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Guardians of the sea or ‘terrorists’?

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society takes radical measures to halt ‘illegal whaling operations’

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society takes radical measures to halt ‘illegal whaling operations’

Capt. Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, has been a target of hostile words and even bullets. It goes with the territory when your passion is saving whales and scuttling whaling.

In the summer of 1981 a Soviet helicopter gunship strafed the deck of Watson’s Sea Shepherd II after he led an operation that secretly put a team ashore in Siberia to film illegal whaling operations. Thirteen years later, a Norwegian destroyer rammed, fired on and dropped two depth charges near the Sea Shepherd vessel Whales Forever when it disrupted Norwegian whaling off Scotland’s Shetland Islands.

So Watson isn’t indulging in mere bluster or bravado when he says, “The Japanese are trying to intimidate us, but we’ve been rammed before. We’ve been rammed; we’ve been shot at; we’ve been depth-charged.”

He’s not worried. The 56-year-old co-founder of Greenpeace and president of Sea Shepherd ( ) has been at this game for 36 years. He says the Russians were a lot scarier. This time Sea Shepherd’s 62-meter Robert Hunter, a converted steel-hulled Scottish fisheries vessel, had collided with the Japanese whale-spotter Kaiku Maru, Feb. 11, in the Southern Ocean.

The Japanese Fisheries Agency says the Robert Hunter and its “terrorist” crew rammed the whaler. Watson says Australian federal police inspected Hunter’s damage and report that the ship’s ribs were bent forward, suggesting Kaiku Maru hit the Hunter. “When we ram an illegal whaling ship, we proudly accept credit for our actions,” says Watson. But in this case, he says, Sea Shepherd ships Robert Hunter and Farley Mowat — a 48-meter former fisheries research vessel — forced the Kaiku Maru into ice as it bore down on a pod of whales, and the Japanese ship turned, hitting the Robert Hunter.

Three days earlier, in the same Antarctic waters southwest of Australia, Sea Shepherd activists had “attacked” the Japanese factory ship Nisshin Maru from inflatables, clearing its deck of crewmembers with a stink bomb made from harmless butyric acid, then using nail guns to fasten metal plates over the ship’s whale-blood discharge outlets. Sea Shepherd had to call an eight-hour truce after that attack and suspend the dodging, feinting and harassing after the fiberglass hull of one of its RIBs cracked when it banged into the Nisshin Maru. The RIB fell behind the other Shepherd inflatables heading back to their mother ships and quickly was enveloped in a thick fog and drizzle, according to a Sea Shepherd account. Whalers and activists together searched for the lost crew, and after finding them — cold but OK — Watson thanked the Japanese for their help and went back to harassing them.

Watson says the society won’t stop its confrontational tactics until the illegal whaling stops. Sea Shepherd vessels have rammed whaling ships, and its activists have climbed aboard five Icelandic and Norwegian whalers at dockside over the last two decades and scuttled them. Watson argues that the International Whaling Commission has no police powers, so his ships — the Farley Mowat, named after the environmental author, and the Robert Hunter, named after the Greenpeace co-founder — are doing the policing for the IWC.

“We are simply targeting illegal operations,” he says. Whaling has been under a zero-catch moratorium since 1982. The Norwegians continue to whale, despite the IWC moratorium and a formal IWC “objection” to their operations. Watson says the Japanese also whale illegally, though it is under the guise of permitted scientific research.

This past winter Watson sparred on two fronts with Japanese whalers in Antarctica’s Southern Ocean Sanctuary. Armed with a 2005 IWC resolution urging the Japanese government to stop issuing scientific research permits for whaling in Antarctica, he went into the Southern Ocean to disrupt Japanese whalers operating with research permits authorizing them to kill 850 minke and 10 fin whales.

Meanwhile, beginning last fall, several countries — at Japan’s behest, Watson believes — revoked or blocked Farley Mowat’s ship registration, leaving it stateless. In October, Canada pulled its yacht registration and fined the Friday Harbor, Wash.-based Sea Shepherd $10,000. Watson says the revocation letter offered no reason for the action. Attempts to reregister Farley Mowat in Great Britain and the Cayman Islands were rebuffed, and on Dec. 29 — 10 days after Watson registered the ship in Belize — that government revoked Mowat’s registration, again leaving it without a flag of convenience.

The Japanese Whaling Association issued a press release Jan. 9 heralding the actions against Sea Shepherd. “Sea Shepherd is officially running a pirate vessel,” said association president Keiichi Nakajima. “International law says any non-flagged vessel can be boarded for inspection, and in case of any violation or piracy [it] has to be detained [and] its crew arrested.” He said Watson would “risk everything” if he tried to confront the whalers in the Southern Ocean and called on the Japanese government to protect Japan’s “researchers and crew.”

“The whole time we were there [in the Southern Ocean], we operated without a flag,” Watson says. The whalers left for home early with a catch of 508 whales after a disabling fire on the Nisshin Maru. The Japanese say they have no evidence but suspect Sea Shepherd was involved with the fire. Watson says his crews weren’t involved. Farley Mowat, meanwhile, put in at Melbourne, Australia, without a flag and without incident. Currently the ship operates under Dutch registry, the Dutch having said, “We don’t take our orders from Japan,” Watson says.

The IWC in a 2006 resolution took Sea Shepherd to task for “dangerous confrontations” that risk “human life, property, and the order of maritime navigation, and may lead to grave accidents.” U.S. commissioner to the IWC Bill Hogarth said much the same thing after the incidents in the Southern Ocean.

“I’m disappointed Sea Shepherd took an action that risked lives,” he says. “We passed a resolution last year to discourage this type of rogue activity. The United States is extremely concerned that encounters like this could escalate into more violent interactions between the vessels.”

Watson says no one has ever been injured in his 30-odd years of advocacy for whales. “We do what we do because it’s the only thing we can do,” he says. And he says he’s willing to take the risks.