Controversial as ever, Paul Watson confronts whalers on the high seas
Canada's 'Earth warrior'
Controversial as ever, Paul Watson confronts whalers on the high seas
Paul Franklin Watson seems an unlikely crusader. Grey-haired, plump, and closing in on middle age, the self-styled “Earth warrior,” was taking a break from a speaking tour in a posh Detroit-area hotel recently, cruising a plastic-covered menu in search of a vegetarian meal. He settled for seafood pasta—“hold the shrimp”—and returned to his favorite topic, battle plans for saving marine life. The founder of the radical environmental group, the California-based Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Watson spoke of his
group’s plans to confront Norwegian whalers this month on the high seas. As he reeled off his objections to overfishing, his delivery was marked by the practised smoothness that comes with years of professional speaking.
There was one topic, however, on which he lost his equanimity. As he spoke of other environmentalists who have criticized his tactics, anger edged his voice. ‘They can call me all the names they want,” he said. “I don’t care. They give it up and give it up and give it up and then call it a victory when half a valley is saved. The envi-
ronmental movement is one of compromise.” In Canada, compromise is often cited as a national virtue, but to Toronto-born Watson, the word is anathema. This month, he provoked one of the most violent clashes between an environmental group and a government in recent years by disrupting the whale hunt off Norway’s northern coast. Despite an international moratorium on commercial whaling, Norway plans to take 189 minke whales this year for commercial purposes— whale meat sells for about $470 per kilo in Japan. As the Sea Shepherd’s 187-foot Whales
Forever sailed toward the whalers, it was intercepted by a Norwegian coast guard vessel, which fired two shots. Neither landed on Whales Forever, but its bow was later badly damaged in a collision between the two: both sides claim the other was responsible. In any case, Watson claimed victory. “We have focused international attention on their activities and cost them money,” he said last week from Germany. “That was our objective.” Watson also has Canada in his plans. Later this summer, he will take on foreign fishing trawlers off the Atlantic coast. Watson says he may fire volleys of banana-cream-pie filling from water cannons to discourage boarding of his ship by officials. He has also purchased a two-person mini-submarine, formerly owned by the Norwegian navy. It will give him what he calls the “tactical advantage” of stealth—and he may need it. Canadian officials charged Watson with criminal mischief last July after another Sea Shepherd vessel interfered with a Cuban trawler fishing off Newfoundland. Watson says the trawler was fishing illegally and that he was acting within U.N. guidelines, which call on individuals and countries to help prevent overfishing in international waters. Watson, 43, will likely be tried next year and could receive a life sentence. His past convictions have been overturned on appeal. He is also appealing a fourmonth jail sentence imposed in absentia by a Norwegian court last month for the 1992 sinking of a Norwegian whaler.
Watson’s confrontational strategies have sometimes worked: he helped galvanize public support in the 1980s for a dramatic reduction in the seal hunt and for a ban on whaling that has been observed by most nations. But many environmentalists express mixed feelings about Watson—praising his motives even as they distance themselves from his methods. They are most critical of his strategy of damaging ships—Watson claims he has sunk nine vessels—and his strong support of tree spiking, which some environmentalists say could injure forestry workers whose saws strike the metal spikes embedded in trees. Watson responds that tree spiking does not cause injury because of the safety measures taken by the forestry industry. It is the added cost of those measures, he says, that discourages logging.
Certainly, no one has died or been seriously injured because of Watson’s activities. But his critics are wary of the damage Watson could ultimately do to his own cause. Says Monte Hummel, president of the World Wildlife Fund of Canada: “It would be disastrous for the environmental movement if someone were killed or injured.” Watson, himself, says that he is committed to avoiding bodily injury. “People,” he adds, “think nothing of killing hundreds of thousands of people in wars over real estate. Yet, we are considered deranged for trying to protect endan-
gered species. It’s a confusion of values.” Hummel empathizes with Watson’s intentions. “He has run out of patience with a lot of people, and there are days when I think he is absolutely right,” Hummel says. But Watson’s tactics, he says, besides being risky, can be counterproductive. Sea Shepherd’s 1986 attack on the Icelandic whaling fleet—two ships were destroyed when their valves were opened and their engine rooms flooded—only caused the resource-dependent country to redouble its international lobbying efforts in support of whaling. And sometimes, Hummel notes, direct action is an empty gesture. The slaughter of harp seal pups in Newfoundland, for instance, was not stopped by bloody showdowns on the ice floes, he maintains, but by a carefully managed economic boycott in Europe. “Do you want progress, or credit for progress?” Hummel asks. “I’d rather have progress.” Joe Foy, a director of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee in Vancouver, calls Watson “very likable.” But, adds Foy, “he is isolated. He follows his own path, and that does not often make for alliances.” Indeed, Watson often seems like a modernday Don Quixote, determined at all costs to do it his way. He makes no apologies for his hard-line stance. “The average human being couldn’t give a damn about the Earth and the other 35 million species that inhabit it with us,” Watson says. And he shrugs off criticisms. “We are here to piss people off,” he says, “not to win a popularity contest.”
Watson often points to his childhood as the source of his ferocious loyalty to wild animals. After moving from Toronto to Saint Andrews, N.B., when he was 6, Watson spent his summers at the nearby family cottage. One year, he befriended a local beaver, who, he says, “probably had more personality” than most of his playmates. By the next season, trappers had killed all the beavers. Infuriated, the nine-year-old boy enlisted his brothers and sisters to destroy the trap lines.
He speaks less frequently of a painful family life. His father could be a strict disciplinarian, says Watson, who has five younger brothers and sisters. And when he was 12, his mother died giving birth to a seventh child. One day, when he was 15, he and his father had a fight: the next day he left home for good.
At 17, Watson landed a job crewing on a
Norwegian freighter, and later rose to the level of able-bodied seaman. Bouncing around Asia, Africa and Europe helped build his self-image as a romantic adventurer. “What could be better than reading Conrad’s Typhoon in the middle of a typhoon in the South China Sea?” he says. He took communications courses at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., between 1968 and 1974, but left before completing a degree. During that period, he was among the first to participate in Greenpeace campaigns.
In 1977, however, Watson had a falling out with Greenpeace over their new policy of avoiding destruction of property. But even his departure from that organization was marked by anger—and empathy. Robert Hunter, then a past-president of Greenpeace Canada and now an environmental reporter for Toronto’s CITY-TV, challenged him to a fight. “He let me wear myself out without landing a blow,” Hunter recalls. Hunter describes how they made up the next day. ‘We went to the pub and he was sitting there alone,” says Hunter. “So I went over. Just because he’s not good for Greenpeace, doesn’t mean he’s not one of the great eco-warriors of our time.”
Although Sea Shepherd, now based in Marina del Rey, Calif., is run by committee, Watson is unquestionably the guiding mind behind the organization. The group is small—its 25,000 members pale when compared to Greenpeace’s 4.5 million. Its yearly budget is just under $1 million. The only paid employee is an administrator who keeps the books. And members pay no set fee to join: the group relies on unsolicited contributions.
Watson himself made about $35,000 last year from his lectures and a part-time position teaching the history of environmental activism at the Pasadena College of Art in California. He is engaged to American Lisa Distefano, who says that she was fascinated with him ever since she first heard about Watson when she was 11. She joined Sea Shepherd in 1988. Now 30, Distefano heads Orcaforce, Sea Shepherd’s arm for clandestine information-gathering and operations against ships in harbor. Watson also periodically sells the option to film his life story, reselling it each time the option expires. The most recent buyer was Wes Craven Films, which paid more than $35,000 to hold the rights for over V/i years.
Even if a movie is never made, Watson has already immortalized his story. His most recent work, Earthforce! An Earth Warrior’s Guide to Strategy (Chaco Press, 1993), is only one of five books he has written about his life. The book is a pastiche of rules and observations drawn from ancient Chinese writings on war, media theorist Marshall McLuhan and his own experiences. In a chapter that emphasizes the importance of following the leader during a confrontation, Watson quotes Captain James T. Kirk, the hero of the 1960s TV series Star Trek: ‘"When this ship becomes a democracy, you’ll be the first to know.”
In recent years in Canada, at least, Watson’s battle tactics have failed to gain wide public support. He complains, for example, that he receives excessively negative coverage in Canadian press reports. When asked why he continues, Watson does not even pause to reflect. “The world is on a one-way trip to oblivion,” he says. “We do what we do, not because we expect to win, but because it is just and right.” It is that single-mindedness that makes Watson—if not universally admired— certainly one of the most passionate, environmentalists of his time.
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