Paul Watson in 2008, in front of the ship, MY Steve Irwin, via guano/Flickr
Just as Edward Snowden is caught in the in-between-nation zone of a Moscow airport, the anti-whaling activist Paul Watson is caught in a nation-free life at sea. Watson hasn’t been into a port since fleeing Germany in July last year in order to keep himself from being extradited to Japan.
Watson is the founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which fights to preserve marine life most famously by directly disrupting whaling operations. The group’s aggressive actions have earned it attention from the public, via the Animal Planet show Whale Wars, and from governments, including those of the United States, Canada, and Japan, which calls them eco-terrorists.
Last known to be aboard the Sea Shepherd ship the MY Steve Irwin when it confronted Japanese ships in the Southern Ocean in February, Watson’s exact whereabouts are currently unknown. Still, for being a refugee, Watson maintains a fairly high media profile. He regularly gives interviews about Sea Shepard’s actions and also his own tenuous situation.
Legal trouble has been a defining trait for the man who describes himself as a “pirate of compassion.” The origins of his life-on-the-lam span continents and decades. In 2002, Watson and a Sea Shepherd ship was sailing through Guatemalan waters when they came across a Costa Rican vessel that was slicing fins off of sharks.
According to Peter Hammarstedt, a spokesman for Sea Shepherd, they called the authorities and took control of the fishing ship, only to have the Guatemalans show up with a gunboat to arrest Watson. The Sea Shepherd fled to Costa Rica, where Watson was charged with “violating navigational regulations.” The charges were dropped, and then reinstated.
Ten years later, Watson was detained at an airport in Frankfurt on behalf of Costa Rica. While being detained, it occurred to Watson that the Japanese—his longtime arch nemeses—might be behind the arrest, not Costa Rica. “We have created some very powerful enemies in the Japanese government,” Hammarstedt told The New York Times, and also said that Watson thought the Japanese were behind the arrest.
So when Watson was released on bail, he fled rather than risk extradition. “I decided I know if I go to Japan I'm not going to be released, ever. So I left Germany,” he told CTV. To review, Watson was arrested in Germany on charges by Costa Rica, for actions in Guatemalan waters, potentially as just a front for the Japanese.
A month after he took to the sea, Interpol issued a red notice at Costa Rica’s behalf. They issued another red notice a month later on behalf of Japan, on charges of breaking in and damaging a whaling ship in 2010. Whether or not he would extradited to Japan before, he almost definitely would now.
The international criminal co-operation system makes any port, save for the least savory, potentially dangerous, according to Robert Currie, a law professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
"He could very well be arrested in quite a large number of countries and the countries where he couldn't get arrested are probably countries where he wouldn't want to go,” Currie told CTV.
And so Watson wanders the high seas, transferring from ship to ship in international waters, unable to see his daughter and grandchildren in Seattle. Like Snowden, he is a man who cannot safely enter or leave a country. That must suck. But the open seas still sound better than being stuck in an airport.