Doing the Right Thing: Sea Shepherd’s Captain Paul Watson

Captain Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd

To many, he’s known as the face of “Whale Wars,” the award-winning Animal Planet program that follows the efforts of the Sea Shepherd organization as they battle illegal fishing and whaling all over the planet. But Captain Paul Watson is most concerned with those who do not know his name—the billions of oceanic and land animals he works to save from egregious slaughter and loss of natural habitat. Whether or not he’s successful, his efforts for our planet will be praised by future generations as the work of a selfless man bravely following his heart, even when it means using controversial tactics to help end suffering and to educate people about the urgent condition our world is in.

I sat down with Captain Paul Watson shortly after he delivered the keynote speech at the Los Angeles Go Green Expo on April 16th. The following interview is edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Jill Ettinger: In light of Japan’s recent disaster, do you think they’ll be more aggressively whaling to help boost their economy?

Captain Paul Watson: I don’t think it’ll drive them towards more whaling, that’s a losing option. It’s not in their interest to return. But, we’re prepared, if they do. I do think it will probably drive them towards more illegal fishing.

JE: Illegal fishing?

CPW: There’s more illegal fishing going on now than legal fishing. For instance, taking fish out of areas such as the Galapagos Marine Reserve, or waters around the Southern Pacific Islands, or off the coast of Africa, which is a very serious situation. The people we call pirates in Somalia, they’re not really pirates, the real pirates are the Asian and European fishing fleets destroying the fish and the ability for people to support themselves, forcing them into piracy.

JE: Really? I had no idea.

CPW: Oh yeah. This type of piracy you see in Somalia is going to happen in Mauritania, Senegal and the Ivory Coast. It’s going to get worse. The Asian and European fishing fleets have just wiped out everything for these people.

JE: Wow. It’s a crazy world. You mentioned during your keynote that house cats consume more fish than people do. Can we really keep all these pets when resources are so limited? Will pets be regulated?

CPW: I’ve never owned a pet for that reason. Domestic animals do as much destruction to the natural world as we do. And millions and millions of dogs and cats suffer horribly because of the irresponsibility of people who have pets.

JE: Last night’s news was all about a recent study revealing antibiotic resistant Staph bacteria in nearly half of all meat samples. Will this drive people to eat more fish?

CPW: It could momentarily, but people are just going to ignore warnings. When you’re addicted to a substance, you overlook the risks. Smokers smoke, heroin addicts shoot up, and if you’re eating meat, which is a drug, you continue eating meat.

JE: Meat’s a drug?

CPW: Yes.

It’s a drug, with risks. But if I had a choice between people eating fish or beef and pork, I’d have them eating beef and pork.

JE: Why?

CPW: Land animals are not destroying the natural world as directly as fishing. People raise cows and pigs, but fish are basically free for the taking and that’s why they’re all disappearing and so much damage is happening in our oceans, which affects the whole planet.

JE: Is raising fish through aquaculture a good option?

CPW: To raise one salmon on a fish farm takes 75 fish caught from the oceans to feed them. Plus, they are heavily drugged and treated much in the same way as factory farmed animals with growth hormones, antibiotics and food dyes added to make their flesh pink. It’s just not healthy.

JE: In your speech you mentioned a startling statistic: Every year only 5 people are killed by sharks and more than 75 million sharks are killed by people. Do you think the California shark fin ban will make a difference?

CPW: It will certainly contribute to help saving sharks, but the problem is the demand in China. And as long as the price is put on these animals’ heads, there will be a demand.

JE: Who’s the worst offender?

CPW: The worst country we deal with is Costa Rica, which has this record for being ecologically friendly, but they’re not. They just have good PR. They are not only shark finning down there, but they’re over-fishing and selling everything to the Taiwanese. I find Costa Rica to be the most environmentally destructive country in Latin America.

JE: So is there really any such thing as “sustainable fishing?”

CPW: No. And there’s no such thing as “sustainable.” The word was invented by the Prime Minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland, at the 1992 conference [The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development], and what it means is business as usual under another name.

JE: Whoa.

CPW: Yeah, let’s just call everything ‘sustainable’ and it’ll all be ok.

JE: Your work is focused on dealing with the worst human practices and traits. It seems so dire and hopeless. How do you deal with it?

CPW: I am totally optimistic. I believe in the Plains Indian philosophy that you do what you do because it’s the right thing to do, the just thing to do, the only thing to do, and don’t worry about the consequences. You can’t dwell on whether you’re going to win or lose, you’ve got to focus on doing what you can with the resources available to you, within the bounds of practicality.

Everyone should feel that they have the power to make a difference. If you’ve got an idea, go for it; don’t worry about being criticized. For us, our clients are whales and sharks and sea turtles. So we don’t really care what people think.

JE: What great advice. For the average person working and raising a family and who wants to make a difference, what’s the simplest recommendation you can make?

CPW: Go vegetarian. A vegan driving a Hummer is better for the planet than a meat eater on a bicycle. No one wants to make the connection that the meat industry is more destructive than the automobile industry.

JE: What’s next for Sea Shepherd?

CPW: The Steve Irwin and Gojira are off the coast of Libya, and then up to the Faeroe Islands to protect pilot whales, and the Bob Barker is going to Palau to protect sharks.

JE: And the next season of “Whale Wars,” when is that?

CPW: It airs in June. It’s the last campaign in Antarctica where we drove Japan out of the waters.

For more information on Captain Paul Watson and Sea Shepherd, visit their Web site at

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Photo: Captain Paul Watson


Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites and, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better.