Captain Paul Watson. Photo by John
Captain Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd society and number one pain in the arse for Japan’s whaling industry, has been on the run for a month since skipping bail in Germany. Nobody has a clue where he is, although it's more than likely he's somewhere out at sea, keeping out of the law's reach in international waters.
Japan is still illegally killing hundreds of whales and other marine animals under the guise of "scientific research" every year, and the 61-year-old has been on a crusade to stop them since the 70s. His Sea Shepherd society, with its fleet of vessels, helicopters and speed boats, acts as a vigilante group, on a mission to fuck up whaling ships by any means possible – throwing stink bombs was a personal favourite – while staying (mostly) on the right side of the law (they've also been pilloried in an episode of South Park).
Watson's run-in with the authorities started in May, when he was detained at Frankfurt airport on charges relating to an incident in 2002, where his crew rammed a Costa Rican shark-finning boat and were accused of attempted murder. It's likely that Costa Rica is working with Japan to have Watson extradited, considering that last year Japan donated money to Costa Rica for environmental protection, i.e. pocket money towards harpooning the hell out of as many whales as they possibly could. Apart from a statement in The Guardian and a message on the Sea Shepherd website, Watson has made no contact with his followers or given any clue as to his whereabouts. Public appearances have been cancelled and his lawyer isn’t taking calls.
I couldn't track down Watson myself (who do you think I am? Columbo? That guy's dead), but I did find Peter Hammarstedt, anti-whaling veteran, captain of the Sea Shepherd ship the MY Bob Barker and friend of Watson's.
VICE: Hi Peter, has Captain Watson told you where he is?
Peter Hammarstedt: I haven’t had any personal contact with Captain Watson. All I know is that he’s not in Germany and that he's in a safe place. Right now, we have an international team of legal experts working round the clock so that we can get a resolution to this issue as soon as possible and get Captain Watson back to his ships where he belongs.
Is it likely that he will end up being extradited to Japan and sent to jail?
I’ve sailed with Captain Watson for almost ten years – he’s been doing this for more than 40 years – and the one thing that seems to be a certainty is that he's always able to get out of the trickiest situations. Even when the odds are entirely stacked against us, it seems that Captain Watson always succeeds in the end.
Do you think the charges against him are politically motivated?
I don’t think they have any grounds at all. This case in Costa Rica has been dismissed twice already in court because we have video documentation of what happened. Nine years passed and it didn’t even come up on the agenda until October last year, when the Japanese whaling industry took a suit against us. We’re 100 percent convinced that Japan is the driving force behind this Costa Rican extradition attempt. I feel confident that the charges will be dismissed; we just have to fight them with the same amount of dedication and enthusiasm that we put into our campaign at sea.
Was it a good move for Captain Watson to skip bail?
I think it was the right choice to make, for sure. I feel extremely doubtful that he’d have had a fair trial in Japan, a country where the conviction rate is 99.7 percent and you’re quite literally guilty before proven innocent.
So the fact that Captain Watson is now a wanted fugitive won’t hinder any of your campaigns?
I don’t think Captain Watson is a hindrance at all. Sea Shepherd is not just Captain Watson, it's all of the dedicated volunteers who are inspired by what Paul has created and what he stands for. The whaling industry can’t stop us by targeting him. In fact, it has the opposite effect – the one certainty through all the legal troubles that Captain Watson is having right now, is that Sea Shepherd will be down in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary and we will be giving the Japanese whaling fleet the worst season they’ve ever had.
Have you ever been arrested because of your work with Sea Shepherd?
Trouble is what we get into, that’s part of the job. During my first campaign, I was taken hostage by rioting Galapagan fishermen, I was assaulted by Canadian sealers while trying to stop the seal hunt – I’ve been arrested twice in Canada, actually. I’m a persona non grata. I’m not allowed to visit there for the dastardly offence of filming a seal being skinned alive. But the situation with Captain Watson is quite different. If he were extradited to Costa Rica, we have very reasonable fears for his safety there. The Taiwanese shark-fin mafia have a £15,000 voucher on his head, and that’s a bounty that’s very easily collected in a place like the prison system.
Given everything you’ve been through and the real danger that Captain Watson is in, what made you want to join Sea Shepherd in the first place?
When I found out that whaling was still going on, it was such a shock to me. The knowledge that the Japanese whaling fleet was still brutally slaughtering endangered species in spite of the law just blew my mind. I felt an obligation to get personally involved. I guess, in a case like whaling, when you have the law on your side, when you have media on your side, you have public opinion on your side, if these guys are still going down there and killing these whales, then I don't think there’s any other option but to go down there and do the job the government should be doing.
And you’re now captain of the MY Bob Barker.
That’s right. The difference between being a captain on a Sea Shepherd ship and other captains is that, not only do you have the responsibility and safety of the crew on board your vessel, you also have responsibility for the safety of the poaching crews you confront. That’s a responsibility that we don’t take lightly. In 35 years of intense confrontation, Sea Shepherd has never caused an injury and certainly not a death.
You wouldn’t prefer a cosy campaigning job on dry land?
I was involved with Greenpeace, but at some stage you have to get to the conclusion that protesting isn’t enough. Sea Shepherd fits me better, I think. What I really like about Sea Shepherd is that the results are so direct; we can count how many whales are saved.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen at sea?
Four years ago, there was a whale that was harpooned too far away from our ship for us to directly intervene, but our helicopter captured all of the footage. From the time that she was harpooned until the time she died, it took 22 minutes and 40 seconds. She was harpooned twice and she was shot another seven times by rifle shots, before she slowly drowned in her own blood. I know that there’s nothing that I could experience that could even relate to that. That’s why I’m willing to take great risks to my own personal safety to protect these individuals. What’s inspiring is that, once we do locate the Japanese whaling fleet, I know we’re preventing 20 or 30 whales from slaughter. We’re shepherding our flock and keeping our flock safe; it justifies absolutely every minute that I spend on this.
What’s the next mission you’ve got coming up?
Right now, we’re putting all our time and preparations into getting four ships ready for Antarctica. Last year we had three, this year we’re going to have four vessels and we’re calling the campaign "Operation Zero Tolerance". We’re hoping to find the Japanese whaling fleet earlier than ever before and send them home with a zero-killed quota.
Is zero a realistic number?
I think it’s the only number to aim for. If a single whale goes down in a whale sanctuary, it’s absolutely unacceptable, so that’s the goal we’re setting for ourselves. Last year we saved 363 whales from slaughter. We prevented the Japanese whaling fleet from reaching 76 percent of their quota and, the year before, we prevented them from killing 829 whales. So, in the past two years, they haven’t even been able to break even. We’ve bankrupted the whaling fleet for two years in a row.
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