Fifty-nine-year-old Capt. Paul Watson has no plans to retire any time soon. Head of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, early leader of Greenpeace and current star of Animal Planet's Whale Wars, Watson spends about eight months per year at sea, primarily fighting illegal whalers, sealers, and shark and dolphin fishermen.
His full white head of hair and beard give him a pleasant seafaring look fit for a Disney flick. His history — including handcuffing himself to seal pelts and placing himself between harpoon sea vessels and sperm whale pods — tells a different kind of tale, one of a feisty and committed marine wildlife activist running an organization that's no stranger to controversy.
Just consider the past few months, during "Operation Waltzing Matilda," the sixth Sea Shepherd voyage to Antarctica to stop whale killings. In February, another one of Sea Shepherd's captains, Peter Bethune, was arrested for boarding an illegal whaling ship to conduct a citizen's arrest, after said ship rammed his, breaking it in two. One day prior to the Indy's interview with Watson, the BBC reported that Japan's whaling fleet had returned to port with about half the amount of whales as it had planned to bring in — directly blaming Watson and Bethune for their interference.
A day after our interview, the BBC reported that scientists had confirmed sale of Japanese whale meat in the United States and Korea. (Though commercial whaling was frozen by an international moratorium in 1986, Japan continues to fish for the endangered species, claiming "scientific research.") According to the scientists, the research proves that "illegal trade in protected species" — one of the very acts about which Watson regularly speaks out — continues to go on.
In advance of his appearance at Colorado College, the Indy spoke with Watson about the recent voyage, his clashes with Japan, and what we as individuals can do to help his organization's cause.
Indy: There's big news being reported right now about Japan's whaling fleet.
PW: Yes, we predicted that outcome and it happened, so it was good.
Indy: So it's been a good season overall for you, then?
PW: Yeah, we estimated that cost them about $132 million in losses. ... and I'm being very conservative on the price of a whale, a quarter-million a whale. It's probably more than that, because one whole bluefin tuna is worth $250,000.
Indy: One of the things I read about as a result of [Japan returning with 528 fewer whales than targeted] was that Japan's fleet leader has been quoted as saying that you say you "want to protect the ocean, but [you] don't care about leaking oil or leaving pieces of a broken ship [the Ady Gil] behind."
PW: Oh, that's ridiculous. You know what that is? They cut one of our ships in half, deliberately rammed our ship. And, yeah, the ship sunk. But the interesting thing about it is that Australian Maritime [Safety] Authority told us to not go back on the boat, but my crew went back on board, drained every single drop of oil. There was no oil spill. ...
The other thing that's interesting is that I don't know of any case in maritime history where a captain has deliberately rammed, or accidentally collided with another ship, and nobody questioned them. He hasn't been questioned by the authorities in New Zealand, Australia or Japan. So in other words, they're above the law.
Indy: Why do you think that is?
PW: Because Japan is twisting everybody's arms economically. The Ady Gil is a New Zealand-registered vessel, with a New Zealand captain, and New Zealand has done nothing. That's why Pete Bethune [captain of the Ady Gil] went on board to confront the captain who destroyed his ship. And now he's in jail, and they've charged him with all sorts of absurd things, including the sword control act of , which, by the way, was the act that Emperor Meiji used to destroy the Samurai tradition.
Indy: Can you talk about where Bethune's situation stands right now?
PW: Yeah, he's still incarcerated. And we're referring to him as a prisoner of war, by the very fact that if he was any civilian captain, he would've been. We got a letter from him, or a message through his lawyer about four days ago — and you know, Pete knew exactly what he was doing when he went on there, and the consequences, so he's not whining at all. In fact the opening of the letter was, "Oh, at least I haven't been jumped by some Sumo wrestler in the showers, so everything's fine."
Indy: He could see up to 15 years in jail.
PW: They always say that, but what they usually do with foreigners is convict them, give them a heavy sentence, and then they'll deport them.
Indy: How do you address people who feel what you're doing is excessive or militant?
PW: Well, we don't injure anybody. We haven't broken any laws. And we saved 528 whales this year, so personally I'm not concerned about the criticism. My clients are whales, not people. If anybody can find a whale that disagrees with those results, I'll take it to heart.
Indy: You've said in the past, "If the oceans die, then we all die." Can you explain?
PW: The fact is that right now, every single commercial fishery is in a state of collapse. I mean, Jacques Cousteau said just before he died that the oceans are dying in our time, and it's true.
If we diminish biodiversity in the oceans, we can cause an ecological collapse in the oceans, and if the oceans die then humanity dies, because we have an intimate connection with the sea. It sustains life on the planet. It's our life-support system. And people don't seem to realize that.
When you think about it, this is not Planet Earth, this is Planet Ocean. There just happen to be some earth pieces floating around on it.
Indy: The average American can't go out and do the work that you do. If you could suggest one thing each person could do to join the fight, what would it be?
PW: ... If there was one thing that I would say — if people really want to protect the oceans — it's stop eating fish. There's simply not enough fish in the oceans to continue to feed the ever-expanding number of people.