Captain Paul Watson interview with The Skylark

Captain Paul Watson: “So what are YOU going to do about it?”

Waving a banner that reads “save the whales” is submission, says Captain Paul Watson who is no stranger to the space that occupies a whale and a harpoon. His opinion — that protest is futile and direct intervention is necessary — was the reason he split in 1977 from Greenpeace (which he cofounded when he was 18) to set up Sea Shepherd

The marine conservation organisation uses “aggressive non violence”, within the confines of the law, to impressive effect. In its 43 years in operation, its successes include helping secure the retreat of the Japanese from the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary and ending Canada’s commercial seal hunt.

But all these victories, Watson told The Skylark, will be a drop in the ocean if we do not urgently wake up and respond to nature’s warning cries that are already sounding loudly. 

We live in a world of short term investment for short term gain where very little thought is given to the future. We have even created an economy of extinction. There are corporations that have taken over things like the fishing industry and all they want to do is invest their money and get out with as much money as possible.

Mitsubishi has 10 to 15 years’ supply of bluefin tuna in their frozen warehouses in Japan. They could stop fishing today and allow the bluefin tuna population to recover but they won’t do it. And the reason they won’t do it is that if the bluefin population recovers, then the value of their fish in the warehouse will go down. And if the fish goes extinct it becomes priceless. We’ve already wiped out 90% of bluefin tuna, making it the most expensive fish on the planet, an average of $75,000 [£57k] a fish. And they do not care. They’ll just take those profits and reinvest them in whatever else they want. 

Sea Shepherd crew take on the Yushin Naru as it hunts for whales

The absence of longterm thinking is what has led to humanity’s alienation from the natural world. Indigenous people, like we all were thousands of years ago, have a biocentric point of view. We all once knew we were part of everything, not masters of everything. But anthropocentrism came into being, about 8,000 years ago, and decided that we are the master species; we can do whatever we want and every other species is irrelevant. 

Insane anthropocentric belief systems

To this end, we’ve created what I call collective mass psychoses, insane anthropocentric belief systems. And all we’ve become is a bunch of overly conceited naked apes, divine legends in our own minds. 

But if we’re going to survive we need to learn to live in harmony with the natural world. We need to learn to live in accordance with the three basic laws of ecology: diversity, interdependence and the law of finite resources, which is the limit to growth and a limit to carrying capacity. Right now we’re stealing the carrying capacity of other species and causing them to go extinct which then diminishes diversity and interdependence. But again, we don’t care, we don’t have a memory and we don’t have a vision into the future. 

We might be concerned about the next election or the next financial plan over five years. But if we want to be conservationists, we have to look at the way the world is going to be in a thousand years. Because what we’re doing right now is defining what kind of a planet this is going to be many, many years from now. 

Passion, courage and imagination 

I think that people have to recognise that the solutions are not going to come from governments and corporations. Every social revolution in the history of humanity came about because of the passion, courage and imagination of individuals. Not governments. 

Abraham Lincoln didn’t free any slaves; the anti slavery movement came from William Wilberforce and Frederick Douglass. Women in the United States didn’t get the vote because of Woodrow Wilson, he just signed a Bill. In fact, he was their main opposition until he was forced to sign the Bill. The civil rights movement, all of it, it’s all the same. As [American cultural anthropologist] Margaret Mead once said, “governments never change anything, they never have.” Governments are the problem. So we’ve got to stop depending on the governments to solve the problem.

“What we’re seeing right now with Covid-19 is just a harbinger of things to come unless we change our ways”

Nature will create activists 

Here’s an interesting fact. In every social revolution there is no more than 7% of a population involved. 93% just don’t give a damn, they’ll go along with whatever. Most people just go with the best deal without being concerned about the ecological consequences. So what we have to do is depend upon nature recruiting the people we need. And it will do this by making the consequences of our actions very apparent.

We’re seeing one right now. I’ve been predicting for 20 years there’s going to be more emerging pathogens. Whether its MERS, SARS or Covid-19, these viruses are coming to the forefront because of diminished ecosystems and diminished species. When you diminish an ecosystem or a species they have no place to go. Every plant and every animal has viruses that are associated with them and viruses are absolutely essential for our survival on this planet. But when you diminish a species, like a bat or primate, those viruses are going to look for a new host. Not consciously, but that’s the way it works. And 8 billion of us are pretty attractive for a host.

What we’re seeing right now with Covid-19 is just a harbinger of things to come unless we change our ways. There’s going to be more and more problems with viruses and pathogens as ecosystems deteriorate. We’ll see of course more severe storms and more severe fires and at some point this is going to wake up the population. But we really have to do something right now. You can only be in denial for so long until you realise your house is burning and you’ve got to put out the fire. 

One person can make an incredible difference 

The good news is that more individuals are getting involved and it’s their passion and their courage which is making the change. Greta Thunberg has been able to reach millions of people and she’s just an 17 year old girl. And this comes from passion. One person can make an incredible difference. Because of Dian Fossey, we still have mountain gorillas in Rwanda. Because of David Wingate the cahows were saved from extinction. 

In 1983 I got a call from a man in Scotland who told me grey seals were being killed in the Orkney Islands and asked what I was going to do about it. I said, “I don’t know, I’m on the other side of the world, you’re in Scotland. What are you going to do about it?” I told him to use his imagination and together we set up Sea Shepherd Scotland. He got a bunch of volunteers to go up there to the Orkney Isles who walked right up to the sealers and literally pulled the rifles out of the hands and threw them into the water. They all got arrested but they got so much publicity out of it that we raised enough money to buy that island, Little Green Holm, which today is a seal sanctuary. All because of one person saying: “what can I do?”

Likewise, In 1979 I had a 19 year old crew member who told me we had to do something about the way we treat laboratory animals. I said “Alex [Pacheco], this is Sea Shepherd. We’re not going to go into the labs. We’ve got to focus on what we’re doing. But if you’re passionate about it, why don’t you do something about it?” So he went back to the US, got a job in a lab in Maryland and documented all the atrocities. He then presented that documentation to the Washington Post and he shut the place down. He then went on to create People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).  

captain paul watson sea shepherd
A Sea Shepherd crew taking on the whaling ship the Yushin Maru as it hunts for protected whales. Credit Sea Shepherd

I learned a lesson many years ago which has stayed with me. In 1973 I was a volunteer medic for the American Indian movement during the occupation of Wounded Knee in South Dakota. We were surrounded by a thousand federal agents who were shooting at us, they killed two and wounded 46. Totally surrounded, I knew we couldn’t win this. I went to Russel Means, who was the leader of the American Indian movement and I said, “look we’re overwhelmed, the odds are against us, there is no possibility we can win. So what are we doing here?” And he said, “we’re not here because we’re concerned about the odds against us, and we’re not concerned about winning or losing. We’re here because it’s the right place to be, it’s the right time to do it and it’s the right thing to do”. 

So what I say to people is don’t worry about the future. What you do in the present will define the future. That’s where all of your energy should be directed.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity – 12th October 2020

Captain Paul Watson, Founder of Sea Shepherd

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