The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is at work all over the world, but you'll know Paul Watson best for patrolling Arctic waters intercepting whaling convoys. Whale Wars, now in its second season on Animal Planet, follows Watson and his feisty crew aboard the Steve Irwin as they ram boats, hurl stink bombs, and try to otherwise spoil the whale hunt. In the process, Watson claims he has been shot and his crew pummeled with fire hoses, golf balls, and high-tech sound cannons. All the while the debate rages over whether this is terrorism, piracy, or heroism.
In our interview, Watson gives details of these daring encounters and drops some details of the coming season when his fleet will add the Earthrace, a record-breaking eco-speedboat, to directly intercept Japanese harpoon boats. Love him or hate him, Watson claims to be closing in on victory: "Our objective is to sink the Japanese whaling fleet economically, and I think we're achieving that. One more season, maybe two, and we'll put them out of business."
Music from K'naan (Full text after the jump)TreeHugger: Paul, every time we do a post about you or your group on TreeHugger, it unleashes this flood of passionate comments; some very supportive, some very not so. Tell me what you do out there at sea that people get so emotional about.
Paul Watson: Well, we're really not too concerned about what people think about us because our clients happen to be whales and sharks and sea turtles and fish. So you know, we do what we do, and people either like it, or they don't like it. They either like it passionately or they dislike us intensely. What we do out there is simply go out and intervene against illegal activities. We aren't a protest group. What we are is an interventionist group. And we've never hurt anybody, but we're quite aggressive.
TreeHugger: Whale Wars focuses on your efforts in the Antarctic region dealing with Japanese whaling fleets. Where does whaling stand now? Is it legal to hunt whales, illegal, a gray area?
Watson: All commercial whaling was ruled illegal in 1986 by the International Whaling Commission. So commercial whaling is illegal. What Japan is doing though is they're targeting endangered whales in an established international whale sanctuary in violation of that commercial moratorium. And they're in violation of the Antarctic Treaty, the convention of the International Trade of Endangered Species, and they're also in contempt of the Australian Federal Court, which ruled they couldn't take whales in the Australian Antarctic Territory.
So what they are doing is blatantly illegal. All we are doing is intervening to uphold the international law because governments don't have the economic or political will to do that.
TreeHugger: And people eat whales? What are they for?
Watson: The Japanese say that they kill whales for scientific research, but nobody buys that argument. In fact, last month, New Scientist magazine rejected their science, saying that it had no validity. It's all a commercial meat market—it's all for sushi restaurants in Japan. A very small percentage of Japanese people eat it, but that's enough to have a market. It brings in, if they're successful, about $250-300 million a year. And we've managed to negate those profits for the last three years.
TreeHugger: That's your overall hope, to so deeply cut into the profits of the whaling industry that it just won't be worth it to hunt?
Watson: Our objective is purely an economic one. We speak the language that they understand: profit and loss. And we've succeeded in making sure they don't make a profit. Our objective is to sink the Japanese whaling fleet economically, and I think we're achieving that. One more season, maybe two, and we'll put them out of business.
TreeHugger: How are the whales killed?
Watson: Whales don't really have a chance. These are highly mechanized industrial fleets. They go out there, they locate the whales with sonar, they outrun them with their fast harpoon boats, and they drive explosive harpoons into their backs. This last season on Whale Wars we saw one whale that was harpooned, and stayed with it until it died. It was 25 minutes that it was thrashing about after it was harpooned, after they fired high-powered rifles into its body.
It's an extremely cruel enterprise. If this was a land animal it would not be accepted. This kind of stuff wouldn't be accepted in any slaughterhouse in the world. And this is one of the most social, highly intelligent, and sensitive creatures on the planet, and we are allowing this kind of massacre to take place every year.
TreeHugger: Whale Wars has exposed millions of people to this sort of practice. When you're out there on the water with your crew, what are your main tactics? What's your arsenal for stopping the ships?
Watson: What we have to do is intervene, and come up with ideas that are imaginative, sometimes humorous, and effective. But most importantly, that don't injure anybody. In 33 years of operations I've never injured a single person.
So we hit them with stink bombs, which are mainly rotten butter, and other sorts of obstructionist things. But mainly what we do is we block their loading procedures. We get behind the slipway and prevent them from whaling, and that is when all of the collisions take place.
But this next year we will have a fast patrol boat, the Earth Race, which does 50 knots. We'll be able to directly intervene against the harpoon vessels which we, up until now, have not been able to catch because they are so much faster than the Steve Irwin.
Our new vessel, the Earth Race, just set the world record for going around the globe in 60 days—it's a science fiction looking vessel, it's really a trimaran, 78 feet long, and it does 50 knots. It also has a range of 12,000 miles. So we will be able to take that down with us, independent of the Steve Irwin, and so we can go off and chase harpoon vessels as we concentrate on stopping the factory vessel.
TreeHugger: When you actually come into contact, boat to boat, what is meant to be achieved there?
Watson: What we are trying to do is prevent them from transferring their whales into the slipway and up the processing deck of the Nisshin Maru. If we can prevent that, then we can shut down their entire operation by making it impossible for them to kill whales. That's really what our objective is, to stay right there on the stern of the Nisshin Maru and prevent the harpoon vessels from transferring dead whales.
TreeHugger: And the slipway, this is this area where they pull the whales up onto the deck of the ship?
TreeHugger: Obviously, they're not big fans of what you guys do out there. What kind of retaliation have you seen?
Watson: Last year they retaliated with water cannons and they shot at us. I was struck, and fortunately was wearing a Kevlar vest, and the bullet was pretty much spent by the time it hit me. There were four shots fired that we recorded.
They also hit us with flashbang grenades and this year they escalated with long-range acoustical devices. These are sound weapons meant to cause nausea, headaches, and disorientation. And they also were throwing nuts and bolts and golf balls at us, and they have more powerful water cannons. They spent eight million dollars on defensive and offensive measures this year to try and stop us.
TreeHugger: Clearly there may be more than economics in question here. Is this a pride issue? Is it sort of a national identity thing, to be able to continue to hunt and eat whales?
Watson: That is part of it, but they're still illegal. The Japanese say that it's a tradition. But it isn't. Commercial whaling was introduced to Japan in 1946 by General Douglas MacArthur. It was an American imposition. So it's hardly traditional. But they're saying that if we stop them from whaling, the we'll stop them from taking bluefin tuna. They think it's a foot in the door to stopping their entire fishing operation. So they feel that they have to defend this in order to prevent us from going after their other operations.
The fact is that the oceans are dying, and those countries like Spain and Japan and China that are destroying life in the oceans are contributing to the demise of the oceans. And really this is something that all people should be involved in. I know it's abstract, but the fact is that if the oceans die, then we all die, and civilization ceases to exist.
I don't think people really have connected the dots there, but a little bit of thought into it and they'll realize that we've wiped out 90 percent of the commercial fisheries on this planet right now. We're killing about 70 to 90 million sharks every year, we're wiping out the fisheries, we're wiping out whales, we're wiping out seals. This kind of destruction is going to lead to very serious consequences for human beings.