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"Those who don't have children for environmental reasons are precisely the ones who should"

Dernière mise à jour : 13 mars

Captain Paul Watson has been the epitome of impertinence for over fifty years, fighting relentlessly to protect the oceans and save mankind from itself. Nothing less! Recently, his intransigence earned him (yet another) dismissal from the organization he founded. The pirate-philosopher looks back at the conflict within Sea Shepherd, what needs to be done to protect the marine ecosystem and why those who don't want children are the very ones who should be having them. Interview.

Paul Watson
© DR

Amèle Debey, for L'Impertinent: You were fired from the organization you founded. What happened?

Captain Paul Watson: In 2019, I sent a boat to Iceland to intervene against the slaughter of whales there. As soon as it arrived, they stopped the operation. Peter Hammarstedt said they were going to rebrand Sea Shepherd, which I didn't know. They wanted to change its course and direction.

I created Sea Shepherd in 1977 with a specific strategy, which I called "aggressive non-violence". The idea is to intervene aggressively without hurting anyone, and we've never hurt anyone. This is what has enabled Sea Shepherd to become an international movement and gain a certain notoriety. In 2019, Peter Hammarstedt, Alex Cornelissen and other captains started talking about a "Watson problem", because I refuse to collaborate and compromise with the governments and companies they work with.

"It was a real slap in the face for me"

I was particularly upset, because Sea Shepherd Australia had entered into a partnership with Austral Fisheries, Toothfish Company, a Dutch fishing company Shiro, a Japanese company and the same Thai fishing company that owned the pirate whaler Sierra, which I had shut down in 1979. It was a real slap in the face for me. Why did they do it? Because David Carter, the CEO of Austral Fisheries, was able to use his tax-deductible status in Australia and also made contributions to Sea Shepherd. As far as I can tell, they've sold out.

When I asked questions as a board member of Sea Shepherd Australia, I was told I had to resign, which I did because I couldn't support their actions. In June 2022, I was asked to accept the change in leadership of Sea Shepherd USA, which made me a paid figurehead who couldn't say anything, participate in discussions or give interviews. "Shut up and take the money". That's pretty much what it was all about. I refused. So I resigned from Sea Shepherd USA, but I was sure I'd have the support of Sea Shepherd Global, of which I was director. I was wrong.

On September 2, 2022, I received an email informing me that I was being removed from the Sea Shepherd Global Board of Directors. There was no meeting, no discussion. There was no vote. I haven't heard from these people since. Lamya Essemlali, president of Sea Shepherd France, was the only Global director to support me, and they refused to answer her questions about the African campaign. They sent her an e-mail to dismiss her as director. So both my dismissal and hers were illegal, because they weren't carried out under proper procedure.

"The four global directors control everything and are not very transparent"

What you have to understand is that I created Sea Shepherd to be a movement of independent entities, not an organization. Whether in Switzerland, Italy, Spain, New Zealand or Australia, they're all independent. In 2013, we created Sea Shepherd Global to organize ship operations with the support of all these different national entities. But each of them was free to make their own decisions. The situation has changed and the four global directors who have taken over now control everything and are not very transparent with other countries. Those who have rebelled are the UK, France, Brazil and Hungary.

As a result, Sea Shepherd Global is taking Sea Shepherd France to court, claiming it has no right to use the organization's name or logo. Sea Shepherd France is the most effective group that has ever existed. So they're trying to make it disappear. It's a question of control.

Why have the other organizations accepted this?

Italy, for example, receives money from Sea Shepherd Global, while Sea Shepherd France, on the contrary, has paid a total of 9 million euros to Global.

For me, this is a personal betrayal. I put Peter Hammarstedt, Alex Cornelissen and Jeff Hansen in their positions. I trained and mentored them. So I was very surprised that they turned against me. Why should they? Because thanks to the success of Justiciers des mers, the TV show we broadcast on Animal Planet and Discovery, Sea Shepherd had become quite big and was making money. And that money allowed them to have very nice, comfortable jobs. I think Jeff Hansen gets 14,000 Australian dollars a month for that. I don't know what Alex and Peter's salary is, but they're all paid.

Don't you think it's normal to get paid for a job? People have to live and pay their bills. Isn't that the best way to keep the team motivated? How do you live without a salary?

The problem isn't getting paid, it's security and the fear of taking risks that could lead to the loss of that security. They feel that my controversial campaigns could cost them their jobs and their security. The difference between them, me and Lamya Essemlali (president of Sea Shepherd France, editor's note) is that we're prepared to take the necessary risks, even if it means losing our comfort and security.

Following L'Impertinent's interview with Peter Hammarstedt, you denounced "lies" on Facebook. What lies?

They no longer pursue Sea Shepherd objectives. No more aggressive, non-violent interventions. Peter Hammarstedt led a campaign in the Southern Ocean against krill fishing and called it the Antarctic Defense Project. But all they did was take pictures. That's not what we do. If we go there, it's to put an end to these activities, like with the Japanese whaling fleet.

They don't want to do anything controversial or confrontational anymore. Basically, they want to expand the organization and make more and more money. That's why their efforts are focused more on merchandise sales and fund-raising than on the campaigns themselves. I don't know of any other than picking up litter on beaches.

If they divert Sea Shepherd from its primary mission, people will eventually realize this and stop donating?

And that's exactly what's happening. That's why they're losing so much support and we're gaining so much. I created the Captain Paul Watson Foundation (CPWF), which I named because it will be difficult to suppress an organization that bears my name. But our action is actually called Neptune's Pirates. They took offence at this because I created the name when I worked for Sea Shepherd. So they say it belongs to them now. Like everything else I created between 1977 and 2022. The names, the logos. But the last thing they want to be identified with is the word "pirate". For example, the Jolly Roger flag appears on the merchandise they sell, but they no longer hang it on ships because the countries they work with object.

Le Jolly Roger

In the year since I set up the foundation, we've received around five and a half million dollars in support from former Sea Shepherd supporters, and we've recruited many of those supporters to support us today. Many veterans have joined the ships' crews. So most of my crew are former Sea Shepherd crew.

Did Sea Shepherd Switzerland follow Global into this conflict?

The director of Sea Shepherd Switzerland, Nathalie Maspoli, is a good friend of Alex Cornelissen. So I wasn't really surprised. Just as I wasn't surprised that their first reaction was to say they were neutral in this matter. Typical, isn't it?

The artist Simone Eisenbeiss is creating the CPWF branch in Switzerland. She took part with us in this summer's campaign and is now heading up the foundation's organization in Switzerland. So things are going well.

And all the musical groups who supported Sea Shepherd are now supporting me. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nickelback, Boston, Aerosmith, Gojira. When I left, they came with me.

You've publicly denounced this situation, as well as the internal war that's shaken Sea Shepherd. Isn't this bad for the organization's image?

For me, it's a question of strategy. I have to talk about it to let all Sea Shepherd supporters know what's going on, because they haven't just taken my boats, they've taken the mailing lists, the support list, all the assets, all the archives. They're trying to erase my history from the organization. They've deleted 400 pages of history. I'm not to be referred to, as if I never existed. So how can I reach these people? By denouncing what they're doing. It's the only thing I can do. So it's purely strategic.

I'm not being malicious or anything. I'm just trying to let the world and the people who have supported us know what's going on: they're changing course. They're changing the course of activism to become non-activists, but with the pretense of activism. They're taking inspiration from everything we've done over the past 40 years. They take credit for things they had no part in.

When I interviewed Peter Hammarstedt, he said he was still using the Jolly Roger during Sea Shepherd Germany's last net collection campaign. He said nothing had changed in their actions.

They can float the Jolly Roger on the German ship in the Baltic Sea, but they've refused to display it in Africa and any other country where people criticize its use. So it was when I initiated the partnerships with governments, working with the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador and all the others, that we found ourselves in this situation.

"Governments tell Sea Shepherd what to do"

The difference is that their actions are conditional: you're not allowed to criticize the government, not allowed to publish anything without its approval, you can't fly a flag the government disapproves of, or paint your ships anything but gray. Basically, governments tell Sea Shepherd what to do, something we've never allowed before.

We've always been there to offer them our services, but to warn them that if they do anything corrupt, we'll report it. That's the difference.

When it comes to confiscating nets and removing marine debris, it's not direct action, it's garbage collection. And we all do it. Sea Shepherd France does it, Sea Shepherd UK, which is now Captain Paul Watson's Foundation, does it, Sea Shepherd Australia does it. It's all about cleaning up, but it's not a global action.

You also accuse Sea Shepherd Global of greenwashing government corruption. That's a heavy accusation.

But it's true. We have all these corrupt African countries: Gabon, Namibia or Liberia, where Sea Shepherd comes to offer its services to help protect the waters from poachers. The problem is that these countries receive money from the IMF specifically to protect their waters. Since Sea Shepherd is in charge, they pocket the money. They don't have to spend it, and what's more, they give the impression that they're taking action against these crimes.

But we can't get any answers about what happens when these boats are stopped. Are they detained? Are they seized? We don't know. Sea Shepherd doesn't divulge this information and isn't transparent.

"The Sea Shepherd movement has been destroyed"

For example, they work with Namibia, which organizes the second largest seal hunt in the world. But they can't say anything about it because they're beholden to their position vis-à-vis that government. Many of these countries, like Liberia and Tanzania for example, vote with the Japanese at the International Whaling Commission in support of whaling. Sea Shepherd Global therefore works with governments that support whaling operations, but they don't say anything and they can't say anything because any criticism of the governments they work for means they will no longer be allowed to do what they do in these waters, and they need these actions to make their supporters believe they are taking action.

They protect fisheries, companies and workers. They don't protect the fish. Sea Shepherd Australia, for example, now supports so-called sustainable fishing, whereas our policy has always been to say that there is no such thing as sustainable fishing, let alone sustainable fishing for toothfish, which is sold as Chilean sea bass because most of it is flown around the world to be sold in expensive restaurants in Paris, New York or London.

They recently destroyed a boat because it was old, rather than taking it to the Faroe Islands to be seized by the Faroese government to intervene against pilot whale hunting. It would have made for great publicity. But no, they got rid of it. So there's a lack of imagination when it comes to strategies and tactics.

The split took place about a year ago. Where are you now?

They're trying to control something that should never have been controlled. All these groups or entities were supposed to be independent. It was a movement. It's been destroyed, it doesn't exist anymore.

As for us, I think we've come a long way in just one year. We already have four ships, and we're going to continue doing what we've always done. We'll be taking on Iceland next summer, then the supercargoes in November. In Mayotte, people are protecting turtles off the African coast. We oppose ocean mining and overfishing. But what has always been a priority for me, since I started, is ending whaling worldwide. And we've come a long way on that front: whaling has ended in Australia, Chile, Spain, South Korea and South Africa. Now we have to tackle Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Japan.

I believe we can do this, and that our efforts to do so have been hampered by the initiative of those four men who now control the Sea Shepherd world, but who can't even finance their own ships at the moment. As we grow, they get weaker because people joined Sea Shepherd for one specific reason: we got rid of the bureaucracy and got things done. They didn't join Sea Shepherd to collaborate and compromise with governments and corporations.

Sea Shepherd Global is supported by Alliance Insurance Company, the Dutch lottery, various companies and governments. This is not what the movement was meant to be. Today, most crew members are paid, so they're loyal to their salaries, not their convictions.

Sea Shepherd has achieved enormous popularity, particularly in the United States, thanks to the documentary series Justiciers des mers. Some people question your personal motivation for wanting to become a TV star.

Well, they're wrong. They're completely wrong. I went to all the TV channels and said: "Look, the TV show that's really big right now is about a bunch of men who go to a remote cold zone to catch crabs. Here's another one where there are better things to do than catch crabs every week." We made no compromises on this show. It was a real reality show, because there was no script. They didn't tell us what to do. And we didn't tell them how to put it together. We didn't get any money from them for it.

Did you make any money from the series?

No, we didn't. Except for the fact that we got a lot of publicity and that it enabled us to increase our support base. Several thousand people joined us thanks to the show. So we got some money, but no direct payment from Discovery or Animal Planet. They didn't pay us a single cent. We did it just to get the message out to every show in the world. And it worked, because we ended Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean.

Since 2018, all whaling in pelagic or international waters has ceased. There are no more outside the territorial waters of the four countries that still kill these mammals. All in all, a remarkable victory. Of course, I'm paying the price, because we cost them over $100 million and saved 6,500 whales. As a result, I was placed on Interpol's red notice for conspiracy to commit trespass.

This red notice is reserved for serial killers, war criminals and major drug traffickers. I'm the only person in history to be on it for conspiracy to intrude. All because Japan is a powerful country. In fact, a European parliamentary committee used my case to illustrate Interpol's politically-motivated abuses. So it's an ongoing affair.

Human beings are creatures whose egos often catch up with them. Wouldn't you agree?

I've been doing what I know how to do since I was 11. I started out saving beavers in eastern Canada, where I lived, and I've been doing it all my life, for half a century. It's what I've always done. I'm not motivated by ego. And certainly not money. But I do have one main goal: the eradication of whaling worldwide. That's what I've dedicated my life to. I could very well have lived comfortably, receiving $300,000 a year from Sea Shepherd just to keep quiet and do nothing. But that was out of the question.

What does illegal fishing actually represent in terms of global consumption?

It's 40% of total fishing. But I was brought up in a fishing village in eastern Canada. I've seen the decline of the fishing industry and fish populations. We need at least a 75-year moratorium on commercial fishing, or we're going to lose them. Fish populations are disappearing commercially. And what we're doing is simply adapting to the decline.

"There's money to be made in making species disappear"

Orange roughy was a very big commercial fish in the 1990s, but you don't hear about it anymore because the whole population has collapsed. The northern cod population collapsed in 1992 and hasn't recovered. One fishery after another is collapsing. Today, we catch fish that, in the fifties, sixties and seventies, were considered non-commercial, such as hake and turbot. Today, these fish fetch high prices on the fish markets, whereas 30 years ago, nobody would have even thought of buying them.

In the documentary Watson, which tells your story, you talk about how scarcity inevitably creates value in this business too.

Scarcity translates into profit. It's what I call the economics of extinction. There's money to be made in making species extinct, because the profits are high. Here in Paris, I walk around the fish markets and I'm surprised by the prices compared to what they were 20, 30, 40 years ago. People are still willing to pay, but others are amazed at the abundance. There are fish everywhere, including in restaurants, all year round. If the fish are disappearing, why are there so many of them? The answer is that the fish are caught because we invest literally hundreds of millions of dollars in high-tech equipment, the big supercargoes. We need more and more technology to catch fewer and fewer fish. And so, you know, this technology is bought with bank loans, which means we need to catch even more fish to pay back the bank loans. Therein lies the real economic challenge of extinction.

For example, Mitsubishi has a 10-15 year supply of bluefin tuna in its warehouses in Japan. If they didn't catch any bluefin tuna in the next ten years, they'd still have a product to sell to their customers. But they know that if they don't catch any, and the population starts to increase again, the value of their fish in the warehouses will fall. And if bluefin tuna disappear, they become incredibly expensive. But these people don't care, because it's a short-term investment for short-term gain. So we need a moratorium on commercial fishing.

Human greed being what it is, how can we fight this trade?

I can't do anything about human greed. But I'm not worried about the future. I learned a very valuable lesson in 1973. I was a nurse for the American Indian Movement during the occupation of Wounded Knee, and the U.S. federal government was shooting at the village every night. They killed two people. They wounded 46. I went to Russell Means, the leader of the American Indian Movement, and told him, "We have no hope of winning. The odds against us are overwhelming. What are we doing here?" He replied: "We don't care about winning or losing. We don't care about the odds against us. We're here because it's the right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right and just way to do it."

It's a lesson that has stayed with me. So I know what our power is. It's in the present, not in the future. So I'm not worried about the future. I'm not depressed by it. I have to devote all my energy to activism in the present, and that's what will define the future. What it will be doesn't depend on me, unlike the present, which is largely in our own hands. That's what motivates me.

"We are intimately linked to all other species"

I know that if we don't put an end to commercial fishing, we will witness the extinction of a large number of species, which will disappear forever. And the biggest problem of all, the biggest threat to our survival on this planet, is something that most people don't even care about or aren't aware of: the decline in phytoplankton in the sea, which has fallen by 40% since 1950. Phytoplankton provides 70% of the oxygen in the air we breathe and sequesters huge quantities of CO₂. If phytoplankton disappeared from the sea, we would die. Most life forms on this planet will die.

Our very existence is intimately linked to the survival of phytoplankton. And why is phytoplankton declining? Because we're reducing the number of whales, dolphins and seals. And it's they who provide the nutrients. They fertilize phytoplankton, mainly with nitrogen, iron and magnesium from their excrement. A single blue whale discharges three tons of excrement into the ocean every day. When we reduce these species, we reduce phytoplankton, which in turn reduces everything else. It is therefore absolutely essential to restore the number of fish and whales in the sea in order to re-establish the natural cycle of nutrient supply to the plankton that is vital to us.

The real problem is anthropocentric: we think we're better than everyone else, that we dominate everything, when in fact we're intimately linked to all other species, and the laws of ecology are diversity, interdependence and finite resources.

You also say that one of Earth's problems is overpopulation, yet you have three children...

Yes, that's true. Because the solution is not not to have children. 90% of the children who come into this world are neither educated, nor fed, nor loved. That's the problem. It's not black and white: to have children or not to have children. If a person has six children and gives them education, love, care and attention, it's better than if they only have one or two children who don't get any of that, because they grow up to be problem adults. We need people who have been brought up with love and education so they can be part of the solution.

I think the people who decide not to have children for ecological or environmental reasons are the ones who should be having them.

Tell us about what happened with Greenpeace. You were one of the founders of Greenpeace, only to be kicked out in the end. Is history repeating itself?

It's a bit different: I was fired from Greenpeace at a general meeting, with a proper vote, during which I had the opportunity to defend myself. Sea Shepherd Global dismissed me with a three-line e-mail and never got back to me after that.

First, I was a crew member on the Chica campaign in 1971. Then, in '72, we changed the name of the Don't Make a Wave committee to the Greenpeace Foundation. Unfortunately, Greenpeace was founded by Sierra Club members and Quakers. I didn't agree with their philosophy of bearing witness, i.e. not physically intervening. In 1977, I was a campaign manager for SEALs off Labrador and Newfoundland, and a sailor was about to kill a baby seal with a club. I ran up to him, grabbed the club, ripped it out of his hand and threw it into the ocean. I picked up the baby seal and took it to safety. Greenpeace said I had stolen and destroyed this man's property. I replied that if I had to do it again, I would. My job was to save the seals, not worry about some guy's property.

"The answer to an impossible problem is to find the impossible solution"

But the real reason, even more bizarre, was that as leader of the 77 campaign, Bob Pat Moore was on board. He was vice-president of Greenpeace at the time, and it was as part of this campaign that we took Brigitte Bardot out on the ice floes to have her photo taken with the baby seals. This campaign got us on the cover of magazines all over the world. Bob Pat Moore told me he was going to get in the helicopter and go on the ice floe with her. I refused. He wasn't a photographer or videographer. So there was no reason for him to accompany the actress. And he said: "Well, let me put it this way: when I'm president of Greenpeace, you'll be fired. And I said, "Well, let me tell you, you're not getting on that helicopter". He became president in May 1977, and I was dismissed the following month. So I set up my own organization, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, with the philosophy of aggressive non-violence.

What's interesting is that, with the exception of Pat Moore, almost all these directors have joined Sea Shepherd.

Will we ever be able to save the oceans?

It depends on what we're doing at the moment. It looks pretty bad. But I've always said that the answer to an impossible problem is to find the impossible solution. And I think you can do that with courage, imagination, passion and determination. And that's what changes the world. In 1972, the very idea of Nelson Mandela becoming President of South Africa was unthinkable. It was impossible, and yet the impossible became possible. That's how I approach these problems. Let's try to find the impossible solution.

My priority for this year is to end whaling in Iceland, and I'm convinced we can do it. We're going back in June, this time with four ships to completely block the operations. And we'll do it in the classic way, by intervening directly and aggressively against their activities. Will we be arrested? Yes, it's quite possible, but it's worth the risk.


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