Outside magazine, December 1995
Having stared down the barrels of Japanese guns," says a defiant Paul Watson, "being on trial didn't really scare me." Watson, the 45-year-old Canadian founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and a proponent of all manner of high-seas high jinks, is referring to his trial last October in Newfoundland for endangering lives and property in an attack on a Cuban fishing vessel. After three weeks of testimony and 16 hours of tense deliberation by a jury, Watson was acquitted of major charges. Despite the not-guilty verdict, however, the government made one thing quite clear: It does not intend to stand by any longer while Watson rams, sabotages, and otherwise harasses anyone he deems an eco-offender. Had he been found guilty, he might have spent the rest of his life behind bars. (Watson was sentenced to 30 days in prison on a lesser charge of "criminal mischief.")
For Watson, the legal troubles started two and a half years ago in international waters off Newfoundland's Tail of the Grand Banks. While captaining the Cleveland Amory, the 185-foot Sea Shepherd flagship, Watson and his crew came upon the Rio Las Casas harvesting endangered redfish. The Rio's crew wasn't breaking any laws, but Watson nonetheless ordered it to cease. Not surprisingly, the Rio ignored the request. So Watson allegedly headed for the Rio's stern in hopes of fouling its nets. (The Rio's crew claims it was rammed; Watson denies any physical contact.) Unfortunately for Watson, Canadian police were watching the whole thing from aboard the Sir Wilfred Grenfell. The following day, they boarded the Cleveland Amory and arrested its captain.
So how did Watson beat the rap in a land where he is demonized for helping to end commercial seal hunting? The answer may have something to do with the current invasion of foreign fishing boats. In the middle of a three-year ban on cod fishing in Canadian waters, locals cringe at the thought of others plucking fish from nearby international waters.
"I would have thrown Watson down a blowhole a few years ago, but now I stand behind him," says one fisherman. "If it had been me at the helm of the Cleveland Amory, I would have run that poacher down."
Ironically, Watson's newfound friendship with the people of Newfoundland may not last. The Canadian government is considering allowing commercial seal hunting this spring, and Watson says he will return to do battle. "I would have to," the captain explains. "It's 1995--you just can't go out and bash baby seals to death any longer."