Contributing Monkie G Living Staff Monkies
Published on June 6, 2010
Ever wonder what you could do to make a difference in the world? Hopefully we’ve all asked ourselves this question and have taken action in our own way. If your name is Paul Watson, you may have decided to dedicate your life to saving marine life by whatever means necessary –- including flying your own brand of the Jolly Roger at the head of your own “navy”, ramming whaling ships, and chasing illegal fishermen. But you might have also looked into the eye of a dying sperm whale during one of Greenpeace’s first anti-whaling expeditions and had a revelation peculiar to few terrestrial-bound “hominids,” coming to know that humans don’t have a monopoly on understanding and conscience.
So, who is Paul Watson? By his own immodest account, he’s the only true protector of marine life, policing marine sanctuaries across the globe with his rag-tag band of ships known as Neptune’s Navy, occasionally getting into a scuffle or two, and pulling miles of illegal fishing nets out of the water. A recent article in New Yorker magazine profiles the “Captain” of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and his resume reads as an impressive mix of 1960s anti-establishment hippie and full-scale environmental activist.
Watson is Canadian. He was born in Toronto and grew up in New Brunswick before running away as a teenager to Vancouver, B.C. at the height of the late 1960s peace-power movement. After finishing high school on his own, he managed some college here and there while working odd jobs and writing for Vancouver’s underground hipster weekly, the Georgia Straight. He also worked in the Canadian Coast Guard and the merchant marines – where he claims to have watched the U.S. bombing of Vietnam.
Watson asserts that he was a founding member of Greenpeace, but Greenpeace doesn’t claim him except in a photo. According to Robert Hunter, Greenpeace founder and author of Warriors of the Rainbow: A Chronicle of the Greenpeace Movement, Watson was kicked out of the organization in 1977 for bending the group’s peaceful, non-combative tactics while documenting a seal hunt. (Watson threw a sealer’s pelts and club into the sea.) Soon after this setback, however, Watson and a group of followers founded Earthforce as a more vigilante-style organization that later became Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. The actions of Sea Shepherd are mythic, starting with ramming and disabling a notorious illegal whaling ship, the Sierra, off the coast of Portugal in 1978.
A License To Thrill: Watson’s James Bond complex.
From what I can tell, Watson acts with the bravado of James Bond on a Quixotic mission. He sneaked into the Soviet Union in the 1980s to document illegal whale-meat packing, dropped paint bombs on whaling vessels from the side of an airplane, blockaded ports, and rammed or scuttled at least 4 ships (he claims 10). Watson also regularly hob-nobs with the rich and famous, he skirts the law through sheer aggressiveness (he rarely gets caught and when he does, he demands to be arrested, which few countries are willing to do), he has the blessing of the Dalai Lama, and he polices the world’s marine sanctuaries with self-created impunity. He even married a Playboy model. He is dashing and brave, a combination of Admiral David G. Farragut and Tom Robbins’ Bernard.
Madness to his method
The U.N. Oceans and Law of the Sea and the World Charter for Nature allow for private entities to enforce restrictions in “areas beyond national jurisdiction”, but most analysts admit that Watson takes his interpretation of the laws too far. One example is Operation Asshole, Watson’s tongue-in-cheek codename for ramming (or threatening to ram) whaling or other illegal fishing vessels from behind. Watson has also endorsed tree-spiking and plans to drop huge I-beams into the ocean off the Grand Banks to destroy dragnets. He simply acts, regardless of political support, based on a moral code that values all life equally, and he is not afraid to die fighting for what he believes.
Most important, Paul Watson has a point. Despite the over-hyped heroics and unconventional methods, marine research supports Watson’s view that oceanic life is in peril. Daniel Pauly, an eminent marine scholar, points to the depletion of fishing stocks over the last 400-500 years, a much broader sweep of history than covered by most research. And the gluttonous behavior of humans is to blame. Longlining, dragnetting, and driftnetting remain the standard in big commercial fishing, techniques that have been likened to cutting down a forest to hunt deer. By-catch is a problem, but the broader issue is waste. The best example and perhaps the most dangerous is the outright slaughter of sharks for their fins – to make a snobbish soup – and discarding the rest. Other species, including most whales, are in peril from over-“harvesting.” Even the internet is culpable in the illegal traffic of animal parts, making it easy to buy and sell with relatively little oversight.
What Happens at Sea Stays at Sea
Through vague, confusing international law and even vaguer enforcement, countries are allowed to continue whaling and fishing enterprises under phony facades. Japan, for example, continues to hunt and “harvest” – a term that should make us all sick when applied to any animal – whales under the guise of conducting research (an activity allowed by law). The Japanese government sponsors the enterprise claiming to be researching the time whale stocks are large enough to end the whaling moratorium, but it has yet to produce any “research” and continues to sell whale meat to the public.
Someone should be paying attention and taking action to end the Slaughter of the Seas, but governments seem reluctant to use their navies to protect marine life – whether from corruption or fear of a broader political conflict. So three cheers to the outlandish Paul Watson. Hoist the Jolly Roger, but please be safe! The world is watching (thanks to you).
And the world will be watching as Watson and his team embark on their fourth trip to remote Antarctican waters to begin Operation Migaloo, their latest whale defense mission. Named for Migaloo, an endangered albino humpback whale, Sea Shepherd will attempt to stop Japanese whalers from killing 1,000 endangered whales. More on this story as it unfolds.
To hear what Watson has to say on other environmental issues, click here.
To find out what animals are protected, click here (but bring your Latin dictionary).
To peruse the marine sanctuaries in the U.S., click here.