Sea Shepherd’s Paul Watson Mocks Court’s ‘Pirate’ Ruling

The ‘Whale Wars’ star vows to continue to disrupt Japanese whaling vessels.

Sea Shepherd vessel Bob Barker collides with the fuel tanker ship Sun Laurel as Japanese mother survey ship Nissin Maru tries to pull alongside in the Antarctica on February 25, 2013. (Photo: The Institute of Cetacean Research/Reuters)

David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, 'Death at Seaworld,' was published in 2012.

A U.S. Federal Appeals Court has determined that the activities of the anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd Conservation Society amount to “piracy,” in a new opinion explaining its temporary injunction against the group, which bars it from harassing Japanese whaling vessels in the Southern Hemisphere.

But Captain Paul Watson, the founder of Sea Shepherd who recently retired so the Australian operation can continue, balked at the ruling.

Meanwhile, another Sea Shepherd official called the Appeals Court decision against the group—and against a lower-court Judge who ruled in favor of Sea Shepherd—the stuff of “dime store novel crap.”

Both insisted the decision would not halt anti-whaling actions underway in Australia.

“The ruling is irrelevant,” Paul Watson told TakePart from the vessel Steve Irwin, patrolling off the coast of Australia. “These operations will not be affected at all. The judges didn’t seem to understand that Sea Shepherd is registered in a couple dozen countries.”

In the Southern Oceans campaign, the group’s ships “fly flags of the Netherlands and Australia,” Watson said. “And they are in international water. They do not come under the jurisdiction of the U.S. ninth circuit.”

Jurisdiction or not, the Appeals Court ruling was scathing.

“You don’t need a peg leg or an eye patch. When you ram ships; hurl glass containers of acid; drag metal-reinforced ropes in the water to damage propellers and rudders; launch smoke bombs and flares with hooks; and point high-powered lasers at other ships, you are, without a doubt, a pirate, no matter how high-minded you believe your purpose to be,” wrote Chief Judge Alex Kozinski in the unanimous decision by a three-judge panel.

The Court offered an explanation of its December 2012 decision granting a temporary injunction against Sea Shepherd—ordering it to keep 500 yards away from whaling boats and thus vacating an earlier ruling by Seattle U.S. District Court Judge Richard Jones, who refused to grant the injunction sought by the Japan’s Institute for Cetacean Research.

According to the BBC, the ruling “clears the way for Japan, which calls the activists terrorists, to launch more extensive legal action against them.” 

An international ban on commercial whaling has been in effect for 25 years, but Japan still sends a fleet to the Antarctic each year to hunt and kill hundreds of whales. Tokyo says the slaughtered carcasses are critical for “scientific research,” adding that sale of whale meat by-products is required by the international treaty.

Opponents say the whole thing is nothing more than a commercial operation hiding under the guise of “science.”

Although Japanese whalers have permits to hunt, they have been “hounded on the high seas for years by a group calling itself Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and its eccentric founder, Paul Watson,” the Ninth Circuit ruled.

In 2011, the Institute of Cetacean Research sued Sea Shepherd, arguing that the group—profiled on the hit TV series Whale Wars—violated laws and treaties by engaging in “piracy” against the whalers.

The Ninth Circuit agreed, writing that piracy includes any “illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship.” 

District Court Judge Jones had made an “erroneous interpretation,” the Ninth Circuit said, because the “common understanding of ‘private’ is far broader, and often refers to matters of a personal nature that are not necessarily connected to finance.”

Belgian courts, probably the only ones to rule on the issue, have ruled that environmental activism “qualifies as a private end,” the Court said. “We conclude that ‘private ends’ include those pursued on personal, moral or philosophical grounds, such as Sea Shepherd’s professed environmental goals. That the perpetrators believe themselves to be serving the public good does not render their ends public.”

Judge Jones “was equally off-base” on the violence question, the Court said. Without citing precedent, Jones had determined Sea Shepherd’s conduct to be nonviolent “because it targets ships and equipment rather than people,” the Court said. “This runs afoul of [international law] which prohibits ‘violence...against another ship’ and ‘violence...against persons or property.’ ”

And it added: “Ramming ships, fouling propellers and hurling fiery and acid-filled projectiles easily qualify as violent activities, even if they could somehow be directed only at inanimate objects.”

Damaging the whaling ships “could cause them to sink or become stranded in glacier-filled, Antarctic waters, jeopardizing the safety of the crew,” the Appeals Court ruled. Sea Shepherd, it concluded, engaged in “clear instances of violent acts for private ends, the very embodiment of piracy.”

But Sea Shepherd USA Director of Intelligence and Investigations Scott West disputed the Ninth Circuit ruling. (Two weeks ago the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear their case to overturn the injunction.) The lower court had labeled Sea Shepherd’s actions little more than “low-level harassment at most,” he told TakePart, and the Japanese claim of scientific research “a sham.”

Japan was also operating within a whale sanctuary established by Australia, in violation of international law. “There was no need for an injunction because we had never hurt anyone,” West explained, “and the whalers were unlikely to prevail at trial.”

And, he added, “Judge Jones took a lot of care in his 44-page ruling, but the Court of Appeals tossed him under a bus. They took a thoughtful, reasoned decision and turned it into dime store novel crap.”

When the Ninth Circuit ruled against them, Sea Shepherd USA scrambled to sever itself from the Australian operations, leaving the anti-whaling confrontations to affiliates from Australia and the Netherlands. “We are not going to be in contempt,” West explained. Captain Paul Watson, meanwhile, resigned from the group altogether and is currently acting as an independent observer for the Australia operation.

Watson told TakePart that the Ninth Circuit made no mention of the whalers destroying a Sea Shepherd vessel Ady Gil in 2010, or that crews allegedly deploy concussion grenades, water cannons, laser beams and other weapons against them.

“We don’t throw acid. We throw rotten butter,” Watson said. “And we have never rammed any Japanese whaling vessel, even though we have been rammed by them.” According to news accounts, three Sea Shepherd ships have been clashing with the whalers for several weeks, trying to block the Japanese ships from refueling at a tanker ship.

Watson and West both said the pirate label is absurd.

“I’m not really a pirate, I just play one on TV,” Watson joked. “But it’s rather strange that a U.S. court is not interested in injuries against Americans (on Sea Shepherd vessels), and seems to be more interested in defending the Japanese and their position.”

West concurred. “They are poaching for gain in an established whale sanctuary. If the Court wants to toss around the term ‘pirate,’ they should take a look at the whalers,” he said.

“How can they call Sea Shepherd pirates with a straight face? We’re defending protected whales, not plundering for gold.”

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