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Whaling on Whalers

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's Paul Watson talks about taking a bullet from the Japanese, why Greenpeace activists are the "Avon ladies of the environmental movement," and Whale Wars, his new series on Animal Planet.

| Fri Nov. 7, 2008 3:00 AM EST

Mother Jones: With the ocean's fish populations collapsing, some scientists predict that the oceans are doomed to go to the jellyfish. Can whales be saved?

Paul Watson: We certainly can't give up hope. Every single commercial fishery is in a state of collapse right now. And there doesn't seem to be any letting up on the exploitation. But we can continue to do what we do and hope that people come to their senses.

MJ: So you don't feel the situation is irreversible.

PW: If I thought that, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing.

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MJ: Are you willing to sacrifice your life to save a single whale?

PW: We do that all the time. The one thing we won't do is injure anybody or take their life. Despite that, we're still called terrorists. But we aren't even a protest organization. We're intervening against illegal activities. Sea Shepherd opposes illegal activities exclusively: illegal whaling, illegal fishing, shark poaching. And that's one of the reasons why in 30 years we've never been convicted of a felony. We've never been sued, because the people we oppose are criminals.

MJ: What do you say to people who argue the battle to save the whales should be fought in the courts, in officialdom?

PW: Diplomacy and the courts have failed for the last 30 years. That's one of the reasons Horst Kleinschmidt, the former chair of the International Whaling Commission, is now on our advisory board, because the IWC is not going to save the whales. They've failed miserably. He resigned from the International Whaling Commission because of that. We're empowered under the UN World Charter for Nature, which allows nongovernmental organizations to intervene. And I think we've made more progress than any of these governments. This year, Japan only got half the quota. Last year, they only got half the quota. And we're going to beat them by speaking the language they understand: economics. They are losing so much money. If they have one more season like the last one, they are going to be in serious financial difficulty. That's one of the reasons they are getting very desperate with us now. But I'm hoping this will be our last season out there.

MJ: So you feel the decline in their catch is directly related to the actions of the Sea Shepherd Society.

PW: We know that it is. And they also acknowledge that themselves. They say the reason they couldn't get their quota was because of us.

MJ: You've shot spoiled pie filling from a cannon, rammed ships, and dropped prop foulers. What is the most outrageous tactic you've used against a whaling or fishing ship?

PW: We try to come up with tactics that are, first of all, not going to hurt anybody. We also try to make them humorous. This year we used rotten butter, which is basically a stink bomb, and methocellulose, which makes everything slippery. We call this sort of a nontoxic, biodegradable, organic form of chemical warfare.

MJ: When you say you try to make the tactics funny, is that to catch the public imagination?

PW: The opposition is always trying to paint us as criminals and terrorists. So we feel [humor] offsets that somewhat. I remember when the Faeroese police attacked us and were shooting at us with live ammo and we responded and hit them with chocolate and cream pie. It was really funny because the police charged us with attempted murder, and when it got into the Danish newspapers that we hit them with chocolate and cream pie, those charges were dropped pretty fast.

MJ: You say you stop short of hurting anybody, and yet you claim to have sunk 10 whaling ships since 1979?

PW: We don't sink any ship at sea. These would be ships dockside with nobody on them. And the vessels are searched thoroughly before that happens. For instance, in 1986, we sank half the Icelandic whaling fleet, but there were three boats there and we only sank two because there was a watchman sleeping on the third one.

MJ: Is it true that during the filming of Whale Wars you were shot by someone on a Japanese whaling ship?

PW: They did fire shots. And they actually informed the Australian government that they had fired shots. Until they heard that I was hit. Then they called the Australian government and said that wasn't true, in fact they didn't fire any shots. But the cameras, the audio equipment picked up the sound of the shots and the bullet was lodged in my Kevlar vest. Then of course the Japanese said we'd fabricated the whole thing. I'd shot myself or it was done before. But I was doing an interview with the Animal Planet people just prior to that confrontation where you can plainly see there is no bullet hole there. And in the middle of the conversation suddenly there is a bullet hole there. So, how that happened without them actually shooting me, they can't really explain. In fact, I'd cautioned all of my crew to not swear because they were on camera. And as soon as I saw the bullet, I said, "Oh, fuck." I remember thinking, "Oh god, I'm not supposed to say that."

MJ: Will you pursue charges?

PW: When we got back to Australia, the Australian federal police didn't even want to question us about it. We operate in an area where there really is no law, in international waters. In fact, I guess we are the law. There are international laws, but nobody is enforcing them. That's what we're trying to do. So there was really no jurisdiction for anybody to do anything. They could shoot us. They could probably have killed one of us and we still wouldn't have had anywhere to go.

MJ: You say you act under the authority of the UN World Charter for Nature, which states that private citizens may help "safeguard and conserve nature in areas beyond national jurisdiction." But some people say you're interpreting it incorrectly, that it doesn't allow for some of what you do, such as ramming ships at sea.

PW: I've actually used this defense in a court of law. In 1993, I chased Cuban and Spanish drag trawlers off the grand banks off of Newfoundland. And it cost them $35 million in losses. We didn't hurt anybody, didn't damage any property even. But they ran and we chased them and Canada charged me with three counts of criminal mischief. Mischief or conspiracy is usually what they charge you with when they haven't got anything else, but they want to come after you politically. I was facing two times life plus 10 years for criminal mischief—they said endangering life carries a life penalty. It was serious, but my defense was the UN World Charter for Nature. In fact, [during the trial] my lawyer got up and said, "Ladies and gentleman, we're not going to say we didn't do what we are charged with. We're going to say we did everything we're charged with. We're proud to have done it, and we intend to do it again."

Now during trial, Canada produced a law professor from Toronto who argued that the World Charter for Nature had no application in Canadian law. And the judge said, "But did Canada sign this?" And she said, "Yes, yes, but Canada signs a lot of international agreements." And so the judge said, "Well, if Canada signed it, then I'm going to advise the jury to take it into consideration." So I was acquitted under what is called color of rights. They thought that I acted in a lawful manner. That set a good precedent for utilizing the World Charter as a defense.

MJ: You once threatened to sink your own ship to block a Canadian seal hunt. Is part of your effectiveness the public knowledge that there's nothing you won't do?

PW: I think we have demonstrated that we're committed to what we're doing, that is, upholding international laws. And I think we've also demonstrated that we have an unblemished record of not injuring anybody. But it is a war. It's a war, I think, to save the planet, really, from ourselves. And you can't be too concerned about what people say or if you're criticized or anything like that.

MJ: In fact, it seems that you relish going head-to-head with this sort of activity.

PW: The best way to explain it is that we represent our clients. And our clients are whales and turtles and sharks and fish and seabirds. For instance, we sunk half of Iceland's whaling fleet in 1986, something I was never charged for, by the way, even though I made myself available. Iceland realized that to put me on trial would be to put themselves on trial. I had a former colleague from Greenpeace come up to me after that, and he said, "I just want to let you know that what you did in Iceland is despicable, reprehensible, criminal, and unforgivable." [Chuckles.] And I said, "Look, John, we didn't sink those whaling ships for you or Greenpeace or anybody else. We sunk them for the whales. You find me one whale that disagrees with what we did, and I promise we'll take it into consideration."

MJ: What is your relationship like with Greenpeace, an organization you cofounded?

PW: Greenpeace hates us with a passion. [Laughs.] Every year I appeal to them to work together on this. But every year they reject me. For some reason, they have it in their minds that we are a violent organization, though we've never injured anybody. I was once doing a talk show in Vancouver when somebody called in a bomb threat to protest my violent methods, which I thought was a little bizarre. But we had to evacuate the building. And then a reporter said, "Greenpeace has condemned you as an ecoterrorist. What's your response?" I wanted to laugh it off, so I said, "What do you expect from the Avon ladies of the environmental movement anyway?" And they've never forgiven me for that. But what I was referring to was them knocking on doors and asking for money all the time.

MJ: You don't feel that they go far enough to protect the whales?

PW: They have this thing called "bearing witness." That's their approach. And I said, "You don't walk down the street and see a kitten being stomped and do nothing, or see a woman being attacked and do nothing, or see a child being molested and do nothing. And you don't sit there in a boat taking pictures of whales dying and do nothing." Bearing witness, to me, is just another way of saying they're cowards.

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