Newsmaker: Paul Watson

On Monday the Patagonian toothfish, or Chilean seabass, joined the many species of the world that owe a debt of gratitude to a man regarded by some as a dangerous eco-terrorist, and by others as the original rainbow warrior, who for the past four decades has fought an uncompromising fight against the evils of “speciesism”. […]

On Monday the Patagonian toothfish, or Chilean seabass, joined the many species of the world that owe a debt of gratitude to a man regarded by some as a dangerous eco-terrorist, and by others as the original rainbow warrior, who for the past four decades has fought an uncompromising fight against the evils of “speciesism”.

The event was a curious PR act by the Indonesian authorities – the spectacular blowing up of an illegal fishing ship, the last of a fleet dubbed “The Bandit Six” by Paul Watson, whose Sea Shepherd Conservation Society had hounded them to extinction.

It was, however, exactly the sort of stunt that would have appealed to the flamboyant “Captain” Watson, a controversial self-appointed vigilante of the high seas who has compared the hunting of whales to the Holocaust and who was kicked out of Greenpeace for his embrace of more direct action than it could stomach.

“The Bandit Six, the outlaw fleet of Southern Ocean high seas poachers, have all been shut down,” Watson wrote in a celebratory post this week. “And Sea Shepherd did it.”

Operation Icefish was without doubt an extraordinary achievement by Sea Shepherd, which in 15 months accomplished with two ships what no government had been able to do for more than a decade.

But as many friends and admirers that Watson’s brand of eco-piracy has won, his aggressive tactics have earned him an equal number of enemies.

As The New York Times noted in 2007, “his impressive ego, his argumentativeness, his love of theatrics, his tendency to bend the truth, his willingness to risk lives or injury for his beliefs (or for publicity), and his courage (or recklessness) have earned him both loathing and veneration”.

Which is how he likes it. “I wouldn’t think I was successful,” once said the man whose ships fly the pirate flag, the Jolly Roger, “if I didn’t have just as many people hate me as support me.”

As for ego, “nobody could do what I do unless you had a big ego … you have to be arrogant enough to challenge the arrogance of the human race.”

Paul Franklin Watson was born in Toronto in 1950, the first of seven children. His father was Anthony Watson, a French-Canadian from New Brunswick, and his mother was Annamarie Larsen, daughter of Danish artist Otto Larsen.

He claims his Canadian roots go back “fourteen generations to 1587” but, as matters stand, he is currently barred from his home country.

“I am a Canadian,” he wrote on his Facebook page in June last year, “but I don’t have a Canadian passport.” Stephen Harper, then Canada’s prime minister, took it from him, he says, “because Japan asked him to”.

For now, he lives in Paris with Russian animal rights activist and fellow vegan Yana Rusinovich, whom he married on Valentine’s Day last year.

In 1980 he had a child, Lilliolani Paula Lum Watson, with his then partner Starlet Melody Lum.

The future activist was six when his family moved to St Andrews-by-the-Sea in New Brunswick and it was there, according to his biography on the Sea Shepherd website, that the nine-year-old Watson first discovered his passion for animal welfare.

“After trappers killed one of his beaver friends,” reads the account, he “set out to confiscate and destroy leg-hold traps.”

Watson lived in New Brunswick, until his mother’s death in January 1964, when his father moved the family back to Toronto. Three years later, at the age of 17, Watson went to sea for the first time, shovelling coal on the steamship ferry Princess Marguerite II, which shuttled vehicles and passengers between Victoria and Seattle.

After a spell in the Canadian Coastguard, Watson joined demonstrations against American nuclear testing at Amchitka Island, on the US-Canadian border, and claims to have been one of the “founding members and directors of Greenpeace”, which grew out of the protests in 1972.

Greenpeace makes no mention of Watson on its founders page, but points out that in 1977 he was “expelled from the leadership of Greenpeace … by a vote of 11 to one”. Watson says he voluntarily left the organisation “on rather good terms”.

Either way, Greenpeace and Watson were a bad fit.

Bob Hunter, one of the Greenpeace founders, wrote in Warriors of the Rainbow, his 1979 account of the organisation’s early days, that Watson was “possessed by too powerful a drive, too unrelenting a desire to push himself front and centre”.

Today, says Watson, Greenpeace has got it in for him “because of Sea Shepherd interventions against Japanese whaling and criticisms of Greenpeace ineffectiveness” and is now “trying to change history”.

His contempt for the organisation is clear. “Holding up protest signs, taking pictures and ‘bearing witness’ while whales are getting killed in front of you doesn’t achieve anything at all,” Watson told the Daily Telegraph in 2009, “which is why I abandoned those tactics more than 30 years ago.”

His tactics are summed up by his organisation’s career statistics, which include the ramming of seven illegal whalers and poachers, the scuttling of eight whaling ships and seven standoffs with assorted navies, during which Sea Shepherd personnel have been shot at four times.

Two months after parting company with Greenpeace in 1977, Watson co-founded the Earthforce Environmental Society, which within a few years evolved into Sea Shepherd.

At first, Sea Shepherd was only the name he gave to a ship, bought with backing from the Fund for Animals and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, with the aim of disrupting the Canadian seal hunt.

In March 1979, Sea Shepherd sailed for the ice off the east coast of Canada, where Watson claimed to have saved the lives of more than 1,000 seal pups by spray-painting their fur.

Later that year, after repeatedly ramming a whaling ship called the Sierra, his Sea Shepherd was confiscated by the Portuguese and given to the owners of the whaler.

Watson’s response was characteristically muscular. On Christmas day, he later wrote, “the crew of Sea Shepherd scuttled their [own] ship” to prevent it falling into enemy hands.

Later, while undergoing repairs in Lisbon the Sierra was sunk by a limpet mine. It was the beginning of a campaign of sabotage that has seen Sea Shepherd teams damage or sink over a dozen whaling or fishing ships.

Watson’s aggressive tactics have attracted widespread support, and funding, from celebrities. But many of those working towards an international whaling ban believe his approach has set back the cause.

His involvement was “an absolute disaster”, one told the New Yorker in 2007. “Almost everything he has been doing has had blowback for those who want to see an end to whaling … playing piracy on the ocean, and creating danger for other ships, is simply not liked.”

But Watson delights in ruffling feathers. In 2003 he was elected to the board of the US Sierra Club, a long-established conservation organisation, and immediately announced he had joined the board “to change it”.

The club would “no longer be pro-hunting and pro-trapping”. As for fishermen, they were “sadistic b*stards” – an interesting observation for the director of a club in which one sixth of the membership fished.

Watson’s hijack attempt failed, and in 2006 he resigned his position in protest at an essay competition with the title “Why I hunt”. “You can’t love nature with a gun,” he commented.

At the height of the spat, vegan Watson published a manifesto setting out his position on various issues, including his belief that human beings should not regard themselves as the most significant species on Earth.

“For this planet to be saved, we have to step outside the paradigm of anthropocentrism and adapt an ecocentric perspective,” he wrote. “Speciesism” was a “far more serious issue” than racism, but was “wilfully and arrogantly ignored”.

Today, Sea Shepherd is a wealthy charity running a fleet of ships – “Neptune’s Navy” – and multiple global campaigns in defence of a wide range of species. But since 2012 “Captain” Watson, having skippered seven different Sea Shepherd ships on 200 missions since 1978, is no longer fighting the good fight from the bridge. At the age of 65, his battle is now in the courts.

In 2012, he was arrested in Germany on a red notice issued by Interpol as a result of complaints by Japan about Sea Shepherd’s activities. Fleeing on bail, Watson spent the next year as a fugitive at sea and, although he has subsequently been able to return unmolested to the United States and France, the notice still hangs over his head.

Ordered by a US court order not to go near Japanese whaling ships, in 2013 Watson reluctantly stepped down as the head of Sea Shepherd.

Last year the organisation attempted to turn the legal tables, asking the federal court in Seattle “to bar the whalers from engaging in piracy by using violent and dangerous tactics to defend their illegal commercial whaling”.

It has turned to its supporters for funding to “help us defend against the baseless claims that the whalers continue to pursue against Sea Shepherd, including allegations that we have engaged in ‘piracy’ and ‘terrorism’,” and “to help keep Paul Watson free, and ensure that his powerful voice continues to be heard on behalf of the world’s oceans.”

It’s a cause that the Patagonian toothfish, for one, would support if it possibly could.

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