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Sea Shepherd Captain Paul Watson on His Attempt to End Japanese Whaling

Paul Watson. Photo: Tim Watters/Sea Shepherd

Over the last three decades, most of the chases involving Sea Shepherd Captain Paul Watson have occurred on the high seas. He’s usually the one in pursuit, chasing down and engaging in steel on steel skirmishes with whalers and shark fishermen, attempting to stop them from harpooning and finning. This past May, though, Watson was pursued, and caught, in a political and criminal net of sorts. While on a flight changeover in Frankfurt, Germany, authorities arrested him for what he says was a decade-old offense involving a Costa Rican fishing boat operating off the coast of Guatamala. We’ll let him tell that story below.

He can because he’s free, taking calls from aboard his ship the Steve Irwin. Roughly a year after it was reported that Sea Shepherd caused the Institute of Cetacean Research—the Japanese group that hunts whales—more than $20 million in losses, Watson is leading Sea Shepherd’s biggest arsenal into the Southern Ocean. At his disposal are four ships, aerial drones, numerous speed boats, a helicopter, and more than 100 crew members. His goal in 2012 is to try and stop Japan from getting a single whale. We called him up as he captains his vessel south, toward drama that’s a bit more familiar.

Can you tell me how you were arrested?
I was on my way to the Cannes Film Festival in May, and I had taken a Lufthansa flight from Denver, and it was to transfer in Frankfurt, to Nice. When I arrived in Frankfurt, I was told I was under arrest. It was quite surprising to me because I had been in Europe a month before—in Spain and France. So I asked, Well, what are the charges? I was quite surprised to learn that Costa Rica had an order for my arrest.

I found out that Costa Rica had applied to Interpol for an arrest warrant, but Interpol had dismissed the request because it was politically motivated. Germany decided to act on it unilaterally, aside from Interpol, and they held me for eight days. Then I was released on a $250,000 Euro bond while they entertained extradition. I found out later they had already made their mind up in the beginning because the president of Costa Rica was meeting with the chancellor of Germany that very week. It happened because the president of Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla, met with the prime minister of Japan. The warrant was issued right after that.

They went back to 2002, when I intercepted a Costa Rican longliner in the waters off Guatemala that was fishing for sharks illegally. We filmed them, as part of the documentary Shark Water. I asked the Guatemalan government what should be done and they said we could stop them. We did. We didn’t hurt anybody. We didn’t damage any property. We just shut down their operations.

Well, they went back into Costa Rica and accused me of trying to kill them. When I got to Costa Rica I was arrested. We went to court and the charges were dismissed when they saw our evidence and talked to our witness. Two days later, they charged me again because they had appointed a new prosecutor and a new judge. They also dismissed it, because I was given clearance to leave Costa Rica. I never heard another thing about it until I arrived this May in Germany. They charged me with attempting to shipwreck the vessel and endanger life. There isn’t even such a charge in Costa Rica.

While they were holding me, Japan, who had previously requested through Interpol for whaling activities in the Southern Ocean—Interpol had dismissed them—put in an application to terminate and have me sent there. On a Friday in July, I got a call from a supporter inside the Ministry of Justice who said, "On Monday, when you go into the police station"—I had to report every day—"you will be arrested and sent to Japan." I decided, Well, if I go to Japan, then I’m never leaving Japan. That’s when I left.

How did you escape?
Well, I had to report to the German police once a day [and it was a holiday], so I had two days to get out of Germany. I proceeded to go to the coast, and from there take a boat. Since then, it’s been 9,000 miles and four months to get back on board the Steve Irwin. It was made a little more difficult by not having my passport. They took both my Canadian and American passports from me.

I saw the two red notices on Interpol. There’s one from Costa Rica and one from Japan. What sort of situation does that put you in, in terms of leaving a boat and going to land?
Well, we’re working on getting the notices dismissed through Interpol. The Japanese notice is based on the accusations of one of my former crew members, who made a plea bargain with them that if he gave them that information, they would give him a suspended sentence. So, we’re trying to get that dismissed through Interpol. The Costa Rican notice had long expired under the statute of limitations.

Here’s the thing: Nobody gets extradited for a crime where nobody’s been hurt, where no property’s been damaged. The charge in Japan is basically that I ordered somebody to trespass. Nobody gets expedited on a trespass charge. This is very, very political.

What are your plans now that you’re on the Steve Irwin?
I joined the Steve Irwin about a week ago, and right now we have four ships that are being mobilized to intercept the Japanese whaling fleet. It’s “Operation Zero Tolerance.” We’re calling it that because our objective is to make sure they don’t kill a single whale this year. We have the Steve Irwin and the Brigitte Bardot presently at sea, and the Bob Barker is getting refueled. Our new vessel, the Sam Simon, is at sea also. We get stronger every year and the Japanese whaling fleet gets weaker. Last year they only took 26 percent of the quota. The year before that, they took 17 percent. I’m hoping that it will be zero percent this year.

How are you planning to use those boats?
Usually the hardest part is finding the fleet. But we have four ships, a helicopter, and two drones—military style drones that can conduct long-range surveillance. Once we find them, the most effective way is to block the stern side of the Nisshin Maru so they can’t load dead whales and they can’t kill new ones. The second way is keep them running—to keep them occupied. So the harpoon vessels chase us to keep us away from the Nisshin Maru, which keeps them from killing whales. This year, they don’t have enough tools to keep us off the Nisshin Maru. So we're quite confident that we’ll be able to block them right from the get go.

Second Mate Peter Brown launches a drone from the Steve Irwin. Photo: Sea Shepherd

Can you tell me a bit about the drones?
Well, this year we received a $1 million donation, which was specified for drone operations. These are quarter million dollar pieces of machinery, and they have to be made weatherproof to operate in Antarctic conditions. They can go hundreds of miles away from the ship, can be operated on board our vessel, and their job is to detect the vessels and report back their positions.

They’re outfitted with video cameras?
Yes, we can actually see what they see.

How far can they fly?
About 300 miles.

So you spot a Japanese whaling ship and it’s going after a whale, what sort of steps will you take?
We don’t focus on the harpoon vessels, because they are fast, although the Brigitte Bardot is faster. The most effective way to stop them is to block the Nisshin Maru, the factory ship. If they can’t load those whales, that’s the end of their operations. Back in 2008, they attempted to load while we were blocking. They had attempted to do this while Greenpeace was blocking, and Greenpeace moved away. They figured we would do the same thing. That resulted in three collisions. They haven’t tried that again.

How much do you have to worry about human life when these two ships, in a very remote region, are in a situation where they could crash? Where something bad could happen? One of them could sink?
Well, they’re big ships and side-on-side on collisions aren’t that worrying, but we take every precaution to make sure that we aren’t injuring anybody. We haven’t ever injured anybody in our 35 years of operation. I’m quite proud of that record and I’d like to keep it. We operate in what the Dalai Lama calls the spirit of high aggrieve, which is aggressive non-violence. We’re not here to hurt anybody. We’re here to save lives, and sometimes we have to scare the hell out of people to do it.

Sea Shepherd said that you’ve prevented the death of 3,600 whales. Can you tell me how that number is calculated?
Every year japan has a quota. For example, it’s 935 minke whales, 50 humpback whales, and 50 fin whales. Last year, they only got 277 minke whales and then one fin whale—the year before that, 178 whales. So, when you deduct those numbers from their overall quotas, those are the number of whales that we’ve saved.

So you're simply subtracting the number they actually get from their quota?
Last year we caused some $25 million in losses. Overall, well over $100 million over the last eight years. That’s what our real focus is. Our objective is to sink the Japanese whaling fleet economically, and we’ve actually done that. We’re only surviving now because last year they stole—I say stole, it was allocated—from the tsunami relief fund. People around the world sent money to the tsunami relief fund. The last place they thought it would be going was to whaling. That’s resulted in quite a scandal in Japan as that information has been released. People are questioning why Japan is using money intended for the victims of the tsunami to support an industry that is not very popular and not profitable.

How far do you think they are from stopping whaling?
If it was left to the fact that they’re not making any money, it would have been stopped years ago. There’s a limit to how far that can go. If we can send them back without killing a single whale this year, that will be the final nail in the coffin of the whaling industry. That’s what I’m hoping for.

People in Japan are getting more and more concerned that so much money is going to support an industry that isn’t making a profit. They like to say that it’s scientific research, but everybody knows that it’s about selling whale meat. The other thing that people forget is that this is the Southern Ocean Whaling Sanctuary. You don’t kill whales in a sanctuary. We’re down here protecting the integrity of an internationally established sanctuary.

Are there certain things that you’ve seen to be able to say that people in Japan don’t want whaling in the future?
There’s been numerous articles over the last few months talking about how scandalous taking funds from the tsunami relief funds was. A poll that was done recently in Japan said that 27 percent of people support whaling, 18 percent of people are against whaling, and the rest don’t care. Japan tried to pass that off by saying that there are more people that support whaling than are against it, forgetting that the vast majority just didn’t care. I’m fine with support coming from the Japanese people. We have Japanese crew members. So there’s a controversy there. Five or six years ago, nobody even knew about this situation. It wasn’t being reported on in Japan. Now, there’s a discussion and a controversy, and that’s good.

You know, about 35 years ago, we were chasing whalers in Australia and they were a stubborn lot too. But in 1978 they packed it in and now Australia is one of the strongest places for protecting whales in the world. So I’m hoping that we can do the same thing with Japan.

Do you think you’ll see that in your lifetime?
Well, we’ve definitely seen a lot of successes to reduce the number of whales killed during my lifetime. I started protecting whales in 1975. That’s my occupation, to end whaling worldwide. This is an industry that has no place in the 21st century. We should start learning more about whales. You know, we spend billions of dollars searching through the universe looking for extraterrestrial intelligence when we could possibly be communicating with life forms on our own planet. I just find it ludicrous that we’re so dismissive of all of these other citizen species that share this planet this with us.

Steve Irwin. Photo: Sea Shepherd

Is there anything that I didn’t ask?
On the Interpol thing, what bugs me is that nobody gets extradited to Japan from the United States. You know, even if you’re a serial killer. So why would people be willing to send me back to Japan on a trespass charge. That certainly smacks of politics if I’ve ever heard of it.

And do you think they would if you ever returned to the U.S.?
Sources within the U.S. government have told me that the United States government would do that. Yes.

So what are you going to do after your time in the Southern Ocean is done?
Well, right now, I’m in the greatest country in the world, which is the ocean. I’m untouchable. I can sit here until we solve these political issues in some sort of legal manner.

—Joe Spring