TORONTO – He’s been sailing the world’s oceans for a year to avoid arrest, has been forced to become an observer at one of his most cherished campaigns and hasn’t held his young granddaughter since she was a newborn.
But the Canadian founder of the radical environmental group Sea Shepherd remains as self-assured as ever.
“I intend to weather it out no matter what the consequences are. Whether they apprehend me or not, Sea Shepherd’s campaigns will continue to go on,” Paul Watson tells The Canadian Press in a phone interview from a ship on the Southern Ocean.
The 62-year-old — whose exact location remains a closely guarded secret — maintains he’s being unjustly hunted down by Japan and Costa Rica, who’ve laid charges that form the basis of two Interpol arrest alerts against him.
“If I get sent to Costa Rica … it’s just a conduit to Japan,” says Watson, who has disrupted the Asian country’s whale hunts for years and now believes he’s been made a target.
“I find it completely reprehensible that that’s the way the judicial system has come down.”
Despite his fiery statements, the fact remains that Watson has now been at sea for a whole year. But it’s a decision he says has helped him avoid indefinite incarceration in Japan.
“I’m not really a fugitive. It’s just that if I enter a border point then that will immediately send a message to Japan to have me arrested and then extradited,” he says.
“The oceans are the last free place on the planet.”
Watson believes Sea Shepherd’s campaigns against Japan in the waters around Antarctica have saved more than 5,000 whales since they began.
“We look at ourselves as pirates of compassion in pursuit of pirates of greed,” he says. “If the oceans die, we die, simple as that.”
The past year of Watson’s life reads like the script of a Hollywood film.
The environmentalist known for his clashes with the law was transiting through Germany last May when he was arrested at the behest of the Costa Rican government, which claims he endangered the crew of one of its fishing vessels in Guatemalan waters in 2002.
In July last year, Watson, who was under house arrest after being released on bail, says he received a tip warning he was to be extradited from Germany, not to Costa Rica, but to Japan.
“I decided I know if I go to Japan I’m not going to be released, ever. So I left Germany,” he says.
In August, Interpol issued a “red notice” for Watson at Costa Rica’s request related to his escape from Germany.
That was followed by another in September based on Japanese charges of breaking into and damaging a Japanese whaling ship during two incidents in the Antarctic Ocean in February 2010.
After fleeing Germany, Watson made his way to the Southern Ocean to disrupt the Japanese whale hunt but had to become an observer after receiving a scathing ruling from a U.S. court in February.
“You do what you have to do,” he says when asked if it was hard to hand over control to Sea Shepherd’s Australian branch, which wasn’t covered by the ruling.
The appeal court ruling last December castigated Sea Shepherd for its methods and overturned an earlier decision dismissing a lawsuit by Japanese whalers who wanted a halt to Sea Shepherd’s aggressive tactics.
Now, as his lawyers work to combat the charges against him, Watson spends his days at sea writing a book on his clashes with the Japanese and lending his input to various Sea Shepherd campaigns.
His one regret is being unable to spend time with his daughter and granddaughter.
“I’m getting used to it,” he says of his long haul at sea. “My daughter lives in Seattle and she had my granddaughter last April. The last time I saw her was the day she was born.”
The worries which keep Watson at sea are quite legitimate, says one international law expert.
“He’s not kidding. He goes ashore and he’s in danger,” says Robert Currie, a law professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
“He could very well be arrested in quite a large number of countries and the countries where he couldn’t get arrested are probably countries where he wouldn’t want to go.”
Currie notes, however, that Watson’s situation is the way the international criminal co-operation system is supposed to work.
“No safe haven is how the philosophy is often termed,” he says. “This is a choice he made. He could have fought that out in Germany.”
Watson could have argued his case in a German court, explains Currie, but even if he had succeeded, his win would have only secured his freedom in that country.
“He’s always been an international traveller, you can see him making that calculation,” Currie says of Watson’s decision to flee. “He’s in a very difficult situation.”
There are some, however, who admire Watson’s doggedness.
“It is an eternal consistent set of beliefs and as far as I’m concerned it’s admirable,” says Daniel Pauly, a professor at University of British Columbia’s Fisheries Centre.
“We need to have people who push the envelope.”
When asked about the effectiveness of Watson’s campaigns, Pauly says Sea Shepherd’s tactics create room for less aggressive conservationists to succeed.
“It makes other people look reasonable and it might be possible for other organizations to close deals that they otherwise might never get,” he says.
Meanwhile, Pauly argues Sea Shepherd’s core mandate of marine conservation is an important one.
“We must give value to the world that surrounds us. A value that is not economic,” he says. “That’s what Paul Watson forces us to do.”