Paul Watson, the man former Newfoundland premier Danny Williams once called a high-seas “terrorist,” has spent roughly 40 years developing a reputation as one of the most combative defenders of the ocean.
But when the eco-warrior looks back on his controversial career, he wishes he had been even more aggressive.
“I’ve become, I think, more determined as I’ve gotten older,” Watson says in a telephone interview from the Channel Islands, where he observed the recently concluded International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) annual meeting. “Because of the realization that in some events I could have gotten further. I could have done more if I had been more aggressive.”
“I could have pushed things a little further in many of these campaigns and saved more lives.”
Still, few have been willing to go as far as Watson to protect ocean life.
In the documentary “Eco-Pirate,” writer/director Trish Dolman delves into the notorious crusader’s lifelong dedication to the sea, his role in the beginnings of Greenpeace and controversial split with the pacifist group, the impact his relentless campaign has had on his personal life and his involvement with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which he founded in 1977.
The film, voted a top 10 audience favourite at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, also follows Watson and his crew as they hunt a Japanese whaling fleet in Antarctica’s Southern Ocean, displaying some of the confrontational tactics that have prompted some critics to label him a terrorist.
The 60-year-old Watson, who grew up in New Brunswick, quotes Martin Luther King in describing his approach as “aggressive non-violence,” insisting his ocean crew has only destroyed property used to take sea life.
“We’re an anti-poaching group so we intervene against illegal activities,” he says simply.
Watson, whose 2008 battle with Canada’s seal hunt resulted in interference convictions for two Sea Shepherd members, says recent triumphs point to an end to whale kills within his lifetime.
“We’re getting close to ending whaling in the Southern Ocean,” he says, referring to a sanctuary surrounding Antarctica where the IWC has banned the practice.
“Japan announced ... they’re going back and most likely this will be the last year because we’ve pretty much crippled them on this last campaign. I think that we’ll be able to stop them completely if they return.”
Earlier this year, Sea Shepherd vessels forced Japan to recall its Antarctic fleet a month ahead of schedule even though it nabbed just one fifth of its planned catch.
Japan captures whales under the auspices of “scientific research,” considered permissible by the IWC but widely condemned by environmental groups as disguised commercial whaling.
“Our objective right from the beginning was to sink them economically, to bankrupt them and we’ve achieved that,” Watson says of Japanese whalers.
“Every year we get a little stronger, they get a little weaker and it’s just persistence.”
Over the years, the Sea Shepherd arsenal has grown to include a fleet of four vessels, sophisticated radar and communications equipment and a helicopter. That growth is supported in large part by an exploding donation base Watson credits to his Animal Planet series “Whale Wars.”
“It’s given us a lot more resources, a lot more support certainly. I think it’s certainly made people around the world extremely aware of what’s going on,” Watson says of the documentary-style TV show, which follows his crew as they chase whaling ships.
“We’ve gone from four years ago being a $2-million-a-year organization to a $12-million-a-year organization.”
“Eco-Pirate” opens in Toronto and Vancouver on Friday.