Paul Watson: Pirate or Anti-Whaler?


Captain Paul Watson’s Sea Shepherd fleet has been accused of piracy and even terrorism, but the fact that he is walking free after his recent return to Australia perhaps tells another story.


People were captivated, earlier this month, by the actions of the Sea Shepherd anti-whaling ships, the Farley Mowat and the Robert Hunter, in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary,  where whaling is prohibited. It was a riveting story ruthless ‘pirates’ dodged satellite tracking by steering through 400 kilometres of pack ice, ships collided and crew went missing.

When we interviewed Watson last week, we found that his loyalty, first and foremost, lies with the whales he has spent over three decades protecting. He considers them his clients:

After we sank half of Iceland’s whaling fleet in 1986, I had a former colleague from Greenpeace come up and say, ‘I think that what you did in Iceland was reprehensible and unforgivable.’ I said, ‘So? We didn’t sink them for you, or for Greenpeace. We sank them for the whales. Name me one whale that disagrees with what we did and I promise you we won’t do it again.’

Since its inception in 1977, Sea Shepherd has sunk eight whaling boats and seized more than 60 vessels the organisation always claiming responsibility for its actions. Once, when a Canadian Navy spokesman scoffed at Watson’s acquisition of a submarine for his fleet, he fired back:

Since World War II, the Sea Shepherd Society has sunk more ships, boarded more ships, rammed more ships, and blockaded more harbours than the Canadian Navy, so they’re not in any position to judge what we can or cannot do with a submarine.

However, he denies Japanese claims that, during his latest encounters the Robert Hunter caused a collision with one of the Japanese whaling vessels, the Kaiko Maru, placing them in ‘imminent, terrible danger.’ He expects three videos , physical evidence and a surprise forensic inspection by Australian Federal Police will refute the Japanese version of the story.

As he tells it, the Kaiko Maru pulled into the starboard side  of the Robert Hunter. The collision drove their port side into ice and prevented them from reaching the Nisshin Maru. Further damage occurred when the Kaiko Maru deftly reversed into the stern for a parting thump.

The Robert Hunter approaches Nisshin Maru

Watson believes strongly that international conservation law justifies his actions. However, the media all but ignored his repeated claim to be enforcing international law, specifically the UN World Charter for Nature.

Watson also points to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the Southern Ocean Sanctuary, and specific targeting of endangered whale species humpbacks, minkes, and fins insisting that Japan’s recent killing of more than 400 whales was illegal. He also claims that refueling vessels at sea and conducting industrial activity in the Antarctic Treaty Zone could be pursued as a violation of international law.

Under the current global moratorium on commercial whaling, International Whaling Commission (IWC) regulations permit ‘ scientific research whaling .’ Japan recently issued itself close to 1000 scientific permits, but hasn’t published a peer-reviewed paper in 20 years. Commercially sold whale meat and oil are not by-products of this ‘scientific whaling’ they are the main event. According to Watson, commercial activity maintains the whaling fleet as they cross their fingers that the moratorium will be lifted the following season.

Peter Garrett said whalers self-regulating in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary were akin to ‘asking a burglar for a list of stolen goods.’

Watson maintains that when Uruguayan fishermen catch toothfish in Antarctica, the Australians and New Zealanders are all over them, ‘yet the Japanese get away with killing whales; the reason being that Japan’s a big economic bully with unlimited resources.’ He regards this selective enforcement as political and economic elitism that borders on bigotry.

Watson is very familiar with the perilous state of global marine health. After 35 years at sea, he has seen populations of marine life diminish considerably and says that nearly all the world’s fisheries are collapsing, creating ‘very serious biodiversity issues.’ These are finally being discussed with reference to climate change, but 25 years of warning people about global warming has left him skeptical about public concern.

‘I’m not interested in being politically correct and never have been, but I’ve always been interested in being ecologically correct and speaking to the truth of these issues,’ he says.

He appreciates the role that media can play in protracted campaigns but is cautious. Wild media reports of the recent anti-whaling campaign described rancid butter bombs as ‘ acid ‘ and described the protection of whales as ‘eco-terrorism.

Watson co-founded Greenpeace in 1972 but left shortly afterwards over disagreements about direct action. Watson feels that merely protesting is doomed to failure because it comes from a fundamentally submissive, almost pleading, position. He says he abhors the softly-softly approach to environmentalism.

As he chased whalers in Antarctica recently, Greenpeace spruiked a new online campaign. It goes like this: two activists travel Japan seeking the ‘true story of whales.’ As cheerful steel guitars twang, one savours whale meats with a Japanese grandmother, describing it as very good, even unique. Unlike precedin
g webisodes, this and later instalments feature a disclaimer these people aren’t Greenpeace activists, they’re just interested in whales.

By contrast, Sea Shepherd’s latest online offering is the Whale Safe Beer site, targeting a favourite Aussie pastime.

‘I believe in aggressive non-violence,’ he says. ‘A few years ago, a Tibetan monk came and gave us this little statue he said he’d been told to give us. We put it up in our mast I didn’t see any harm in it but I didn’t know what it was. A few years later I had tea with the Dalai Lama and asked him he had sent it apparently.’

‘It’s Hayagriva,’ said the Lama. ‘It’s the compassionate aspect of Buddha’s wrath.’

‘What does that mean?’ asked Watson.

‘Well you never want to hurt anybody, but sometimes when they cannot see enlightenment, you scare the hell out of them until they do.’

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