Hidden in the intimate upstairs room of a posh vegan restaurant in New York sat a man deemed an "eco-terrorist." He prefers "eco-terraist."
Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, early member of Greenpeace, and current captain and star of "Whale Wars," spent an evening discussing the premiere of season four of his reality show with a small group of journalists, including The Huffington Post. He spoke with a boyish grin, initially shy and yet subtly self-assured.
Animal Planet's "Whale Wars" follows Sea Shepherd's attempts to end Japanese whaling through aggressive intervention techniques on the Antarctic high seas. Sea Shepherd's actions and the show have faced praise and extreme scrutiny. After swapping his pistachio-encrusted tofu for a reporter's vegan lasagna, Watson announced, "They either love us or they hate us."
Martin Fackler of The New York Times explains that critics call Sea Shepherd "an anachronism, because private fishing companies have dropped out under international pressure and the demand for whale meat is declining. Few Japanese eat whale anymore, and the meat from the hunt has piled up in freezers, or been given to children for school lunches."
Greenpeace has spoken out against Sea Shepherd, denying Watson's claim that he co-founded Greenpeace and denouncing his aggressive methods. The environmental organization's website states, "We believe that throwing butryic [sic] acid at the whalers, dropping cables to foul their props, and threatening to ram them in the freezing waters of the Antarctic constitutes violence because of the potential consequences."
The newest subject of controversy? Two of Sea Shepherd's boats just began a campaign in Libyan waters, in an attempt to protect bluefin tuna from poachers.
This is the second year that Sea Shepherd will venture to Libya for that purpose, and Watson believes "this year is going to be a lot easier." While the bluefin tuna did not make the endangered species list last year, the European Union recently warned against fishing for bluefin tuna in Libya's waters. "Bluefin tuna caught by the Libyan fleet will be well on track to be deemed illegal," E.U. fisheries commissioner Maria Damanaki said. Watson believes it is therefore "fair game" to go after fishing boats in the area.
That is not to say he doesn't anticipate confrontations from fishing boats -- motivated, for the most part, by money. Watson estimates that one bluefin tuna can be worth at least $70,000. Earlier this year, a bluefin tuna sold for a record $396,000. "That kind of motivation is why there's so much corruption," Watson said. "Billions of dollars of profits are being made by this."
Watson cited Mitsubishi as a prime example of a big buyer. According to The Independent, the conglomerate has been freezing fish for years, and has cornered a significant share of the world's bluefin tuna market. "The bluefin they take out of the ocean and pack into warehouses translates into scarcity in the sea," Watson said. "Scarcity translates into higher prices for the fish. If you can wipe them out, and there's no more bluefin in the ocean, the only bluefin left is in those warehouses, you've got a million dollar fish."
"There are very few fishermen left today," he added. "These are corporations that look on fishing as a short term investment for a short term gain. They don't give a sh*t about the people. And so they'll wipe out anything."
Sea Shepherd's return to Libya is rife with controversy. Gawker's Jeff Neumann recently wrote, "Maybe Sea Shepherd's energies would be better used somewhere else, for the time being at least? There are a few more pressing issues to deal with in Libya these days (war, refugees, shortages of basic supplies, stuff like that). And really, what do they expect to accomplish by having some grouchy old white dude yell at fishermen through a megaphone?"
"It's really not a distraction from anything," Watson argued, in response to critics. He blames poachers for "taking advantage of the war to go in and illegally fish. NATO isn't going to be concerned about fishing. And the European Union is quite concerned about it, but they're not going to send their inspectors, and so we're the only people that are willing to go in there ... Everybody's afraid of it."
It is not all dangerous encounters on the high seas. In their downtime, the crew plays poker and watches DVDs of "Dexter," "Nip/Tuck," and "The Tudors." There is often free time on the ship -- especially for Watson, who sleeps only four hours a night.
Finishing off his tofu ice-cream, Watson politely asked to taste his neighbor's vegan lavender creme brulee. He was very clear that Sea Shepherd is not a vegan or animal rights organization of any kind -- rather, it is a "marine wildlife conservation organization" -- but nonetheless, he requires that only vegan food is served on his vessel. This is because a staggering percentage of fish caught from the ocean is fed to livestock. Therefore, if humans eat farm animals, Watson believes they are, by extension, eating fish.
Watson doesn't think humans should eat fish at all. Having been raised in a fishing village, he has witnessed firsthand the declining number of fish in the sea. "The importance of fish maintaining the ecological integrity of our oceanic ecosystems -- it is far more important there than being on anybody's plate." Citing a report based on U.N. data which found that global fisheries could collapse by 2048, Watson said, "If we wipe out the fish, the oceans are going to die. If the oceans die, we die. We can't live on this planet with a dead ocean. So it's really a question of self-preservation."
Despite Watson's beliefs, he doesn't resent meat-loving "Whale Wars" fans. Asked if he thought some of his viewers were hypocritical, Watson declared, "Everybody is a hypocrite. You can't live on this planet without being a hypocrite."
As the night wore on, the controversy and drama surrounding the man and the show ebbed into a more casual conversation: A reporter asked if he ever gets lonely, and Watson quickly -- perhaps too quickly -- snapped "no." He changed the subject, entertaining the table with tales of bizarre crewmembers and the nautical origin of words. By the end of the evening, Watson had offered a simple explanation of his outlook on the world, declaring, "You've got one life. Well hell, enjoy it."
"Whale Wars" Season 4 premieres Friday, June 3rd on Animal Planet.