Canadian-American eco-warrior Paul Watson, ousted from the Sea Shepherd conservationist organization he founded, says he is back in business with a new ship and crew and is ready to resume tormenting the world’s whalers and others he sees as despoilers of the world’s oceans.
“After being knocked down, we have fully recovered and we’re ready to return to battle on the high seas,” Watson declared in a digital announcement earlier this month. “The new Captain Paul Watson Foundation is here and it’s ready to aggressively take on all enemies that look to do harm to our ocean and our planet.”
Watson is among the most controversial figures in the environmental movement, in and out of legal trouble on several continents over aggressive tactics, which have included ramming and sinking or fouling the propellers of whaling vessels. Some of his exploits have been portrayed in the reality TV series Whale Wars, shown on Animal Planet.
His advocacy of “direct action” led to him being ousted in 1977 from the board of Greenpeace, where he was an early member, and his founding of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society where he gained notoriety as a scourge of Norwegian, Japanese and Icelandic whalers, who operate despite global ban on whaling under an exception allowing for research.
Among his most dramatic actions was the sinking of two whaling vessels in a harbor in Iceland by his society members – an action for which Watson claimed personal responsibility. Over his career, such tactics led to legal action in Canada, the United States, Costa Rica, Norway and Japan, although he has never been convicted of a major crime.
Nevertheless, it all became too much for his fellow board members at Sea Shepherd, who removed him from the board and limited his activities, leading him to cut all ties with the group in July.
“I was marginalized and told to be a paid and quiet figurehead as they changed the direction of the organization away from confrontational and controversial campaigns,” Watson told VOA in a telephone interview and follow-up emails.
“I said I could not participate or support this change. Sea Shepherd should not be Oceana or Greenpeace. Our approach should always be aggressive, direct action.”
To that end, he has established the Captain Paul Watson Foundation and, he said, “We’re going to rebuild our navy. I call it Neptune’s Navy.”
Watson said he recently completed the purchase in Britain of a new ship, to be named the John Paul DeJoria, and, so far, has taken on seven crew members, mostly engineers. “I am also looking for two additional ships” he said, and he has “a few dozen” applicants to sail with him, mainly former Sea Shepherd officers and crew.
Asked whether he expects to resume his pursuit of whaling ships, which according to the NGO Whale and Dolphin Conservation, have killed nearly 40,000 large whales since commercial whaling was banned in 1986, he replied, “Always. It has been my lifetime ambition to eradicate whaling.”
Nor does he plan to tone down the tactics that have outraged his critics in the past.
“Why would I consider doing that? I established the approach of aggressive non-violence and that continues to be my primary strategy because it is effective. I have not changed my approach for over half a century,” he told VOA.
As for ramming whaling ships, “That depends on the situation, i.e. legal status, location and logistics. I have not rammed a ship since 2013 but it’s always a possibility.”
But, he maintained, “We’re not going to injure anyone. I’ve never injured anyone in my entire career.”
That fact has done little to assuage Watson’s critics, including the Japanese government, which once labeled the Sea Shepherd society an “eco-terrorist” organization.
“A U.S. court declared Sea Shepherds to be 'pirates' after considering their history of ramming ships, hurling containers of acid, and other aggression,” noted Rick Berman, executive director of the U.S.-based Center for Organizational Research and Education, which casts a skeptical eye on some environmental and animal rights groups.
“When you hear Paul Watson claim he has a good cause, just remember ISIS says the same thing," Berman told VOA in an email exchange.
On the other side of the ledger, Watson has been presented in Paris with a Jules Verne Award for his role as a protector of the environment and was named by Time magazine among the Top 20 environmental heroes of the 20th century.
The activist credits public support for his cause for his ability to avoid having ever been convicted of a felony in any country.
Years after his organization scuttled the two Icelandic whaling vessels in 1986, he flew to Iceland and asked to be booked for the crime. “They put me on a plane,” he said. “Iceland knew to put me on trial would be to put themselves on trial for their illegal activities.”
But, he said, he understands why many other conservationists want to keep him at arm’s length.
“We fill a specific niche within the marine conservation movement,” he emailed. “We are not for everyone. … Although many quietly agree and support what we do, they are hesitant to be seen with us in the light of day.”