For over 40 years, Paul Watson and his Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) have been raising hell over the oceans. From grainy TV news footage featuring Watson trying to stop Canadian seal cub hunts in the 1980s to a slick reality TV show of the early 2010s showcasing the fight against Japanese whaling ships, Watson has tried to position himself centre-stage in the drama over the fate of the oceans. He brings media-savvy, extreme focus and, some might say, a reckless abandon to his ultimate cause: ending the commercial fishing and killing of sea creatures.
To delve into Watson’s career is to dive into a rabbit hole of lawsuits, high-seas intrigue, media and merchandising, rifts between ocean conservation organisations and ecological philosophy. It is also to confront the rampant growth of illegal fishing or overfishing, which almost every ecologist warns will result in oceanic devastation.
Watson spent his youth in a fishing village in Atlantic Canada. He recalls how, as a boy, he befriended a family of beavers during the summer holidays at a nearby lake. The following summer, Watson discovered trappers had ensnared the entire family. Incensed, he sabotaged the traplines and freed the animals, incurring the wrath of his father, a hunter.
Watson left home at 15, winding up in Vancouver in the mid-1960s. He initially got a job as a deckhand on a Norwegian freighter, and later joined the Canadian Coast Guard.
In the 1970s, Watson became one of the founding members of Greenpeace. He was first officer on the boat that the NGO acquired to sail to Amchitka Island in Alaska to stop nuclear testing. But those early days were fraught.
“The problem for me was that Greenpeace was a protest organisation. Protesting is very submissive. All you do is beg. ‘Please don’t do this, please don’t do this’, and then they do it, and you take pictures,” Watson says of his departure from the group.
Greenpeace has stated Watson was expelled from the organisation’s leadership in 1977 by a vote of 11 to one, with only Watson voting against. Greenpeace cites the book The Greenpeace Chronicles, by Greenpeace founder Robert Hunter, who wrote of Watson: “No one doubted his courage for a moment. Yet in terms of the Greenpeace gestalt, he seemed possessed by too powerful a drive, too unrelenting a desire to push himself front and centre, shouldering everyone else aside.”
Watson established the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (known initially as Earth Force) in 1977. Along the way, he developed his own strategy to deal with illegal poaching – an approach he calls “aggressive non-violence.” He claims that in 45 years of activity on the high seas, Sea Shepherd has never caused an injury yet has shut down hundreds of illegal operations.
In the 1970s and 80s, Sea Shepherd earned a reputation for being the radicals of the environmental movement. Campaigns involved physically interfering with seal hunters in Canada and whale hunters in Iceland. Ramming ships or sabotaging whaling operations were the norm.
“I look on ourselves in the 1970s as conservatives in a radical society,” Watson says. “There’s nothing more conservative than being a conservationist. It’s the radicals who are destroying the planet.”
Watson says that he took on campaigns that many felt were extremist, in part, to help the society build up its profile. Accusations of recklessness, piracy, theft and trespassing followed.
Watson says that Sea Shepherd volunteers are asked if they are prepared to give their life to save a whale, and that only those willing may join. This conviction falls into Watson’s biocentric worldview. “In our society, we ask people to die for religion, flags, or a piece of land or oil,” he says.
Watson embraces being called a pirate. “If that’s what they throw at you, make it work for you.” Sea Shepherd has two logos, one featuring a humpback whale and a second resembling the Jolly Roger. T-shirts bearing the pirate logo outsell the whale logo by 20 to 1, Watson says. Nowadays, merchandise sales contribute about 25% of the society’s US$12 million annual revenue.
Yet, Sea Shepherd’s aggressive tactics have not always gone to plan.
In 2010, the Ady Gil, a futuristic fibreglass trimaran and part of the Sea Shepherd fleet, was rammed by a Japanese whaling vessel during an anti-whaling operation in the Southern Ocean. One crew member was injured, and the damaged Ady Gil sank the next day. Ady Gil’s captain, Pete Bethune, wound up at odds with Sea Shepherd and Watson over their contrasting version of events.
“Watson and I don’t see eye-to-eye on things,” Bethune said in an email to Asia-Pacific Boating. “What he and SSCS have achieved is remarkable. In many ways, his flaws allow him to be extremely successful. He is totally focused on his cause and will say anything to propagate his message, but at the expense of any form of honesty.”
The battle between Sea Shepherd and Japanese whalers became the basis of a hit reality TV show called Whale Wars, which aired from 2008-2015. Camera crews captured sensational footage from Sea Shepherd vessels in close quarters with Japanese ships from the Institute for Cetacean Research.
The contrast between Sea Shepherd’s old, refurbished boats and modern whaling vessels equipped with water cannons created high drama and raised SSCS’s profile.
Watson, a former contributor to Vancouver newspaper the Georgia Strait, has a keen eye for media and communications. “The most powerful weapon we have is the camera; if it’s not on camera, it didn’t happen,” Watson says. He has been interviewed extensively over the decades and his philosophical musings are plentiful on social media.
This spring, Netflix released the documentary film Seaspiracy, which shows graphic images of butchered whales, marine life tangled in fishing nets and overfishing. Watson appears in the film, alongside other conservationists.
Sea Shepherd has intensely supported the film and has a dedicated page on its website for selling Seaspiracy merchandise. Other ocean conservation groups have taken issue with the film’s accuracy.
Yet, in Watson’s view, drama makes the difference. “Effective communication means understanding media … the strategy put in play is just as valuable as the actual message,” Watson wrote on a social media post in defence of the film.
Watson says that all 14 boats at Sea Shepherd’s command – a fleet it refers to as Neptune’s Navy – are registered as yachts. The reason is cost: Boats registered as yachts are much less demanding on crew qualifications.
“Our strength is the passion of our volunteers,” says Watson. “You can’t pay people to do the kind of work we ask them to do. The dedication and the long hours – that can’t come from professionals.” SSCS trains its volunteers and Watson says that if you can’t do anything at all, you start as a deckhand.
SSCS uses large donations to purchase vessels, which tend to bear the name of the donor. Sam Simon, co-creator of The Simpsons; John Paul DeJoria, a US billionaire and founder of Paul Mitchell hair products; US actor Martin Sheen; and game show host Bob Barker all have their names on Sea Shepherd vessels.
In 2015, Sea Shepherd won a Dutch postal lottery contest prize of over €8.3 million and used the proceeds to buy a 54-metre patrol vessel from Damen Shipyard. The funds that come in from merchandising and other donations support the vessel operations.
The problem for me was that Greenpeace was a protest organisation. Protesting is very submissive. All you do is beg – Paul Watson
In 2015, two Sea Shepherd boats, the Bob Barker and the Sam Simon, chased a fishing vessel, Thunder, wanted by Interpol for poaching. The 110-day, 10,000-nautical mile odyssey started near Antarctica and ended with Thunder’s captain scuttling the ship in the waters of Sao Tome and Principe, a tiny island nation in west African waters.
According to New York Times reporter Ian Urbina, no governments had been willing to spend the time and money to apprehend the vessel. In putting an end to the vessel’s illegal activity, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society had apparently switched roles, from bugbear of the whaling industry to enforcer of maritime law.
In the Center for International Maritime Security Forum, three US navy officers actually debated whether the Sea Shepherd fleet could be considered a navy, while another contributor wondered whether NGOs such as Sea Shepherd should play a broader role in enforcing international maritime law.
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and Watson have been in court frequently. Watson has been arrested, spent time in jail and lived in exile in a French chateau for two years. He is still listed on Interpol’s Red List of fugitives over an incident involving Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean. He is listed along with thousands of people principally wanted for such charges as murder.
Despite the pirate logo emblazoned on their T-shirts and ships, Sea Shepherd and Watson are canny about operating within the law, even if their activities may step right to the edge of legality. SSCS maintains a four-strong volunteer legal defence team.
Watson says that since 1985, the group has operated under the UN World Charter for Nature, which includes a section on enforcement, allowing for governments, NGOs and individuals to uphold conservation law. To him, this provides legal cover for his actions.
All 14 boats at Sea Shepherd’s command – a fleet it refers to as Neptune’s Navy – are registered as yachts
“We operate under that direction when outside national boundaries. Inside, we partner with governments. We are not going to infringe on national sovereignty.”
Legal experts have disputed this, but Sea Shepherd has managed to stay one step ahead in the courts. This is partly because the society has numerous chapters around the world that nominally act as independent organisations.
While dramatic collisions at sea with whaling vessels may be the stuff of reality TV, Sea Shepherd has also quietly forged partnerships with governments. Sea Shepherd vessels provide monitoring support to countries with seas critical to ocean conservation, but that cannot fend off poachers or illegal fishing in their waters.
An inaugural partnership with Ecuador to protect the Galapagos in 1999 has expanded to include several Caribbean and Latin American countries, and African states such as Liberia, Gabon and Sao Tome and Principe, where Thunder sank.
“These countries give us authority in their waters; we don’t carry weapons (on board),” Watson says, adding that national governments provide necessary enforcement personnel.
In Mexico, where drug cartels have taken to supplying high-priced fish and mammals for the Chinese black market, Sea Shepherd operates with Mexican marines onboard. “I’m confident that if it weren’t for us, the vaquita porpoise would be extinct,” says Watson of the world’s rarest marine mammal, which is endemic to the Gulf of Mexico.
Sea Shepherd volunteers are asked if they are prepared to give their life to save a whale
In Asia, Watson says he was working on a partnership with Palau to patrol its waters, but this fell through at the last minute. He suspects Japanese pressure scuppered the agreement. According to Watson, Sea Shepherd was also going to partner with Indonesia until Susi Pudjiastuti was replaced as Minister for Fisheries. Pudjiastuti had developed a reputation as a combative champion of local fishermen, blowing up boats that were illegally fishing in Indonesian waters. She was replaced in 2019 by Edhy Prabowo, who was later charged with corruption.
Diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks in 2011 show that Japanese officials discussed the Sea Shepherd Society with US officials, claiming that the actions of the society were making it difficult for Japanese whaling to be slowed or stopped. They argued that Sea Shepherd’s actions were politicising the issue in Japan, making it hard for the Japanese government to appear to back down.
Watson now says that he believes the best course of action is to leave the Japanese whaling industry alone for fear of igniting nationalism around the issue.
Japanese filmmaker Megumi Sasaki, whose documentary A Whale of a Tale explores the complexities of dolphin hunting in Japan, argued that foreign organisations like Sea Shepherd have only strengthened the nationalistic defence of whaling and dolphin killing. Japan’s whaling industry is now a fraction of its former size.
“The conservationist in me admires the work of Sea Shepherd,” says Simon Cripps, executive director for marine conservation at Wildlife Conservation Society. “They seem to have filled a gap that Greenpeace left behind in taking on issues that are too big, dangerous or controversial for others.”
Cripps, speaking on his own behalf, says that though Sea Shepherd’s actions may be of dubious legality, they have also raised attention on the issues of illegal or overfishing. “The ocean needs protection, especially where enforcement or governance is weak.”
Sea Shepherd is morphing into an NGO that works with governments rather than fighting TV battles at sea. No longer captaining Sea Shepherd vessels and spending more time writing long Facebook posts, the captain may be letting his movement pass to a new generation. The great chase of the illegal fishing vessel Thunder seemed to star no one in particular, rather highlighting the quasi-governmental role that Sea Shepherd had assumed in the area.
But faced with rapidly declining fish stocks and continued government subsidies of the fishing industry, the urgency of the moment is only increasing.
In a recent Facebook post, Watson encourages his followers to define the planet’s future with today’s actions: “We can’t wait for our governments to act. We need to force them to act, and we need to lead by example and initiative.”