It’s been a couple years since the last season of Whale Wars, the Animal Planet reality show that had me riveted to the screen. Each week, Sea Shepherd activists took on whalers by ramming Japanese ships with their vessels, tossing smoke bombs and canisters of butyric acid onto their decks. It was like watching history being made. Sea Shepherd founder Captain Paul Watson may not have a show anymore, but he’s still working hard trying to protect marine life and the world’s oceans.
“I’m doing a lot of speaking engagements, I’m more organized,” Watson tells me by phone from New York. “We have 12 ships now. So trying to organize the crews on the ships, we have around 200 volunteers with ships in 25 different nations. It’s a constant thing to get the right people in the right place and deploy the vessels where they’re need to be. Sea Shepherd is registered in about 40 different countries, so at any given time we have probably 25 to 35 different nationalities involved on the ships.”
Next week, Watson will travel to Maui for the Strings and Finz benefit at Lumeria Maui.
“I used to live in Hawaii,” says Watson. “I lived on Molokai for quite some time. I have spoken at University of Hawaii in Honolulu and on Kauai but never on Maui. Primarily I will be talking about marine conservation, upholding of international conservation laws, anti-poaching, the importance of protecting marine ecosystems if we want to survive. We can sum up what we do in a very simple sentence: if the ocean dies, we die. This is really a question of self-survival.”
His controversial tactics have put him at odds with some governments and corporations, but Watson stands by all of his actions.
“Activism is activism, everything else is simply talk,” says Watson. “Talk changes very little, Activism achieves results. I do what I do without regarding the odds against me, without worrying about winning or losing but instead doing what I think is the right and just thing to do. I concentrate on the present knowing that what I do in the present will have positive consequences for the future.”
Watson’s big idea at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference is a concept familiar to us island people: he wants to bring the kapu system back.
“Two years ago at the COP 21 Conference, I presented a paper, which of course no one was going to take seriously,” says Watson. “I said, look, the oceans are dying. Since 1950 we’ve had a 40 percent diminishment in phytoplankton population. Phytoplankton provide about 80 percent of the oxygen that we breathe. We simply can’t go on doing this. For hundreds of years, the Polynesians had a method called kapu–it was a taboo system. The kahuna would say this is kapu and anyone caught fishing during the kapu would get the death penalty. It seems a little extreme but when you consider that if they overfished they would die, the Hawaiians could not live without the fish. It was a question of survival. The problem that we have is there are no taboo areas anywhere in the world. The fish can’t hide anywhere. We’ve removed 90 percent of the fish in the sea. By 2048, there won’t be a commercial fishing industry anywhere because there won’t be any fish to catch.”
He says those numbers are based on the research and conclusion of biologists Boris Worm of Dalhousie University and Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia. Watson takes these statistics very seriously. He’s a vegan, and so is his fleet.
“All of our vessels are vegan vessels,” says Watson. “The reason for that is even when you eat meat, 40 percent of the fish taken out of the oceans is fed to chickens, pigs, domestic house cats and domestic salmon. So even when you’re eating meat, you’re eating fish. We’re eating the oceans alive. We really have to give the oceans time to return and repair themselves. That’s the only way we are going to be able to do it. It’s very selfish of our generation to insist that we can continue to exploit–basically, plunder–the resources of future generations.”
The way Watson sees it, if we can’t stop our frenzied consumerism, then nature will. But he’s also hopeful that humans will learn this before it’s too late.
“I don’t know if we can actually change the era of consumerism that we’re in but nature will do it for us,” says Watson. “There are three laws of ecology that every species must live in. Anything that has lived outside of these laws has gone extinct. There is the law of diversity–the strength of an ecosystem is dependent upon the diversity within it. The law of interdependence–those species that are interdependent with each other. And the third is the law of finite resources–there is a limited carrying capacity. What we are doing right now is stealing the carrying capacity of other species, thus diminishing diversity and diminishing interdependence. What that leads to is ecosystem collapse. I think as we approach that, people will start to understand it more. People are much more aware now about what’s happening in the oceans than they were 30 years ago. Hopefully, that will continue.”
Watson’s concerns about the market for seafood driving the ocean’s troubles are no joke. And the health of the commercial fishing industry–especially on the East Coast–is getting a lot more difficult.
“In the ’80s I predicted the collapse of the cod fisheries in the East Coast and Canada,” says Watson. “All of the experts working for the government said that was impossible. But it happened in 1992. So all over the world these fisheries are collapsing, even though the experts say that’s not going to happen, because the people paying the experts don’t want to quit. What I call it is the economics of extinction. That is, people know these species are going extinct, but they’re going to make the maximum amount of money off of them before they do. For instance, one blue fin tuna on the Japanese market is worth about $50,000 to $75,000. With that kind of price on its head, its days are numbered. We’ve removed about 90 percent of them from the ocean. So the Japanese this year said they have to cut back. But they refuse to do it because there’s money to be made by driving the species to extinction. As the numbers are diminished, the prices go up. That’s why we have a $75,000 fish.”
The commercial fishing industry stores huge amounts of frozen fish, and continue to drive prices up.
“Mistubishi, for example, has a 15-year supply of blue fin frozen in their warehouse,” says Watson. “They could stop fishing tomorrow and keep up that supply for the next decade. But they won’t do it because if they do and the numbers of the fish begins to rise in the oceans, that will diminish the cost or the value of them in the warehouses. The more diminished they are, the higher the value. If they go extinct, you have a priceless commodity, and you can set your own price. These companies will simply reinvest that profit into other things. They don’t care about the fishery. We don’t have real fisherman anymore–what we have are corporations that have taken this over. They don’t care about the future.”
If you think farmed fish is the way to go, Watson says to think again. Aquaculture isn’t a solution for world hunger. In fact, he says it’s polluting our rivers and oceans with fish lice and new marine viruses. Sea Shepherd’s Operation Virus Hunter has been researching and bringing awareness to the damage it says aquaculture is causing.
“Let’s take a look at farmed salmon,” Watson says. “It takes 70 fish caught from the ocean to feed just one salmon raised on the salmon farm. The farm-raised salmon are raised in very crowded conditions so they’re intensive with antibiotics and hormones. For instance, farmed salmon has dirty white flesh–nobody’s going to sell that as salmon in the market. So what they do is they put dye in the food pellets to dye their flesh while they’re still alive. Farmed salmon is a chemically intense industry and causes a lot of marine pollution. It attracts predators, from sea lions to bears to eagles, and the farms shoot them for trying to get the salmon. Countries are destroying mangrove swamps to put in shrimp farms, and catching food from the ocean to feed those shrimp. Aquaculture isn’t the answer–it’s a very destructive practice.”
As if all that wasn’t enough, plastic in the ocean’s is a big problem, too.
“I’m in New York this week to address the issue of the plastic gyres in the oceans,” says Watson. “Sea Shepherd is working with Parley for the Oceans, and what we do is we’re pulling plastic from the ocean and recycling it. We took a 70-ton, 72-kilometer gill net out of the Southern Ocean and Adidas is making running shoes out of it. We have beach cleanups all over the world, almost on every continent. I don’t know if we can get the plastic out of the gyres but we can try and stop plastic from going in. The problem is the plastic breaks down into microfibers and micro-particles. Those micro-particles are getting into the food chain, starting with the plankton and going all the way up. It’s one of the most insidious forms of pollution in the ocean right now. Technically, how do you remove the plastic from the gyres? It’s almost impossible. I thought of an osmosis process where you sift the water, but the problem is you kill too much marine life doing that–especially the microorganisms. It’s a very difficult thing. In the ’80s I was warning people, I wrote articles about it in The Ocean Realm saying this was a major problem, but nobody really gave it any thought. It’s only been in the last couple of years that we managed to get people to pay attention to it. It’s like anything else–too little, too late before people get involved.”
But plastic bags are getting banned round the world, and plastic bag suppliers are pissed about it.
“Parley for the Oceans tries to discourage the use of plastic and is trying to find alternatives for the use of plastic,” says Watson. “There’s a company in France that makes a plastic out of seaweed so it’s biodegradable when it gets in the ocean. It becomes fish food. [We’re] trying to discourage the use of petrochemical plastics. They’re making progress with banning plastic bags–San Francisco has a ban, Tasmania has done it, France has done it. We’ve come a long way in the last decade. Unfortunately, the plastic bag industry is now suing places like San Francisco because the ban is cutting their profits.”
Sea Shepherd is always looking for volunteers and donations, and speaking engagements and appearances like the one next week with Watson are one of the ways the organization raises funds for their international conservation campaigns. But Sea Shepherds conservation efforts are just one piece of the puzzle.
“The Sea Shepherd only addresses one part of conservation,” says Watson. “The strength of an ecosystem lies in diversity. The strength of any movement will have to lie in diversity. We need thousands of groups addressing thousands of issues. So we don’t pretend to take on everything. We have a hard enough time focusing on anti-poaching and plastic issues. Really, the strength is in individuals. There are individuals that are making a difference all over the world. Because of Dian Fossey, we still have Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda. Because of Birute Galdikas, we still have orangutans in the jungles in certain places. People are making a difference on that level. That’s what I try to encourage people to do. Find something that they’re passionate about, and devote their imagination and talents into finding solutions.”
Captain Paul Watson will be the keynote speaker at the upcoming Stringz and Finz Benefit on Saturday, June 17, and also at a pre-festival reception on Friday, June 16. For more information go to Lmeriamaui.com/lumeria-maui-events/stringz-n-finz.
Paul Watson’s Top Ten Environmental Concerns
“I could sum it up with three words: The ‘Insanity of Humanity’ but to be specific:”
- Diminishment of biodiversity, species extinction
- Over-fishing, Illegal and unregulated fishing
- Animal Agriculture contributing to global warming, pollution of ground water and dead zones in the Ocean
- Plastic pollution in the sea
- Acidification and the death of coral reef eco-systems
- Seismic and noise pollution in the sea
- Human overpopulation, war and mindless consumerism
- Radiation from nuclear accidents like Fukushima
- Anthropocentric politics, cultures and religion.
- Destruction of the rainforests
Strings and Finz
• Pre-Festival Meet & Greet
Reception with Captain Paul Watson
Friday June 16: 5-7pm. $25 Donation at Door (Cash Only)
• Strings and Finz Benefit
Keller Williams, Keller Williams, Peter Rowan, The Larry Keel Experience,The YumYum Beast and Kanekoa. Keynote speaker Paul Watson
Saturday, June 17: Noon-8:30pm. $95, 21+