Captain Paul Watson is founder and captain of the environmental organization Sea Shepherd.
He and his crew are committed to saving the world’s oceans with 14 ships worldwide. On the ships and in his private life, he relies on a plant-based diet.
Not only since the documentary Seaspiracy has it been on everyone’s lips: Sea Shepherd carries out actions in international waters against whalers, seal hunters and Japanese dolphin catchers and invokes, among other things, the United Nations World Charter for Nature. In its own view, it is taking over law enforcement on the high seas, which is not being carried out by the governments that are actually responsible.
In the media, Watson and his team are referred to as “modern pirates” or “eco-terrorists.” He has also had to see the inside of a German prison.
In the interview, he tells us how he sees the whole thing, what he is afraid of, why he predicted the current pandemic decades ago and what he would definitely like to achieve to protect the animals in the world’s oceans before he dies.
What made you decide to start the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society?
Paul Watson: I co-founded Greenpeace and worked with them from 1969 to 1977. I left the group because of disagreements over tactics. Greenpeace is essentially a protest organization, and I find protesting obsequious and unproductive. I wanted to intervene and stop illegal activities directly! So I founded Sea Shepherd as a marine anti-poaching organization.
If you had to describe Sea Shepherd’s work in one sentence, what would it be?
Paul Watson: Sea Shepherd is a global anti-poaching movement on the high seas.
How do you decide what to advocate for and what not to advocate for?
Paul Watson: Sea Shepherd cracks down on many illegal operations. Within territorial waters, we do this with various nations; currently we have partnerships with Mexico, Peru, and Ecuador in the Americas, and with Liberia, Benin, São Tomé, Namibia, Gabon, Ghana, and Tanzania in Africa. Outside national territorial waters, we operate in accordance with the UN World Charter for Nature. In some cases we are invited to assist, and outside the economic zones we investigate and search for illegal activities. Among other things, it depends on all these factors where we can operate.
In 2012, you were arrested in Germany. How did that happen and what do you think about it today?
Paul Watson: The German government has decided to support the efforts of Costa Rica and Japan to stop our interventions against the illegal finning (severing of the fin/dorsal fin) of sharks by Costa Rica and illegal whaling by Japan. When they decided that I would be extradited to Japan, I was released on bail in Frankfurt and left the country. The charges were political in nature, as evidenced by the fact that the Costa Ricans dropped the charges against me with a change of government in 2018. All of this has been part of an ongoing effort to uphold international conservation law. In the end, we won. Japan no longer kills whales in the Southern Ocean.
What role does the media play in your campaigns?
Paul Watson: The camera is the most powerful weapon ever invested in. We document everything. It is important to detect these illegal activities. We live in a media culture, so understanding how the media works is an important aspect.
Were there also dangerous moments during your work for Sea Shepherd?
Paul Watson: There were many dangerous situations, close contacts and dramatic confrontations. Hard to say which one was the most dangerous. I’m not really concerned about the dangers. We take precautions, but we believe the risks are acceptable.
Is there anything a Paul Watson is afraid of?
Paul Watson: I fear for the future from the decline of ocean biodiversity, the collapse of ecosystems, and the consequences of species decline and climate change.
What are the criteria for becoming part of your crew?
Paul Watson: To be part of our crew, a person has to be willing to take risks. We ask: Are you willing to risk your life to protect a whale? If you say “no,” we won’t take you. Critics say that is too much to ask, but society routinely asks young people to risk their lives and kill to defend real estate, oil wells, religion, and flags. I think risking your own life to protect an endangered species or habitat is a far nobler endeavor.
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You are known for your creative actions. What has been your most successful to date?
Paul Watson: I would say that the Whale Wars show on Animal Planet and Discovery was a very good idea. This allowed us to reach millions of people with our message in defense of whales. In Germany, by the way, you can watch it on DMAX.
You said at the beginning that you were active in Greenpeace before Sea Shepherd. What exactly bothers you about the organization?
Paul Watson: I have no problem with their volunteers. I think the Greenpeace volunteers are great. My problem is with the bureaucrats, especially those who deny my role as a co-founder of Greenpeace. It is unacceptable to rewrite history. Back in 1986, after we sank half of Iceland’s illegal whaling fleet, a reporter confronted me with a Greenpeace statement calling me a terrorist and asked me to respond. I replied, “What do you expect from the Avon ladies* of the environmental movement?” They never forgave me for that. We are happy to work with Greenpeace, but they have consistently refused.
* Denotes the doorstep sale of cosmetic products.
How do you see the current pandemic around the Covid 19 virus and its impact on the work of you and other animal welfare advocates?
Paul Watson: I have been predicting this pandemic for decades. Zoonotic transmission of viruses is a direct result of species extinction and habitat destruction. What we are experiencing now is the first wave of destructive consequences of climate change. Thawing permafrost also releases long-dormant pathogens. This Covid-19 is simply a harbinger of things to come. However, he inspires us to continue our work to prevent habitat reduction and destruction. I don’t see any negative impact on Sea Shepherd, it is part of the process that we have been fighting so not unexpected. Things will get worse if society continues to ignore the reality of climate change and biodiversity decline.
What actions can we expect from you in the near future?
Paul Watson: Sea Shepherd is now a global movement. It is not dependent on me, it is a movement of dozens of national units. An individual can be stopped, an organization can be dissolved, but a movement cannot be stopped! We now have 14 ships and hundreds of volunteers successfully tackling dozens of issues at once. Because Sea Shepherd is a global movement, it will continue to grow stronger, and in that regard, I believe this was my most significant accomplishment.
What would you like to say at the end of the interview?
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© Photos by Sea Shepherd Global/ Sea Shepherd Germany