Interpol, Blue Rage, The Mafia & Non-Violence at Sea: Sea Shepherd's Paul Watson Talks With TreeHugger

paul watson sea shepherd photo© Eric Cheng/Sea Shepherd

photo: Eric Cheng / Sea Shepherd.

Last week when Sea Shepherd's Steve Irwin was docked over at the Chelsea Piers in New York City I had a chance to sit down with the ever compelling, ever verbose and ever polarizing Captain Paul Watson. We talked about the just-issued international arrest warrant place on him, what's going to happen with Operation Blue Rage in the Mediterranean, and the nuances of non-violence as it applies to defending sea creatures:TREEHUGGER: How do react to the arrest warrant put out against you by the Japanese government? How are they going to enforce that?
PAUL WATSON: I have no idea. This all took place out in the Southern Ocean, in international waters, or in the Australian Antarctic Territory, from a Dutch ship. Here's the thing, the captain of the Shonan Maru 2 deliberately ram and sunk a Sea Shepherd vessel, a $2 million vessel, almost killed six of us, and yet they put a warrant out for my arrest for obstructing them. Nobody has questioned that captain. I don't know of a single example in maritime history where such a thing has happened. It seems to be very one-sided. There seems to be one law for them and one law for us.

They're putting out this arrest warrant, accusing me of obstructing their hunt, but we've done that for six years. So why now? Because we've cost them more money than ever before. They're trying to prevent us from returning next year. I think they think that if they put this arrest warrant out I won't be able to travel, I won't be able to take the ship down.

TH: You publicize where you are, so why aren't there people busting down the doors right now, if this is actually going to be enforced?
PW: Interpol does not act on politically motivated warrants, so I'm not too concerned about that. An American citizen is not going to be extradited to Japan for saving whales. And Australia's not going to do it either.

WATCH VIDEO: Paul Watson's Vision
TH: What's next, in moving to the Mediterranean with Operation Blue Rage?
PW: The ship leaves tomorrow to cross to the Mediterranean. From May 15th to the end of June we'll be doing a campaign to protect bluefin tuna. This year, for the first time, at the meeting of the International Convention for Trade in Endangered Species, they refused to list any marine species. That was under pressure from Japan and China. That's never happened before. So five species of sharks, two species of coral, the polar bear and bluefin tuna were not listed when they should've been listed.

In other words, science has been thrown out as a criteria and has been replaced by economics, culture and politics. It's pretty much negated CITES as being relevant in the future. The porbeagle shark was on the list and they actually took it off the list. Bluefin tuna will be extinct in five years at this rate of exploitation. There are more Bengal tigers in the world than great white sharks but you don't see the great white shark on the list.

It's a very serious situation, because this is the Planet Ocean not the Planet Earth. The species that we're destroying in the ocean we seem to be alienated from and acting like it doesn't really matter. The problem is, the destruction of biodiversity in our world's oceans, the diminishment of life in the oceans, means that if the oceans die then we die. I don't think people get that message.

TH: In practical terms, what's the Mediterranean operation going to be doing?
PW: It's going to be a tough one. Because the poaching of bluefin tuna is pretty much in the hands of the Mafia operating out of Sicily, Corsica, Malta and Libya. We don't expect them to be anything less than bad boys out there.

The quota is 15,000 tons, like last year, and the actual take was 60,000 tons. And yet no penalties are being invoked at all. That would never be tolerated on any species on land. Bluefin tuna is sort of like the cheetah of the ocean. It's the fastest fish. It's a warm-blooded fish. But it's got a $100,000 price tag on its head.

What's happening here is what I call the politics and economics of extinction. There's money to be made by driving a species extinct. Mitsubishi has built big refrigerated warehouses and they're stuffing those things full of bluefin tuna. The more dead bluefin tuna they stick in a warehouse, the fewer there are in the wild. And the fewer there are in the wild, the greater the price of the ones in the warehouse. If they can drive the species to extinction and the only bluefin left are the ones in Mitsubishi's warehouses you're looking at a one million dollar fish and profits in the billions. So, they are actually investing in the extinction of a species.

TH: So often in Japan the reaction to both whaling and bluefin tuna, is that 'this is part of our cultural history'. What sense does it have to run a species into extinction, if a species really is such a part of your cultural history. Why do you do that?
PW: Because we don't look forward. We're not very visionary; people don't want to look into the future. I call it an adaptation to diminishment. As things become diminished we just adapt to those diminished conditions.

Just look right here, on the eastern seaboard of the United States. There used to be beluga whales in Long Island Sound. There used to be polar bears, called the white bears of Vermont and New Hampshire. Extinct within the past couple hundred years on this coast: The eastern bison, the Carolina parakeet, the passenger pigeon, the Labrador duck, the Newfoundland wolf, the sea mink, the giant auk. I could go on... the Atlantic grey whale. All of them have gone extinct and we have forgotten they were ever here. There used to be walrus in Maine, walrus on the coast of Nova Scotia. There used to be 45 million seals on the east coast of Canada, and there are now less than six million, and we blame the seals for the diminishment of the fish. It wasn't the seals that are destroying the fish. Domestic house cats kill more fish than all the world's seals put together. The pig has now become a bigger aquatic predator than the shark. Chickens are now eating more fish than albatross and puffins, because we're feeding the fish to them in factory farms.

TH: What is the Japanese reaction then? Is the cultural argument bogus? Is it just a manipulated situation?
PW: I don't think they face up to it. I was talking one time with one of the Japanese whaling commissioners and he said, "It's really not my problem." I said, "What about your children, your grandchildren?" He said, "It's their world; they'll have to deal with it." That was their attitude. I've talked to people in China about shark finning. Their attitude was 'we'll have to adapt to it' but right now this is part of what we're doing.

Recently I was talking to a reporter from the Asahi Shimbun and saying this is sort of like Easter Island. They cut down the last tree for the purpose of moving those silly little stone heads around. But it was part of their culture. If you go to Easter Island now, lots of stone heads and no people. They drove themselves to extinction. So what are you going to have? A Japan with lots of sushi bars and no people?

WATCH VIDEO: Whale Wars - Sea Shepherd Won't Back Down
TH: One thing that keeps coming up in TreeHugger comments is people asking about what happens when somebody gets hurt from the whalers, what price is placed on human life?
PW: I find it very interesting that everyone focuses on what happens if the outlaw gets hurt. Nobody asks what happens if one of us gets hurt. They are trying to kill us. And the only people who have been hurt out there have been us.

It's almost like if you're defending the planet, getting hurt is OK. Dian Fossey has been murdered. Joy Adamson has been murdered. George Adamson has been murdered. These people are murdered and the reaction is 'shouldn't have been there.' Everyone seems to not be sympathetic to the people trying to solve the problem; they are sympathetic to the people who are destroying the planet. I find it absolutely amazing.

We go to extreme lengths to ensure no one is injured. After 33 years I think we've proven we're pretty good at not hurting anybody. That's not our objective. We operate under two guidelines: Don't hurt anybody and stay within the boundaries of the law. Outside of that, I'm not really concerned about any criticism. Our clients are whales, sharks, and whoever else we've represented.

When people talk about the whalers getting hurt, what about the whales? These are highly sentient, socially-complex creatures that are being murdered. And, oh, they get upset when you use the word murder! But to me they are being murdered. It's just like Avatar. You go to another planet and wipe out an intelligent life form. We're going into the ocean and wiping out an intelligent life form. They can call it whatever they like, but to me it's murder.

We get criticized because people say we're inexperience and non-professional, but three people have died in the Japanese whaling operations and they're so-called professionals. We haven't had any serious injuries and certainly haven't lost anybody. Why do I have non-professionals? Because you can't pay people to do the things that my volunteers do. That kind of passion can't be bought.

I ask people if they are ready to die for a whale, and if they say no, I don't want them. People ask, 'isn't that awfully unreasonable, asking people to die for a whale.' But we live a world where we ask that of people all the time. Are you ready to die for an oil well in Iraq? Are you ready to die to defend real estate for the wealthy? And people say, great! We'll pin a medal on you and call you a hero.

I think it's a far more noble endeavor to risk your life to protect and endangered species or a threatened habitat than some oil well in Iraq. It all comes down to what our priorities and values are.

Even if you are committed to acting on the principle of non-violence, defense is acceptable. What you seem, to me, to be doing here is simply defending something that can't defend itself. But in this case we have this anthropocentric view of the world...
PW: ...Here's an example: In 1986 we sank half of Iceland's whaling fleet, we destroyed their whale processing plant. I was running for parliament as a member of the Green Party in Canada at the time. They were going to kick me out of the Party because I was violent. I said it wasn't violent, it didn't hurt anybody. But they said destruction of property was violent. I can cite a number of authorities, one of them Martin Luther King, who said you cannot commit an act of violence against a non-sentient object.

Then I said, let's take a look at the Green Party's policy on abortion. You're pro-choice. I'm pro-choice too. That's fine, but you can't say destroying a whaling ship is violent and destroying a fetus is non-violent. In other words, you're justifying your position... by saying it's a woman's choice. But in fact, it is violence, you've just been justifying it.

Another example: A ranger in Zimbabwe shot a poacher who was about to kill a black rhinoceros. Human rights groups said, 'how dare you take a human life to protect an animal.' I don't really understand the contradiction. If a man ran out of Barclays bank with a bag of money, and I shot him in the head, you'd call me a hero. How can you tell me protecting the heritage of the nation of Zimbabwe is worth less than a bag of paper? Again, it's how you look at it.

Another authority on non-violence is Mahatma Gandhi, who said if it was a choice between cowardice and violence, I'd choose violence because I can't abide cowardice. But he said, "I'm not a pacifist; I've never been a passive anything, but non-violence in this case is politically expedient." He would have never deployed those strategies against the Germans or the Russians. A German Gandhi would have just been shot by the Nazis. But Gandhi's genius was in recognizing the weakness of the British: Their sense of self-righteousness.

In 1985 we were given a little statue from a Tibetan Buddhist monk. He came by the ship in Seattle and gave me this little statue, saying 'I was asked to give this to you.' We still have it on the bridge of the ship. I didn't know what it was, but it was up there. In 1989 I found out the Dalai Lama sent it to us. I met with him and asked him what it meant. It's a symbol for Hayagriva. I said to him, "Well, what does that mean?" He said it's representative of the compassionate aspect of Buddha's wrath; you never want to injure anybody or hurt anybody, but when they cannot see enlightenment you scare the hell out of them until they do. He understood our approach: We intimidate but we don't hurt. That's why our ships are black, we have the jolly-roger and all that. On all of our campaigns we have made it a point of not injuring anybody.

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More on Sea Shepherd:
Sea Shepherd Begins Operation Blue Rage - Sails to Protect Endangered Bluefin Tuna in MediterraneanJapan Kills Sea Shepherd Anti-Whaling Ship. For Scientific Research?Sea Shepherd Harassment Cuts Japanese Whale Catch in Half

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