Sea Shepherd's violent history
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Sea Shepherd's violent history

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

Overview

“We’re not a protest organization, we’re a policing organization,” Paul Watson has said of his Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS). A pirate organization is more like it. Sporting the skull and crossbones, his black or battleship-gray ships sail menacingly through the waves. They are painted with the names of the boats Watson has rammed and sunk.

The ships are fitted with water cannons, a concrete-filled bow made for ramming, and an attachment dubbed the “can opener” that can tear open a boat’s hull. In his book Earth Warrior, David Morris writes that Watson wears a long bowie knife at his side and carries AK-47s on board. He blasts Richard Wagner’s rousing “Ride of the Valkyries” to herald his arrival and terrify his victims.

SSCS’s mission is to stop fishing of which it disapproves. Its preferred methods? Ramming and sinking fishing ships, throwing butyric acid on their decks, and firing machine guns. Watson argues that United Nations resolutions authorize him to commit violent acts. But he regularly interferes with fisherman and hunters who are committing no crime. He serves as judge, jury, and executioner — while enjoying the same tax-exempt status as universities and churches.

Some of the animal-rights movement’s most notorious terrorists got their start with SSCS. One of them, convicted arsonist Rodney Coronado, had Watson’s approval to plan and execute an attack on Iceland’s whaling industry. He and a colleague sank two of the fleet’s four ships and destroyed a processing facility.

The Birth of Violence

SSCS is run with an iron fist by its founder, “Captain” Paul Watson. “When this ship becomes a democracy,” he likes to say to his crew, “you’ll be the first to know.” Watson is a dyslexic who “progressed from deckhand to able seaman without knowing how to tie a knot” with the Canadian Coast Guard and Norwegian and Swedish merchant marines.

In Vancouver, Watson joined a group of anti-war activists who attempted to forcibly shut down American nuclear tests. These radicals branched out into environmental activism and became Greenpeace, of which Watson was a founder. But Watson’s violent tactics became too much for Greenpeace, which kicked him out in 1977, after he assaulted seal hunters. Watson now assails his old comrades for being too wimpy, calling Greenpeace “the Avon ladies of the environmental movement.”

Soon after Watson’s eviction from Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd and its ship-ramming philosophy were born. SSCS’s band of pirates have disrupted the legal Canadian seal hunt, attacked whaling ships and fishing boats using driftnets, and taken credit for spiking (inserting large nails into) thousands of trees. The group has sunk at least ten ships in Iceland, Norway, Spain, Portugal, South Africa, and the Canary Islands. Watson has even sunk his own ships rather than let the authorities take them. And he has spent time in the jails of Canada and the Netherlands. “Any whaling ship on the ocean is a target for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society,” he has said.

Watson’s love for marine life doesn’t stop him from eating fish. “Paul, who likes hamburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches equally, interprets veganism as a form of philosophical lunacy,” David Morris writes in Earth Warrior. Morris’s book details often-hilarious disputes between Watson and the vegan crewmembers. One standoff ensued when Watson ordered the vegans to retrieve a driftnet left by an escaped fishing vessel. The crew took an agonizingly long time, trying to free every squid caught in the net, about which Watson couldn’t care less. He didn’t even mind profiting from the work of the ship he threatened — Morris reports that he later sent his chef over to the net to “requisition a few squid for dinner.”

On the Fringe

Paul Watson has used his aggressive and illegal tactics to further other political causes. In 1992, replicas of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria retraced Columbus’ voyage on its 500th anniversary. Watson, with Canadian Indians aboard his ship, confronted the Spanish fleet and demanded a written apology — threatening to sink the Santa Maria if the Spaniards didn’t comply. Watson received his written apology from the terrified captain.

Watson also controls two covert groups under the SSCS umbrella. He established the Oceanic Research and Conservation Action Force (O.R.C.A. FORCE) with his ex-wife Lisa DiStefano (a former Playboy model). This shadowy undercover group damages and destroys ships at dock. Their agents have scuttled ships in Taiwan and Norway.

Watson’s second group, the Coeur du Bois (Heart of the Wood), is an underground group of tree-spikers. Watson claims to have invented tree spiking, whereby activists hammer large nails into trees about to be logged in an effort to hurt lumberjacks. Watson claims the group has spiked over 20,000 trees. In 1987, a California mill worker was horribly disfigured after his blade struck two spikes in a tree, almost severing his jugular vein. But Watson is unrepentant. “Those loggers don’t give a damn for future generations,” he said. “And if they don’t have any compassion for the future, I don’t have any compassion for them.”

Watson claims his group was the first to produce videotaped evidence that U.S. tuna seiners were killing dolphins, and he argues that commercial fisheries are callously emptying the seas. He recently called for governments to prohibit the catch of fish to feed livestock and pets. And he is collaborating with Indian groups in British Columbia to oppose all salmon farming.

Ultimately, he advocates the total shutdown of the global fishery industry. “There is only one solution to the problem of over-fishing and the collapse of the fisheries worldwide,” reads one Sea Shepherd press release. “The answer is simply to say ‘no to fish.’”

One of Watson’s latest escapades has landed him in some serious trouble. According to The Tico Times, Central America’s foremost English-language newspaper, Costa Rica is investigating him for attempted murder after Costa Rican fishermen said he attacked them when he tried to force their boat into a Guatemalan port in April 2002. A judge ordered him to stay in Costa Rican territory. A defiant Watson instead fled the country.

Questionable Donors

Where does Watson get the funds for his exploits? In part, from an eclectic cadre of shadowy personalities.

That includes Susan Bloom, a long-time donor to the most extreme factions of the environmental and animal-rights movement. Bloom was the founder and main financier of the British Columbia animal-rights group Bear Watch, which employed David Barbarash, a former “spokesman” for the terrorist Animal Liberation Front (ALF). Paul Watson has hosted at least one Bear Watch fundraiser.

Ann Johnston gave SSCS almost $2.7 million in stock in 1997. Her husband, Pritam Singh, is a real estate developer and a member of SSCS’ financial and management advisory board. According to the Key News Journal, he’s under investigation by the FBI for his questionable business dealings. One Key West attorney has also filed a civil lawsuit against Singh, alleging almost 20 years of criminal activity — including racketeering and fraud. Singh was fined $1.2 million by the federal Office of Thrift Supervision in 1995. And he quietly settled a lawsuit filed by members of his sales staff who said he illegally withheld their commissions.

Johnston’s 1997 stock donation included shares of a company named Northern Development Associates, a for-profit business which is now 100-percent owned by Sea Shepherd.

Corporate records show that the company’s officers include Watson’s ex-wife Lisa DiStefano and longtime associate Michael Kundu. Northern Development’s mailing address is the same as Pritam Singh’s Key West Golf Club. Watson and DiStefano also serve, with Singh, on the board of something called the Sea Trek 2000 Foundation. The mailing address for that group is the same as one of Singh’s Miami lawyers.

Blackeye

Though self-named a “Conservation Society,” Sea Shepherd is a violent organization. Its purpose is to ram and sink ships. Earth Warrior author David Morris details one such voyage in search of driftnetters. Even in this gushing account, Morris notes, “The gunfire that accompanied our attack on the Japanese ships was not defensive.” So it’s no surprise that Sea Shepherd’s expeditions have served as a fitting training ground for other animal-rights militants.

Rodney Coronado has long been involved with criminal groups such as the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), which the FBI has identified as the country’s most dangerous domestic terrorist threat, and the special-interest ALF subset known as SHAC. He was sentenced to 57 months in federal prison for the 1992 arson of a Michigan State University research laboratory. He admitted to at least six other arsons in a November 30, 2002 speech. In January 2003, he demonstrated to a group gathered at American University the “correct” way to build a firebomb out of household materials. And Paul Watson gave him his start.

Coronado joined SSCS immediately after graduating from high school in 1984. Two years later, he proposed a plan to covertly attack Iceland’s whaling industry. He and David Howitt, a British bicycle mechanic, destroyed a whale-processing facility there, and sank two of the Icelandic whaling fleet’s four ships. Watson supported the plan and SSCS took responsibility for the destruction.

In the mid-’90s, Coronado again wanted to join a SSCS expedition. But he was wanted for questioning by the FBI and Watson said no. Watson was regretful, however, calling him “an excellent crew member and the best damn activist I ever had.” These words give the lie to Watson’s claim that “we have absolutely no links with the so-called Animal Liberation Front.”

SHAC organizer and spokesman Joshua Harper has also served as a SSCS crewmember. Harper describes his goal as “the complete collapse of industrial civilization.” A young man with an impressive criminal record, Harper was jailed in 1997 for assaulting a police officer, and in 2001 for violating a summons to testify regarding ALF and its sister organization, the Earth Liberation Front (ELF). He was also incarcerated in 1999 for attacking Native Americans on a whale hunt; Paul Watson’s ex-wife Lisa Distefano, and current wife, Allison Lance Watson, were also charged in that attack.

In April 2002, Allison Lance Watson was ordered to appear before a federal grand jury along with a number of other animal-rights activists. Former ELF spokesman Craig Rosebraugh issued a press release announcing her subpoena. Watson’s attorney was Stuart Sugarman, the same lawyer who represented Rosebraugh when he appeared before a U.S. House of Representatives committee in 2002 and refused to answer questions.

Alex Pacheco is another activist who started his career with SSCS, in the late 1970s. He now serves on one of its advisory boards. Pacheco is co-founder and former chairman of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an organization whose leaders openly advocate terrorist violence. “Arson, property destruction, burglary, and theft are ‘acceptable crimes’ when used for the animal cause,” he once said. Pacheco is rumored to be a “commander” of ALF and has been subpoenaed in connection to ALF activities.

Watson once held a fundraiser for the “Kentucky Fried Five,” a group of animal-rights activists who vandalized a fast-food outlet in Toronto in 1987, claiming they were “scapegoats.” An empty KFC chicken bucket was passed around for donations. The hooligans pleaded guilty to mischief resulting in willful damage, and possession of burglary tools and stolen property. Two of the five were also accused of possessing explosives, carrying weapons, and vandalizing the Toronto University dentistry school, but those charges were dropped as part of a plea-bargain. One of the latter two, David Barbarash, has served as an ALF spokesman, and The Oregonian said the group was an ALF cell.

Motivation

Paul Watson craves attention. His dramatic physical attacks are designed to gain maximum media exposure. He has written that “The hint of romance and piracy or the possibility of violence guaranteed coverage.”

In addition to taking credit for inventing tree-spiking, Watson says he was the first to put his body between a whale and a harpoon. Indeed, he is known in the environmental movement as something of a show-off. Even long-time terrorist colleague Rodney Coronado joked, “If lightning struck a whaling ship, Paul would accept responsibility for it.”

Of course, the money doesn’t hurt, either. Crewmembers are charged $1,000 for the honor of working long hours on an expedition. Watson has long claimed (as recently as his 2002 memoir) that he has kept his vow to “never accept a single dollar for myself from charitable donations.” The group’s 2001 tax return, however, indicates Watson was paid $40,000 as president and CEO. He also makes money from lectures, books, and teaching at the Arts College of Design in Pasadena.

But neither fame nor fortune is really Watson’s primary motivation. He’s a misanthrope who prefers porpoises to people. “I couldn’t understand her compassion for humanity,” he says of an old girlfriend. “She chose people and I chose the Earth, and thus we began to drift apart.” He likes to accuse those who care about people of being “anthropocentric.” And he constantly refers to humans as mere apes.

Watson also has a seething hatred of the people whose livelihood he threatens. He’s an elitist who, despite his upbringing among maritime fishermen, has no sympathy for those who make their living from the ocean. He begins his book Seal Wars by calling Canadian sealers “the uneducated and the institutionally unemployed,” “barbarians,” and “piss-drunk on cheap booze.” Western Canadians who support a wolf control program are likewise branded “rednecks.”

Of his native Canada, Watson has said he “despise[s] its government and dislike[s] its people.” Scandinavians, meanwhile, are “the children of the rapers of Ireland and executioners of the Celts.” The “bloodlust of these Viking offspring” who hunt whales made him “ashamed” of his Danish ancestry. And Watson once shouted through a megaphone at Makah Indians on a whale hunt: “Just because you were born stupid doesn’t give you any right to be stupid.”

Watson has wrangled with Sierra Club head Carl Pope, asking why the group wasn’t more concerned about human population growth, particularly in the U.S. He has no sympathy for immigrants wishing to leave behind the horrid conditions of third-world countries to make a better life here. In fact, the desire to eat and have leisure time is almost a crime for Watson: “When an immigrant becomes an American citizen, they increase their rate of resource consumption by a factor of twenty.”

To Watson, saving seals is more important than saving human beings.

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