27 Nov 2022

He's walked the plank, but ousted Sea Shepherd captain Paul Watson says he's building a 'navy'

12:00 pm on 27 November 2022
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society founder, Paul Watson of Canada, poses on board of the "Brigitte Bardot", a Sea Shepherd multihull moored in Paris, on January 15, 2015.

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society founder Paul Watson pictured in 2015. Photo: LOIC VENANCE / AFP

For many, he's the face of Sea Shepherd: Paul Watson, now silver-haired in his early 70s, co-founded the controversial direct action group in 1977 after an acrimonious split with Greenpeace.

Greenpeace, according to Watson, had thought his tactics too confrontational.

Sea Shepherd's original modus operandi was infused in the now ubiquitous logo of Watson's design - a spin on the Jolly Roger - with a shepherd's crook and Neptune's trident crossed beneath a skull, its forehead emblazoned with a whale and dolphin.

In a 2013 civil case brought by Japanese whalers, a US court described Sea Shepherd as "pirates" over their efforts to hamper whaling ships.

A Sea Shepherd spokesperson at the time said the characterisation was "ridiculous", given they did not use violence or seek profit.

But it was an image many of their followers revelled in. Direct action, or "aggressive non-violence" as Watson calls it, was their tactic of engagement with whalers, illegal fishers, and poachers - state-sanctioned or otherwise.

However, in a shock to many Sea Shepherd followers, Watson says he's been thrown overboard amid rumours the organisation is taking a turn away from its controversial past.

Watson says he's building a new movement that will be true to his original vision for Sea Shepherd.

"We are growing a navy that will one day be the strongest direct action tool to fight battles across the world in the name of ocean conservation."

No-one from Sea Shepherd would speak to the ABC on the record; however, a statement on the organisation's page says:

"Our founder took a substantial step back from [Sea Shepherd Conservation Society] management in 2014, and in 2019 reduced his role to primarily archiving the organisations' history.

"Along with Paul Watson, we support the work of all Sea Shepherd Global efforts around the world."

A fishing boat passes by as the M/V John Paul Dejoria navigates near San Felipe bay, in the Gulf of California, Baja California state, northwestern Mexico, on March 7, 2018, as part of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's operation "Milagro IV" to save the critically endangered vaquita porpoise.

Sea Shepherd's original modus operandi was infused in the now ubiquitous logo of Watson's design - a spin on the Jolly Roger - with a shepherd's crook and Neptune's trident crossed beneath a skull, its forehead emblazoned with a whale and dolphin. Photo: GUILLERMO ARIAS / AFP

A generous donor

"In hindsight, I see the manoeuvring," Watson says from New York.

He's referring to Pritam Singh, a one-time friend and real-estate mogul who's had a long association with Sea Shepherd.

Born Paul Lombard Jr, Singh's Sea Shepherd bio describes him as "… an American businessman, environmentalist, and philanthropist … [and] the Founder of the Singh Group of companies, having overseen the design, development, building, and management of properties, with a current value of over $5 billion."

A Time Magazine profile from 1989 advised that around Pritam Singh, "… one sometimes needs to stop, press rewind and take it all in once more, slowly":

"One is unsure which jarring and inapposite piece of his biography best begins to explain him: That he is a former [Students for a Democratic Society] organiser who is building a Ritz-Carlton hotel? Or that he is a developer whose fondest wish is to run away with Sea Shepherd, a Greenpeace splinter group, and ram whale ships?

"Perhaps that he is a 36-year-old Massachusetts-born Sikh of French-Canadian extraction, in a turban and a Ralph Lauren polo shirt? Or that he read about this 102-acre property one Sunday in 1986 and bought it on a hunch three days later for $17.25 million, outbidding a group of Alaskan Indians bearing federal pollution-compensation credits?"

Over the years, Singh was a generous donor to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society - the US chapter of the organisation - and reportedly helped Watson personally, allowing him to live in houses owned or part-owned by himself or his wife.

"This guy was a donor and he was very helpful," Watson says.

"But he's a property developer from Florida."

In 2012, Japan had a Red Notice issued against Watson on the basis of an incident with a Japanese whaling fleet in 2010, which Watson says is an important detail in his eventual departure from the organisation.

The 'big mistake'

According to Interpol, the Red Notice was issued for:

"'Breaking into the Vessel, Damage to Property, Forcible Obstruction of Business, and Injury' in relation to two incidents that took place on the Antarctic Ocean in February 2010."

Watson says Japan had an ulterior motive in having the notice issued: "Japan were trying to stop us from intervening against the whaling fleet down in Antarctica.

"Now, what the Red Notice means is that I can be detained and possibly extradited. The INTERPOL Red Notice is for serial killers, war criminals, major drug traffickers."

Under threat of arrest if he travelled internationally, Watson says he was forced to retreat from active Sea Shepherd duties.

In 2014, he travelled to one of the few countries he was free to - France - where he married in 2015 before returning to the US with his wife soon after.

It was at this time that Watson says Singh started taking a more active role in management of the organisation.

An article published in Science in July this year outlines the transition of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society away from the influence of Watson, towards a greater focus on scientific research.

In it, Singh, who is currently chairman, is quoted as saying:

"By the summer of 2014, we were re-evaluating how best to accomplish our mission of protecting marine wildlife … it required a complete change of direction in terms of culture and approach."

To manage legal risks, each Sea Shepherd country chapter is its own unique legal entity, with Sea Shepherd Global acting as an umbrella organisation.

Watson remained on the board of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (the US chapter), the Global board, and several other country chapter boards. But in 2019, he says he was asked to voluntarily step down from the board of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

The reason he says he was given was that the Red Notice meant they were unable to obtain directors' insurance in the United States.

"So I did [step down]. And that was a big mistake because then I realised I couldn't attend board meetings," Watson says.

"My decisions meant nothing. My advice meant nothing.

'The reason why Sea Shepherd exists'

The M/V John Paul Dejoria docks at San Felipe bay, in the Gulf of California, Baja California state, northwestern Mexico, on March 7, 2018, as part of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's operation "Milagro IV" to save the critically endangered vaquita porpoise.

The M/V John Paul Dejoria docks at San Felipe bay, in the Gulf of California, Baja California state, northwestern Mexico, on March 7, 2018, as part of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's operation "Milagro IV" to save the critically endangered vaquita porpoise. Photo: GUILLERMO ARIAS / AFP

After stepping down from the board in 2019, Watson says he remained a member of the organisation working behind the scenes, until things came to a head this year.

"In early June there was a board meeting that I was actually invited to and they said, 'Well, we're changing the direction of Sea Shepherd - it's going to be involved with science and working with governments and can't be controversial or confrontational anymore'.

"And I said, 'Well, I'm sorry, but, you know, I can't participate in this. I can't support it'.

Watson says he was told his image is incompatible with where the organisation is headed.

"Basically they told me that my history, my reputation, is an embarrassment to them going forward because they're wanting to work in partnership with governments."

Lamya Essemlali, co-founder and president of Sea Shepherd France and a staunch supporter of Watson's, says the idea of partnering with government organisations that would have a problem with Watson's legacy is antithetical to the spirit of Sea Shepherd.

"I mean, why on Earth would we want to partner with anyone who has an issue with this legacy?

"What Paul has been doing over the past decades, this is the reason why Sea Shepherd exists today."

Following his resignation from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Watson took to social media to publicly announce his decision.

He also aired grievances over the direction of the US chapter.

Essemlali says this is the reason given for his removal from the Sea Shepherd Global board:

"Paul [was] a Global director, and he was being public about what he thinks Sea Shepherd [US] is becoming. That's a breach in the agreements between Global and Sea Shepherd [US]."

Since then, Watson says he's had his social media page taken down for flying the Sea Shepherd logo, and that Sea Shepherd Conservation Society had applied for copyright control of a suite of the Sea Shepherd intellectual property.

According to the World Intellectual Property Organisation, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society applied for 70 trademarks this year.

Some country chapters, like France, have been outspoken in their support of Watson. Others, like Australia, have been publicly tight-lipped.

Once were warriors?

If Sea Shepherd Conservation Society social media is anything to go by, they still feel that they're engaging in direct action.

One particular video shows a Sea Shepherd USA vessel working with the Mexican Navy to have fishing nets removed from a designated zero tolerance area (ZTA) - a fishing exclusion zone.

The operation is part of the Saving the Vaquita campaign - a small species of critically endangered porpoise native to the Gulf of California in Mexico.

There are estimated to be as few as 10 animals left.

In the video, what appears to be a Mexican navy vessel with a Sea Shepherd ship nearby, is seen aggressively targeting a fishing boat, running over its nets, reminiscent of the tactics that made Sea Shepherd famous.

The description accompanying the video is "direct action on the frontlines".

According to Sea Shepherd documents, hundreds of illegal fishing nets have been removed from the zero-tolerance area as part of Saving the Vaquita since the campaign began in 2015.

'It was nothing like I thought'

But Melbourne-based Haans Siver, herself a veteran of 11 Sea Shepherd campaigns, says the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society social media doesn't reflect her experience.

She says she joined her first campaign back in 2013.

"I was teaching kids at school about what [Sea Shepherd] were doing and I was like, 'I've got to get onboard a ship'."

Her first campaign was in the Southern Ocean, and subsequent efforts included a 147-day chase of an illegal fishing vessel poaching Patagonian toothfish.

"I ended up staying on the ships for six years straight - I never left."

Burnt out and with Covid-19 lockdowns biting, she went to ground for a few years. But she says the vaquita campaign was one she'd always had in her sights.

"I was finally ready to go out - I'd always wanted to do [Saving the Vaquita]. To be able to bring a species back from extinction, how amazing is that?

"I got an opportunity to do it and I'm like, 'Yes! I'm there!' But I got over there and it was nothing like I thought it was going to be."

Appointed first officer and ship manager, she says they were stationed in the zero-tolerance [fishing] area, but were told they couldn't pull in illegal fishing nets. Instead, they were to inform the Mexican navy of the net locations.

"[The fishers] knew we couldn't pull the nets in, all we could do is put on the spotlights and say on the loudspeakers, 'you're not allowed to be here'."

"We would report to the navy on the spot and they never came in the two months I was there. Not once."

She said when mechanical problems forced them back to port, a meeting was called with David Hance, the chief operating officer of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

"When we got back to dock to reprovision at one point, then Dave Hance came onboard and we had a meeting on the Sharkwater [ship] with all the crew.

"Dave Hance told us, 'We're changing our name, we're no longer direct action - direct action doesn't work - we're now going to be science-based'.

"We never left the dock again. In the end, I was like, 'this is not what I signed up for'. I left a few weeks early. I didn't come to Mexico to sit in dock.

"When they removed Paul, that's when things really exploded.

"As soon as I heard that, I knew I'd made the right decision."

Radical confrontation vs 'radical collaboration'

Depending on the side you're given, Watson has been forced out by the group he cradled into being, or he's making a power grab for an organisation that he chose to step away from, and has moved on without him.

But at its core, the rift dividing Sea Shepherd appears to be between those who see its modus operandi as radical confrontation, versus "radical collaboration", as Singh is quoted in Science in reference to recent work with Latin American governments.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's recently appointed director of science, John Payne, told Science magazine he wouldn't have taken on the role with the organisation if Watson was still in charge.

And Singh, again quoted in Science, says Sea Shepherd "can't do what we want going forward without science driving us … science will be our primary mission-not an afterthought."

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society fleet is giving scientists access to invaluable data that was once out of reach.

And if their social media is anything to go by, working with governments and their navies is yielding results.

But Essemlali, who has a background in science, says there are plenty of organisations that already prioritise research.

"As far as I'm concerned, science is a means to an end. The end is the protection and the defence and conservation of the natural world.

"You do make enemies, but that's the logical consequence of doing things that matter. It has always been part of the deal, but that's also what made people feel so passionate about Sea Shepherd.

"That's what made this organisation so unique."

'What's more important than the name is the cause'

Rather than using governments to its advantage, Watson thinks the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is the one at risk of being used.

"My concern is that Sea Shepherd is being co-opted by governments and by corporations to greenwash themselves.

"We shouldn't be offering services to countries that then turn around and tell us what to do, that have to approve everything that we say, so that we become part of their propaganda machine."

A Change.org petition to have Singh and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society board dismissed has so far garnered a couple of thousand signatures.

But regardless of the fate of Sea Shepherd from here on, Watson doubts he'll ever see a way back.

Instead, he's launched a new direct action group and is in the process of putting together a new fleet.

He says a number of Sea Shepherd's Hollywood backers are now giving him financial support.

"I set up the Captain Paul Watson Foundation. I know it sounds a little egotistical, but I figured, well, they're not going to be able to take that away from me."

"We need to get out on the high seas like Sea Shepherd France is doing and intervening against the super trawlers and the dolphin killers.

"What's more important than the name, what's more important than the logo, is the cause.

"I said that Sea Shepherd has always been about passion, courage and imagination. But that can continue on without the name."

The question now is whether the ocean is big enough for them all.

Media teams for Sea Shepherd Australia, Sea Shepherd New Zealand, Sea Shepherd Global, and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (USA) were all contacted multiple times for this story. None responded to requests for interviews. Two Sea Shepherd members were spoken to on background.


Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs