Exclusive: Sea Shepherd founder warns destruction of planet 'out of control'

·News and Video Producer
·7-min read

Sea Shepherd founder Captain Paul Watson has warned human destruction of ecosystems is “out of control” and impacting us as a species.

“This is not about saving planet Earth,” he said in an exclusive interview with Yahoo News Australia.

“This is about saving ourselves from ourselves.”

Describing the world as “completely out of balance”, the veteran environmental campaigner argues that humans need to realise they are dependent on other species for survival.

A screenshot of Paul Watson on Zoom. His office can be seen in the background.
Captain Paul Watson spoke to Yahoo News Australia via Zoom from his base in New York City. Source: Michael Dahlstrom

Covid-19 a sign of worse to come warns Sea Shepherd founder

On Captain Watson's mind right now is the survival of the tiny phytoplankton which live in our oceans - organisms most people have never heard of.

The diverse group of microorganisms play a role as significant as forests in transforming the planet's carbon dioxide into oxygen and are the basis of ocean food webs.

Life on Earth depends on their existence, and a small drop in number could have devastating consequences.

Scientists fear they are under threat from rising ocean temperatures.

A Japanese whaling vessel and a Sea Shepherd boat crashing into one another.
Sea Shepherd's aggressive tactics were critical in driving Japanese whalers out of the Southern Ocean. Source: Sea Shepherd

While the decline of the oceans' phytoplankton may be hard to see from our busy lives on land, Captain Watson points to Covid-19 as a more obvious example of human impact on the planet.

Speaking from his base in the United States, where half a million people have died from the virus, he has seen its impact first-hand.

He predicts the zoonotic coronavirus is a harbinger of worse things to come.

As the permafrost melts and forests are destroyed, he is concerned new viruses that were once locked away under ice or in the blood of animal hosts risk coming into contact with humans.

'Our species will survive if we want to' says whale activist

Despite his dire predictions, Captain Watson does not appear to be rattled or alarmed, noting that during previous extinction events, the Earth has recovered in 18 to 20 million years.

Unfortunately, by that time humans likely won’t be around.

“I don’t really think about the future,” Captain Watson explained.

“We will survive if our species wants to survive, and that’s only going to happen if we learn to live in harmony with all other species.

“And learn to live within the context of the basic laws of ecology, to understand the importance of diversity, interdependence and finite resources.”

Sea Shepherd activists with their back to camera on a boat. The Sea Shepherd flag is flying.
Sea Shepherd has become a movement, operating in 41 countries. Source: Supplied

Why Captain Watson is focused on the present

Captain Watson's faith in the importance of the present moment came from his time volunteering as a medic for the American Indian Movement (AIM) during the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973.

Amid the 71-day occupation of the South Dakota town, a small group of Oglala Lakota and their followers, fighting against corruption and calling for the reopening of treaty negotiations, were surrounded by more than a thousand of federal agents.

Armed with .50-calibre machine guns, rifles and grenade launchers, government forces fired an estimated 133,000 rounds into the village. Two died and roughly 51 people were injured.

Captain Watson said he approached AIM's leader Russell Means and asked why they should continue to protest when there was no possibility of winning.

"He told me something that stayed with me for the rest of my life," Captain Watson said.

"He said: We're not concerned about the odds against us and we're not concerned about winning or losing.

"We're here because this is the right thing to do, the right place to do it, and the right time to do it.

"We have to focus on the present, because what we do in the present will define what the future will be."

Greta Thunberg has done a 'remarkable job'

As awareness grows of the impact humans are having on the planet, Captain Watson says there are more young activist leaders fighting for the environment than he has seen before.

He cites Swedish activist Greta Thunberg as a prime example, saying she has done a “remarkable job” in communicating climate change issues to young people.

Starting with a solo protest, she created the the Fridays for Future movement and has been outspoken in her environmental advocacy, clashing with world leaders including former US president Donald Trump and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern over climate policy.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg holding a sign in a crowd of people in New York City.
Captain Watson says Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has done a remarkable job calling for climate action. Source: Getty

Now 70 years old, Captain Watson, says he can offer no advice to emerging activists like Ms Thunberg, as it is their own passion within that will drive change.

“What people need to do is simply harness their passion to the virtues of courage and imagination and they can change the world,” he said.

Whaling drops by staggering figure

Although Captain Watson has played a leading role in driving the world’s commercial whale hunt to plummet over the last 45 years, he believes there is nothing unique about his own character other than being “persistent and relentless”.

A dead whale on a Japanese ship.
Sea Shepherd used a tactic of aggressive non-violence to fight Japanese whalers. Source: Sea Shepherd

He argues that he was in the right place at the right time when Greenpeace was founded, and much of his journey just “fell into place”.

By looking at life as “an adventure”, he has been lucky to avoid the depression many activists feel.

“I don’t recall any tough days, there’s been challenges of course,” he explained.

“I was put on the Interpol Red List (by Japan) and arrested in Germany, and had to escape and went into exile for six months.

“But I have to tell you, my six months in exile in South Pacific was like a holiday, so I have no complaints there.”

Sea Shepherd action in Australia gives hope

While he tries not to look into the future, Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson said Australia turning from a whaling nation to a conservation nation gives him hope that Japan may one day follow suit.

When he began campaigning to end the practice in the seventies, Australia’s humpback whale population had collapsed, and the Cheynes whaling station in Western Australia was hunting sperm whales for their oil.

Left - A large whale tail and a whaler on a ship in Western Australia. Right - The Cheynes whaling boat.
Australia was a whaling nation until operations closed in Western Australia in 1978. Source: Albany’s Historic Whaling Station

With the Soviets and the United States vying for supremacy, there was unprecedented demand for the high-grade substance which was highly prized by the military and NASA.

Captain Watson said that when he and fellow protesters arrived in Australia in 1977, they had a battle on their hands.

“When we were intervening against the whalers, the whaling company actually recruited the local motorcycle gang to protect their interests,” he said.

“So we were out there battling bikers on the high seas.”

As pressure continued to be applied by local whaling groups including Friends of the Earth, Project Jonah and the Whale and Dolphin Coalition, the Australian government made the decision to ban whaling in 1978.

Anti-whaling organisation becomes a 'movement'

Today there are few nations engaging in commercial whaling, with the notable exceptions being Norway, Japan, Denmark and Iceland who do so within their territorial waters.

Since forcing the Japanese whaling fleet out of the Southern Ocean, Captain Watson has stepped back and Sea Shepherd now operates in 42 different countries, as separate entities who work together.

“Something I’m most proud of is that Sea Shepherd is not an organisation, it has become a movement,” he said.

“I came to the realisation, when the Japanese came after me personally, that you can stop an individual, and you can shut down an organisation, but you can’t stop a movement.”

A boat in bloody water off the Faroe Islands.
The Faroe Islands remains an active campaign area for Sea Shepherd. Source: Sea Shepherd

Sea Shepherd is now concentrating much of its efforts stopping the annual whale hunts on the Faroe Islands, fighting the French government on the issue of commercial fishing vessels which kill an estimated 6000 dolphins each year, and stopping poaching off the coast of Africa.

In Australia, they have partnered with Indigenous beaches to clean up tonnes rubbish which is clogging remote beaches, after drifting on ocean currents to Asia.

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