surmounted by a skull and crossed trident and crook..
Watson is a softly spoken Canadian with a shock of grey hair - rather more Captain Birds Eye than Long John Silver. His record, however, speaks for itself. One of the original founders of Greenpeace in 1969, he left in 1977 because "the organisation got taken over by bureaucrats"..
Part of Watson's grievance was that Greenpeace was less inclined to use direct action against whalers. Although proud that his membership number was 007, he called Greenpeace "the Avon ladies of the environment movement"..
Since forming Sea Shepherd in 1981, Watson, a former Canadian coast guard, has commanded more than 200 voyages aimed at stopping Antarctic and Arctic whaling, illegal long-line fishing in the Pacific, the killing of seals in Canada and, more recently, poaching and shark-finning in Galapagos..
Sea Shepherd has, in his words, "boarded and rammed more ships, engaged in more high seas confrontations and sunk more ships than the Canadian navy"..
Watson and his mostly volunteer crews brave storms and ice-packs, hostile governments and illegal fishing vessels. He has rammed seven ships and scuttled another eight, and come under fire several times. But he has never been convicted of any crime..
Sea Shepherd is careful to act in accordance with the UN Charter for Nature, which allows for the enforcement of international law "by nations, non-governmental organisations and individuals". Watson is clear that everything he does is sanctioned under international maritime law..
Legal or not, Sea Shepherd's tactics include bombarding whaling crews with smoke bombs and slabs of rancid butter. The butter makes the decks too slippery to work upon, but Japanese whaling crews have described the substance as "acid"..
In January this year, two Sea Shepherd volunteers boarded the Yushin Maru in the Southern Ocean and chained themselves to a railing as they delivered a letter to the ship saying it was in breach of international law..
The two men were released without charge, according to Watson, on instructions from the Japanese prime minister..
"They don't want any more negative publicity over whaling than they already get," he says..
Watson's passion verges on the spiritual. His moment of revelation came in 1975 when he was trying to prevent a Soviet ship killing a sperm whale. At one point, a harpooned whale came close to sinking Watson's small inflatable boat..
"That dying whale looked right at me and chose not to harm me. It moved out of the way to avoid crushing us..
"What angered me was that the Russians were using the fine oil from the whales as lubricants in intercontinental ballistic missiles. Here were human beings killing these intelligent, peaceful and majestic creatures to use a bit of oil inside a killing machine.".
Although whaling is still one of Watson's prime concerns, his crews are at the forefront of publicising the dire state of the world's marine environment. He arrests illegal traffickers in sea cucumbers and Asian fishermen who slaughter sharks for use in shark fin soup - for which there is an insatiable demand in China's new economy..
He and his shipmates are all vegans..
"I don't eat fish because there is no such thing as sustainable fishing in the world right now," he says..
"There is no industry on this planet that is as wasteful. Commercial fishermen are the greediest, stupidest people on earth. I grew up in a fishing community and I don't like saying that, but these people may in the end be the cause of our planet's demise.".
British organisations such as the Marine Conservation Society and the Marine Stewardship Council would argue that certain fisheries are sustainable. Watson disagrees, maintaining that such bodies are afraid to confront the ugly reality of our dying seas.
To some, the views of a man once dubbed "Captain Nemo" smack of arrogance..
"I don't care what people say about me," he says. "My clients are the whales, the sharks and the fish populations who have no one to fight for them.".
Watson talks in soundbites and aphorisms. His environmentalism is mostly self-taught, but he is widely read. For a man who doesn't give many interviews, he has a fund of quotations and philosophical mantras at his disposal..
Japanese whalers have called him a terrorist. "But what does that word mean today, when the Chinese have called the Dalai Lama a terrorist?".
Watson believes that life on our planet conforms to what he calls the three fundamental laws of conservation. First the law of diversity, second the law of interdependence, and third the law of finite resources..
"We're close to losing our essential diversity. Look at our wheat crops - we rely on a handful of grain crops and plants that we've refined and bred over hundreds of years. It only takes a new disease to come along and take out one of the building blocks and the planet will go through an environmental correction.".
That's a typical Watsonian aphorism, but what, I ask, does he mean by it?.
"I mean that there are too many people in the world. But we aren't essential to its survival. Worms are more important to the system than we are - they can survive without human beings but we can't live without worms. I think the system will correct itself somehow as far as human beings are concerned.".
But human beings in developing countries rely on fishing to survive; in the West we are constantly being urged to eat more fish on health grounds..
"Well, people may need to eat fish," he says, "but there aren't enough fish in the sea to go round. People mocked me in 1975 when I said that the cod fisheries would collapse. Those critics are pretty quiet now.".
Watson's passion may be spiritual, but he abhors religion..
"Almost all religions put us at their centre. And this world isn't just about us. We are an animal like all the other creatures on earth, and we somehow think we are the most important.".
It's easy to be swept along by Watson's enthusiasm. Sea Shepherd is growing in membership, but still has only about 50,000 members worldwide, a veritable minnow compared to WWF's five million, or Greenpeace's two-and-a-half million..
But Watson is adamant that he doesn't want to emulate the larger, more corporate conservation groups. He dismisses them as "feelgood" organisations. He is equally dismissive of politicians..
"Take Ecuador," Watson observes ruefully..
"The Galapagos is a World Heritage Site and it's going down the tubes. The main island is over-run with dogs and cats, and the Navy take bribes from the illegal fishing boats. They have never arrested a single poacher. But we have, and we've confiscated thousands of illegally poached shark fins.".
Sea Shepherd's newest vessel, the black-painted Steve Irwin, is a former Scottish Fisheries Protection boat that they acquired in 2006. She's around 30 years old, and has been modified for voyages to the far north and south. The exact details of her equipment and the strength of her hull are secret..
Apart from Watson and the ship's engineer, the crew of 35 is made up entirely of unpaid volunteers. One British supporter told me that they sold their house and moved back in with their parents to fund a year as a crew member:.
"It was the best experience of my life, and if I could afford it I'd go again tomorrow.".
For now, Sea Shepherd has more volunteers than boats to crew them with, but Watson tries to make sure that everyone eventually gets a chance to help..
I ask him if people are tired of bad environmental news? Watson looks genuinely sad..
"There really isn't much good news about the environment out there," he says finally..
"And I do get called 'Cassandra' a lot. But the thing is, Cassandra's prophesies all came true.".
Documenting the purposeful mission of avant-garde wildlife defender Paul Watson, this film portrays the brave dedication of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Please see www . seashepherd .
org for more information about this organization
I-Witness Video: Paul Watson, Bob Hunter & The Sea Shepherds
Fight The Good Fight! Support Sea Shepherd ...Help Save Marine Life And Our Oceans.