Whale-War Fugitive: Q. & A. with Paul Watson
Fans of Animal Planet’s “Whale Wars,” a reality show that documents members of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society battling Japanese whalers every winter in the Southern Ocean, will have to wait several months longer than usual for the show’s new season to première. The airdate for “Whale Wars,” usually slated for June, has been pushed back, possibly to the fall, or even to 2014. In the past year, Sea Shepherd has become mired in litigation, diplomatic pressure, I.R.S. audits, and Interpol notices, and Animal Planet decided that, instead of placing its own crew on Sea Shepherd ships, it would stitch together episodes from footage that the activists shot of themselves. This may be a first for a reality show—certainly one this popular—but if Animal Planet is able to pull together a season that has integrity, the sixth installment of “Whale Wars” promises to be the show’s most entertaining and provocative. Nine ships went head-to-head in the Southern Ocean, and Sea Shepherd began its campaign against the Japanese fleet with a few surprises—among them the secret whereabouts of its founder, Paul Watson, who evaded house arrest in Germany, and joined the campaign as a fugitive. In January, I was able to speak with Watson via Skype. He was on one of the Sea Shepherd vessels, the Steve Irwin. Behind him, on a wall, there was a traditional garment from Fiji, an Iroquois flag, and a Templar sword. He was in good spirits. For the first time, Sea Shepherd was in position before the Japanese fleet, and Watson was confident that its growing navy could prevent the whaling vessels from killing even one whale.
Khatchadourian: Is this now your ninth campaign in the Southern Ocean against the Japanese whaling fleet?
Watson: I have actually led more expeditions to Antarctica than Scott, Amundsen, and Shackleton put together.
K.: And what have you learned?
W.: We become better every year at finding the Japanese fleet. The only effective tactic is to block their ability to load whales onto their factory ship, the Nisshin Maru, and so that is what we focus on. If we can block the stern slipway of the Nisshin Maru, that puts an end to the whaling operation. Then we just keep them running. If they are running, they are not killing whales. So we found a way to stop them, and we implement that. But this year things are a little different.
In December, 2011, the Institute of Cetacean Research, which runs the Japanese whaling operation, brought a lawsuit against us in a U.S. court, demanding an injunction to stop us from interfering with their operations. In March of last year, the trial judge denied that injunction, but then an appellate court reversed the decision. We were informed in a one-page document without any legal arguments. Just today, we asked for a reconsideration with legal arguments, and they responded with one word: denied. According to our lawyers, that is unprecedented, but that is the situation we are in: an injunction that prohibits us from going closer than five hundred yards to a whaling ship. It doesn’t prevent them from approaching us—and if they approach us we can be in violation.
So how do you intend to deal with that?
Well, the U.S. court has authority over Sea Shepherd U.S.A., and it has authority over me, as a U.S. citizen, but it doesn’t have authority over the ships. So Sea Shepherd U.S.A. withdrew completely from the campaign, and I resigned as the president of Sea Shepherd U.S.A., and I also resigned as the executive director. Two of the ships are Dutch owned, and Dutch flagged; two of the ships are Australian owned, and Australian flagged.
So is it hard for Paul Watson to be just an observer?
Not really, because this is our ninth campaign, and it is really set up so that everything—you know, the whole structure takes care of itself. I, myself, will not violate the injunction, so I will not approach within five hundred yards of a whaling vessel, but that doesn’t stop the ships from doing it. I’ll just have to remove myself to one of the ships, and stay away. So we are certainly going to comply, even though the injunction is unjust. Hopefully we will turn this around.
Why is all this happening now, do you think?
Because, in October, 2011, the Japanese diverted thirty million dollars from its tsunami-relief fund into to its whaling operation, including “countermeasure expenses” for the fleet, and—
Wait, how do you know that?
But the pressure has been ratcheting up for some time; Sea Shepherd has had problems maintaining its nonprofit tax status, too?
Yeah, that’s very interesting, because the I.R.S. is coming after us. We’ve already had two audits. A couple of years ago, WikiLeaks released a diplomatic cable showing that Monica Medina, the U.S. representative to the International Whaling Commission, was working out a deal with the Japanese government—they want Sea Shepherd shut down in the United States, and they wanted our tax status pulled. And it looked like Monica Medina was saying that she could do that. And I had to remind them that it is a crime in the United States—for the United States to use the I.R.S. as a weapon against a nonprofit organization at the request of a foreign government, and that’s what they’re doing. They backed off, but now the I.R.S. is coming after us again.
I’m just curious—what do you think of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange?
Well, I don’t think that any government has a right to subvert the truth, or to cover up the truth, and all I see WikiLeaks doing is exposing the truth.
And, like Julian Assange, you were also arrested and detained earlier this year, and you dealt with it in your own way.
In December, 2011, the President of Costa Rica met with the Prime Minister of Japan, and shortly thereafter I found myself charged with threatening to sink a Costa Rican long-liner. This goes back to 2002, and the whole incident was all taken care of years ago. It’s all documented in the film “Sharkwater.”
I remember. We were travelling together when that film came out, and a clip of the incident is online.
The whole thing was dismissed by a Costa Rican court in 2006. We have a lawyer in Costa Rica who said, “Well, this thing has exceeded the statute of limitations,” and they said, “We’re not going to entertain that. He can come here and then we can talk about dismissing the charges.” But they don’t want to charge me; they want me to come there so that they can extradite me to Japan—
On what basis?
What we believe happened is that Japan initially asked Interpol to issue a Red Notice on me, calling for my arrest, and that this was basically denied on political grounds. [An Interpol spokesperson, declining to confirm or deny this, said that only forty per cent of all Red Notices are made public.] Costa Rica also made a request, and that was denied. It didn’t comply with Interpol rules—apparently because it was politically motivated, too. But, in May of last year, I was on my way to the Cannes Film Festival, and, unfortunately for me, I took a Lufthansa flight through Frankfurt, and in Frankfurt they arrested me on the Costa Rican warrant—despite the fact that Interpol had dismissed it. Germany’s argument was they could take action on their own, without worrying about Interpol. So I was stuck there for two months, and while I was there Japan applied to Germany directly for permission to extradite me to Japan.
And were you in prison then, or house arrest, or what?
I was in prison for eight days and released on a two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand-euro bond. I had to report to the Frankfurt police every day. One Friday in July, I was advised by a contact in the Ministry of Justice that when I came in on the next Monday they would detain me and send me to Japan, not Costa Rica. Now, I know that when I get sent to Japan I’m not going to leave, so it was a no-brainer: I had to leave. So I made my way—even though they still had my passport—made my way, over four months, from Germany to the South Pacific to rejoin my ship, which wasn’t exactly easy.
How did you escape?
We brought a ship up from France to the Netherlands, and I drove up from Germany to the Netherlands, and went by sea.
You can do that without a passport?
Well, there are no border points between Germany and the Netherlands.
So you left Germany in July, and boarded a ship in the Netherlands. Does that mean you just disregarded the terms of your German house arrest, and were at sea while this extradition request was still active?
Basically, yeah. I am untouchable at sea. So it was a long, long way to go. I joined the Steve Irwin off of American Samoa in late November, 2012.
So, at this moment, what’s your view from the bow?
We’re in the Southern Ocean right now, just off of the ice shelf. I am here with two other vessels, the Brigitte Bardot and the Bob Barker. A fourth vessel, the Sam Simon, is about four days behind us, and came out of Hobart, Australia. So we’ll have four ships here when the Japanese fleet arrives.
The Sam Simon is a vessel that you just secretly purchased—a surprise that you announced just as the whaling season started.
It’s an interesting vessel because we bought it from the Japanese. It was moored right along the Japanese whaling fleet when we bought it, and not only did they sell it to us—not knowing that they were selling it to us—but they delivered it to Australia for us. So we kept it in its original white color, and “RESEARCH” is painted on the side, so it looks like one of their ships.
I read an interview with a Sea Shepherd staff member who said that the psychological element—I guess, as it always is with your campaigns—was important: using one of their own vessels against them.
Well, they are pretty upset about it, I think, because it is a culture where they don’t like to be humiliated, and I think we did that.
When my New Yorker piece about Sea Shepherd, “Neptune’s Navy,” was published, in 2007, the title seemed to be somewhat notional, but you’re slowly acquiring a genuine fleet.
It looks like a convoy out here right now.
Aside from the Sam Simon, your other ships this year are all painted with some kind of ocean camouflage. Is there a technical reason for this, or is to just make the ships look ferocious—more psychological warfare?
Well, the ships were painted black before, and the disadvantage of that is that when we started doing campaigns in the Mediterranean the ships got excessively hot. Black is great for Antarctica, but it doesn’t work for the Mediterranean. So we decided that we had to get a different color scheme. The color scheme that you see is camouflage called “razzle dazzle,” and it was quite common on warships in World War I. On the Steve Irwin, you’ll even see a big “77” on the bow, and that was put on there because we had to transit the Suez Canal a number of times, which meant we had to run along the Somali coast. With the camouflage and the big 77 we look like a naval vessel. Pirates did come out but they just backed away real fast. In fact, it was so good at impersonating a naval vessel that that we had a U.S. Black Hawk come and hail us as a Dutch warship.
And as far as technology goes, a few years ago, you told me about some new technology that you were bringing with you—a device called an LRAD, or an acoustic disabling device like it. Did you bring any new gadgets this time?
What is interesting about the LRADs is that the Japanese used LRADs against us, and then we were able to obtain a similar device, which we used just once. After using it, Japan shut down their LRADs—they never used them again. So it was sort of like a countermeasure that worked. Now what we have are military-style drones. We have three of them. We got a million-dollar donation specifically for drone technology, so we have the three drones aboard the ships, and with them we are capable of covering hundreds of miles. We’ll use those for reconnaissance for finding the whaling ships, and also for documentation. So what we have is four ships, a helicopter, and three drones, plus a hundred and twenty different volunteers from twenty-four different nations.
What is your ambition with all that firepower?
Last year, the Japanese fleet took only a fraction of their kill quota, and we cost them—according to them—twenty-one million dollars. The year before that, they took even less, so we have been hitting them pretty hard. This year, with our four ships, we feel confident we can strive for a zero quota. Our objective is to meet them before they arrive and start right at the beginning.
Why didn’t Animal Planet put its crew on your ships this year?
Japan has threatened the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet with lawsuits, making all sorts of demands on them. There are camera crews on all the vessels—not Animal Planet camera crews—and the footage they are taking will be made into “Whale Wars” season six. [A network spokesperson said, “Ultimately, it was a business decision to not send an Animal Planet production crew.”]
* * *
Not long after I spoke to Watson, the Sea Shepherd crew found and confronted the Japanese fleet, which was seeking to harvest a maximum of nine hundred and thirty-five minke whales, and fifty endangered fin whales. Predictably, there were controversial encounters. In February, Watson released footage of Japanese crewmen firing concussion grenades at the Sea Shepherd volunteers, and ramming a vessel. (“It’s a very intense situation,” he told an Australian paper from his vessel.) The I.C.R. released its own footage, along with press statements alleging that the Sea Shepherd crew had engaged in high-seas “illegal harassment and terrorism.” At the end of the season, Yoshimasa Hayashi, the Japanese Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister, announced that the fleet’s harvest—a hundred and three minke whales, and no fin whales—was a record low, due to “unforgiveable sabotage.” He promised that Japan would seek out “more support from other countries to conduct research whaling in a stable manner.” Translation: the whaling operation will be digging in its heels.
“The Japanese are carrying out their work—it’s public; it’s legal—and they are being attacked, and anybody who is being attacked has a right to protect their own interests,” Gavin Carter, a spokesman for the I.C.R., told me. He pointed out that, last summer, the International Whaling Commission had released a scientific estimate, based on years of study, that there were more than half a million minke whales in the Southern Ocean—a number, he said, that made the Japanese quota insignificant in terms of its over-all impact on the species. “So focussing on these numbers tends to obscure the fact that the minke population is in pretty good shape, and it can misinform the public by implying that the sabotage is having an important beneficial impact on the long-term populations of Antarctic minke whales.” (He dismissed a recent peer-reviewed study by Stanford researchers indicating that the health of the minke whale population is not assured, or that the I.U.C.N.’s current listing for the species is “Data Deficient”—a term indicating there is not enough information to judge its robustness—or that the International Whaling Commission’s own scientific estimate was paired with the disclaimer that it was unable to rule out a “real decline in minke whale abundance.”) Legal and diplomatic pressure, Carter suggested, was inevitable. “When you think about it, the harassment and sabotage has been escalating every year,” he said. “Ultimately, the Japanese were pushed and pushed and pushed.”
The conflict will surely continue to escalate as it moves back and forth between international waters and courts of varying jurisdiction. In February, the Ninth Circuit filed the legal opinion behind its ruling on the injunction. The judge who authored the decision compared Watson to a cartoon buccaneer with a “peg leg or an eye patch,” and he said, “When you ram ships; hurl glass containers of acid; drag metal-reinforced ropes in the water to damage propellers and rudders; launch smoke bombs and flares with hooks; and point high-powered lasers at other ships, you are, without a doubt, a pirate, no matter how high-minded you believe your purpose to be.” Australia has filed a lawsuit in The Hague challenging the legality of the Japanese whale hunt. And, earlier this year, Sea Shepherd filed criminal complaints in Oregon, over the destruction one of its ships during the 2010 campaign, and in the Netherlands, accusing the crew of the Nisshin Maru of “sea robbery,” for ramming one of its Dutch-flagged vessels in January.
Watson, meanwhile, still faces detention. Germany withdrew its arrest warrant, but Japan and Costa Rica resubmitted their paperwork to Interpol, which finally accepted them, prompting Watson to take refuge on the high seas. His whereabouts remain secret. When I interviewed him in January, I asked where he would go after the campaign ended and Sea Shepherd’s ships had returned to port. “Well, I can stay at sea,” he promised. “That’s not a problem.”
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