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Paul Watson on humans, the environment and “eating the ocean”

Paul Watson in a photo taken Feb. 8, 2009. See full caption at end of story.

Paul Watson in a photo taken Feb. 8, 2009. See full caption at end of story.

Eric Cheng - ECHENG.COM

Eric Cheng - ECHENG.COM

Paul Watson in a photo taken Feb. 8, 2009. See full caption at end of story.

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Introduction: Paul Watson, 65, is a Canadian environmentalist. He lives in Vermont and is the founder of Sea Sheperd Conservation Society, an international not-for-profit marine life conservation organization. One of the founding members of Greenpeace, he has since moved on so that he could approach environmental issues with more direct-action tactics. Long regarded as a warrior for the planet’s oceans, Watson is surprisingly optimistic about how long it would take for them to recover. “Fifty years,” Watson said, “I think, would restore the balance.” ASPire interviewed Watson via Skype last March and is publishing the transcript in time for America Recycles Day on Nov. 15. —Tailor Liedtke

ASPire: How did you become an environmental conservationist?

WATSON: I swam with a family of beavers when I was ten during the summer, and the next summer when I went back there they were gone. I had found out that trappers had taken them, so I became quite angry. Then in the winter, when I was eleven I began to walk the trap lines and free the beavers, and other animals and destroy the traps. So that’s when I started my activism.

In 1969, I was the youngest founding member of a group called “The Don’t Make a Wave Committee.” It was set up to oppose nuclear testing in Amchitka Island off of the Aleutians. It came together from two groups, the Sierra Club Canada and the Quakers. We came up with this idea (for the committee) because in 1956 the Quakers had sailed into Bikini Atoll to protest the nuclear testing there. We came up with the name “The Don’t Make A Wave Committee” because in 1963 there was an earthquake that caused a tidal wave, which hit Vancouver Island and Hawaii. We wanted to put (out) that idea that this is a dangerous thing into people’s head(s) — it (a nuclear test) can cause an earthquake, it can cause a tidal wave.

So that’s why we called it The Don’t Make a Wave Committee. The idea was for us to raise money and then sail up to Amchitka. And at one of the early meetings somebody left the meeting and gave a V-sign [with their fingers] and said “Peace”, and (committee member) Bill Darnell said, “Oh, well make it a green peace.” Then, (committee member) (Bob) Hunter said, “Oh hey, that’s great for a boat.”

We all settled up on a boat called the Greenpeace and the Greenpeace Too. Although Greenpeace went up first and delayed the bomb, and returned, and then I went up on the Greenpeace Too, we didn’t stop the bombing. But that was the last time (nuclear tests) happened, because of the publicity that was generated. It was the last tests they had up there.

What was interesting was that people were up there because they were against the bomb, for peace. My motivation was completely different from everybody else. It was because Amchitka was a wildlife refuge. I thought it was ridiculous, you weren’t allowed to go on the island with a gun, but you blow a megaton bomb off underneath it. It killed all the sea otters, seagulls and everything around it.

Then, in 1972, we officially changed the name of The Don’t Make a Wave Committee to The Greenpeace Foundation, and I was the 8th founding member. I stayed with Greenpeace until June of 1977 and founded Sea Shepherd in August of 1977.

Besides an environmental awareness, what skills did you and the other Greenpeace founders bring to the table?

(A)lmost everybody had a media background. I was a Communications Major at the time; Bob Hunter was a Vancouver columnist for the Vancouver Sun, and (Ben) Metcalfe was with the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). So everybody was a journalist, a writer, or a communication person. Which was important because, Greenpeace became the first environmental group the understood the power of media, and that the camera was the most powerful weapon ever, and the importance of doing campaign which are dramatic to get people’s attention or to get a message across.

What did you do after you left Greenpeace?

Well actually, right after I left Greenpeace I spent six months tracking elephant poachers out in East Africa. But, you know, my background — aside from being a writer – was at sea. I was involved with Canadian Coast Guard, and I was in the Norwegian Merchant marine. In fact, I had just come back off of a pro-Norwegian merchant ship, when I attended that conference in 1969 that became Greenpeace …

(Y)ou can’t just do everything, so I decided that I needed to concentrate on one thing. So, after I came back from Africa I realized that this is very overwhelming and so, I decided to concentrate and focus on the oceans and marine wildlife.

But occasionally I’ve strayed. In 1984 and 1985 I led campaigns against the killing of wolves in British Columbia, the Yukon, and Alaska,  and I’ve gotten involved with other issues. But primarily it’s been marine wildlife.

Sea Sheperd uses direct action, which means that you often get into conflicts with those who illegally hunt whales and dolphins. Many times that includes the Japanese fishing industry. Why?

(J)apan is the most flagrant violator of international conservation law when it comes to issues like whales and fisheries. For instance, Japan right now has been condemned by the International Court of Justice, saying that their whaling in the southern ocean is illegal. They’re in contempt of the Australian Federal Court, and they’re also whaling in violation of The International Whaling Commission’s global moratorium on commercial whaling.

So they’re blatantly breaking the law, and they’re extremely stubborn. We’re just at stubborn at opposing them. They are one of the toughest countries. We’re also dealing with them and the killing of dolphins in Taiji, Japan.

And that’s what the documentary, “The Cove”, is based on, correct?

Yeah. What happened is in 2003, I sent a woman named Brooke MacDonald to Taiji because, I heard something was going on there. Her instructions were just to film and photograph everything, and those photos went worldwide. We actually had two people cut the nets and release 16 of the dolphins, and they were arrested.

One of our early crew members was Ric O’Barry; he was on the 2003 campaign. He went back and worked with Louis Psihoyos to make a movie that won the Academy Award (Oscar) in 2009. And we’ve been sending crews back ever since to Taiji. They’re on the ground from September 1st to the end of February every year.

On a related note, what do you think of the COP21 agreement reached in Paris last fall to combat climate change?

(T)hey accomplished absolutely nothing. It’s all just basically a show.

First of all, they didn’t really say anything. They didn’t look at any real solutions. The agreement they made, which doesn’t really seem to amount to much (because) it contains a non-binding clause. Which means that nobody has to pay any real attention to it. Any country can way, “Well, we don’t really agree with this.” And, it’s not even ratified until 2020. Essentially, it’s useless.

That’s why I wrote this book, “Solutions to Climate Change That People Do Not Want to Hear,” because, in this (climate change) agreement they don’t even mention the ocean, and they certainly don’t talk about the threats of fossil fuels. They don’t talk about the fact that the slaughter of 65 billion animals a year is a greater contribution to greenhouse gases then the entire transportation industry.

The transportation industry contributes 14 percent of the greenhouse gases every year, while the production of meat around the world – the killing of 65 billion animals – is 24 percent. But nobody wants to talk about that.

I don’t know if you’ve seen a film called “Cowspiracy”, it not only address(es) climate change, but water loss as well. The killing of these animals every year is the biggest cause of groundwater pollution, one of the leading causes of dead zones in the ocean, and of course the number one contributor to greenhouse gases.

Also, 40 percent of the fish taken out of the ocean is fed to livestock, to pigs, and chickens, and domestic cows. So, every time you eat a hamburger you’re literally eating the ocean.

These are the things they (governments and corporations) refuse to talk about. They don’t talk about the impact of human overpopulation and increased consumption. In fact, they don’t talk about anything that would get in the way of corporations continuing to make as much profit as they possibly can.

What steps would you take to combat climate change?

The first thing we need to do is, to allow the ocean time to repair itself. Which means we need a global moratorium on globalized fishing for at least 50 years.

Towards that, we need to stop all government subsidies to fishing, and we have to enforce (laws against) illegal fishing – which is about 40 percent of all our fishing. Also, about half of the fish landed are unreported, there’s just a lack of accountability on this. So, the only way to get around it is, a complete ban on commercial fishing.

I always try and illustrate this by referring people back to Polynesia, (where) for hundreds of years the shaman would say “This bay is taboo.” (Meaning), (t)here will be no fishing in this bay, anyone caught fishing – it was the death penalty …. And there was good reason for that, because they understood that their survival, as a people, on these islands was dependent on the survival of the fish surrounding these islands, and if the fish went, they died. So, therefore, they took it very seriously.

The problem is, today, there are no taboo areas in the world, and everything is being overly exploited, even marine refuges and sanctuaries, and that’s those are the places where the illegal fishing goes. So, our problem is that we’ve removed 90 percent of the fish from the ocean, and by 2048, according to Dr. Daniel Pauly or Dr. Boris Worm – two leading authorities on this – there will be no fishing industry because, there won’t be any fish. So, therefore, we have to shut it down and we have to allow the ocean to repair itself.

(T)he ocean is the single greatest factor when it comes to climate change. If you look at the Earth as a spaceship — which is what it is —we’re travelling through space, but every spaceship has a life support system. That life support system provides oxygen, it provides food, it regulates the climate, the temperature. That life support system is our ocean, and it’s run by a crew. A crew made up of species, which makes it possible for us to be here.

The second solution that we propose is, that the world convert to a plant-based diet and stop killing these 65 billion animals every year and the incredible resources that are used to maintain it.

There are three laws of ecology and no species has ever survived on the planet without living within the boundaries of those laws.

The first is the law of diversity: It describes that the strength of an ecosystem is dependent upon diversity within it. The greater the diversity, the stronger the ecosystem.

The second is the law of interdependence: That all of the species within those ecosystems are interdependent on each other. They need each other.

The third is the law of finite resources: That there’s a limit to growth, a limit to carrying capacity. What we do is, we steal the carrying capacity from other species, forcing them to go extinct. Which, therefore, diminishes interdependence and diminishes biodiversity. We just simply do not know what we’re doing when it comes to this. We don’t understand the roles that all of these species play. Beetles and birds and fish …. (T)he reality is, that all of those species, they don’t need us – but we need them. If worms were to disappear, or if bees were to disappear we’d be in big trouble, but we just simply don’t give them the time of day. We just assume that everything’s being taken care of, that we don’t have to be concerned about any responsibility….

(W)ere overfishing the oceans because, again we don’t understand what fish are. We treat them all the same, a salmon takes four years to become sexually mature and then dies. An orange roughy  takes 45 years to become sexually mature, and can live to be 200 years old. Halibut live to be 200 years old. Lobsters live to be over 200 years old. They simply cannot keep up with our level of exploitation, and we move from one species to another, without any thought of the interrelationship between those species. And of course, the fishermen say “We gotta kill the seals, we gotta kill the dolphins, or the birds because, they’re eating all of our fish.” They don’t seem to understand that if you want more fish, you need more seals, you need more dolphins, you need more birds because, they are working in partnerships with each other. There’s this wonderful cycle of support between these species, which we’re not involved in, we just force ourselves into that. We give nothing, and take everything.

If we did what you say, despite what man has done to the oceans, could they recover?

Oh, absolutely. We have two things to look at: In World War I and World War II in the 20th century, during those brief periods of time – five, six, seven years – there was an observable repair, (an) observable replenishment of the species.  It doesn’t take long. Fifty years, I think, would restore the balance. 

—Featured photo: Captain Paul Watson stands in front of the Steve Irwin in Brisbane, Australia on Feb. 8, 2009, before departing for Antarctica in Sea Shepherd’s Operation Musashi 2008-2009 campaign. Photo credit: John on

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Paul Watson on humans, the environment and “eating the ocean”