San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
Paul Watson

Could the Cocos Island pact happen?

From the print edition, updated on May 25.

A high-seas confrontation a decade ago scuttled an agreement between the Costa Rican government and marine conservation group Sea Shepherd to patrol and protect the country’s treasured Cocos Island. And while the recent arrest of Capt. Paul Watson in Germany on 10-year-old charges of attempted shipwrecking has created a global backlash against the country, ongoing diplomacy by President Laura Chinchilla’s administration could revive the agreement and pave the way for Sea Shepherd’s return to Costa Rica.

“Captain Alex Cornelissen of Sea Shepherd contacted us via Costa Rican nongovernmental organizations including [the Marine Turtle Restoration Program, or Pretoma] to discuss … the offer that Capt. Watson could come voluntarily to the country to restart joint programs between Sea Shepherd and the Costa Rican government that were suspended a decade ago,” Environment Minister René Castro said at a press conference Tuesday. “The idea is to cooperate in the creation of international biological corridors, as [Sea Shepherd] has a permanent presence in the Galapagos Islands, which is the closest location to Cocos Island.”

The announcement followed a Monday meeting between Sea Shepherd, Pretoma, Watson’s legal counsel and members of Chinchilla’s Cabinet. Details of that meeting were supposed to be confidential, but officials went public with the information the day before Chinchilla was to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin. Global protests against Watson’s arrest took place Wednesday, including in Germany, where Watson spoke briefly about his case.

In Costa Rica, a couple dozen demonstrators sat peacefully Wednesday morning outside San José’s court complex to draw attention to the global shark-finning trade and to call for charges against Watson to be dropped. Some 300 protesters gathered in Paris.

German authorities detained Watson May 13 at the Frankfurt airport on an outstanding warrant issued in June 2006 over the confrontation four years earlier between Watson’s ship, the Ocean Warrior (now the Farley Mowat), and a Costa Rican fishing vessel, the Varadero I (TT, May 18). He was held for eight days in a German prison before being released under house arrest on Monday, pending review of an extradition request issued by Costa Rica in October 2011. He faces 15 years in prison if convicted.

Paul Watson 2

Paul Watson, Canadian founder and president of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and protesters demonstrate on May 23 in Berlin, during a visit by Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla. Watson is well known for his pursuit of Japanese whaling boats off Antarctica. Photo by Odd Andersen | AFP

In 2002, Watson, the 61-year-old founder and president of Sea Shepherd and star of Animal Planet’s “Whale Wars,” was en route to Costa Rica to sign an agreement with the government to protect Cocos Island, a marine sanctuary and national park 500 kilometers (365 miles) west of the Pacific port of Puntarenas (TT, April 26, 2002). Two days before that agreement was to be signed, Watson and crew discovered the Varadero I allegedly illegally fishing sharks inside Guatemala’s no-take zone. The ship’s owner, Franklin Martínez, and his crew claimed the boat’s engine failed and they drifted into Guatemalan waters, where they were “attacked” by the Ocean Warrior. However, footage taken by Watson’s crew and included in the film “Sharkwater,” by marine biologist and filmmaker Rob Stewart, shows the Varadero I’s engine functioning and its crew fishing sharks.

Watson began to tow the Costa Rican vessel to port in Guatemala, but the Sea Shepherd crew learned that a Guatemalan gunboat was en route to arrest them, not the fishermen.

“I said, ‘Ok, well look, we’re just going to release these guys,’ which we did, and then we carried on to Costa Rica, completely feeling that we hadn’t done anything wrong. Otherwise, why would we proceed on to Costa Rica?” Watson told The Tico Times this week.

Both ships headed to Costa Rica, where authorities boarded the Ocean Warrior and arrested Watson on charges of attempted murder and attempted shipwrecking. No charges were filed against the fishermen.

“We went into court in Puntarenas and presented our film, our crew was there as witnesses, and the whole thing was dismissed. We thought that was the end of it, and two days later, they appointed another judge and another prosecutor and brought us into court a second time. The whole thing was dismissed again,” Watson said.

With the Cocos Island agreement scrapped, Watson headed to Ecuador’s Galapagos Island to establish a program to help protect the national park. That program still functions today, and Sea Shepherd hopes to emulate it at Costa Rica’s Cocos Island.

But Watson’s legal troubles weren’t over. In June 2006, a Costa Rican court declared him a fugitive from justice after Watson missed a court date on still-pending charges stemming from the incident. Watson said he was never informed of the court date.

In October 2011, Costa Rican tribunals issued an extradition request for the Sea Shepherd founder. However, on March 2, Interpol issued a statement to its 190 member countries that said the agency would not issue a “red alert” – a notification that a person is wanted by another country – in the Watson case because Costa Rica’s request did not meet guidelines established by Interpol’s statute. It is not clear why Germany proceeded with the arrest in spite of Interpol’s statement.

Watson, who said he has received death threats from shark finners, said he fears for his safety if extradited to Costa Rica and transferred to a general population prison.

What Now?

Either in handcuffs via extradition or of his own free will, Paul Watson likely will return to Costa Rica to face the charges against him. On Thursday morning, Watson met in Stuttgart, Germany, with Costa Rican Foreign Minister Enrique Castillo, who is traveling with Chinchilla in Europe. Watson said he intends to return to Costa Rica to face the accusations against him, even if the extradition request is denied by German officials. Castillo reiterated what Costa Rican officials had said earlier in the week, that they would guarantee Watson’s safety in Costa Rica.

“We hope to come to an arrangement in Germany in coming hours that can stop this process that has taken such an unnecessary toll on the country,” acting Foreign Minister Carlos Roverssi said Tuesday. “Costa Rica has continuously demonstrated that it is a state of laws, and we have guaranteed to [Watson’s] attorneys his physical safety … so that he can present himself in the country and demonstrate his innocence or assume his responsibilities.”

Members of Sea Shepherd say they are confident Watson will be found not guilty in a trial that would be held in San José, not Puntarenas, should the case move forward.

“We want to clear Paul’s name, because we feel these accusations are bogus. We feel we did not endanger the lives of people. … I’ve seen fishing ships come in to dock and hit harder than [the Varadero I] hit the Ocean Warrior,” Cornelissen, director of Sea Shepherd’s Galapagos operations, told The Tico Times on Wednesday. “How is this helping the oceans? I think the Costa Rican government understands that. This is not helping anybody. This is helping the illegal fishermen.”

From setback to opportunity?

Still, what has been a public relations disaster for the Chinchilla administration, which has made progress on marine conservation since taking office in 2010, could end up being a political victory if a deal is struck with Sea Shepherd.

“The private docks in Puntarenas had to be closed. But we didn’t get them closed until 2010, because there was finally political will to get it done,” Pretoma President Randall Arauz said. “[Chinchilla’s administration] enlarged the protected area around Cocos Island. They’ve taken serious steps toward protecting hammerhead sharks under [the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES], and they’ve been very active in the Food and Agriculture Organization. There has been a lot of cooperation with the Environment Ministry on these issues in the last few years.”

Since the 2002 incident, Sea Shepherd also has made considerable progress with its Galapagos program, and Cornelissen hopes to apply those successes to Costa Rica.

“I came to the Galapagos in 2007, at the time the [Sea Shepherd] Galapagos director had to flee the country because of threats against his life from the shark-finning mafia, a bit of a similar situation that [Watson] is experiencing,” Cornelissen said. “Since then, we’ve been working on various angles to protect the Galapagos Marine Reserve. The focus is to protect sharks. We have several projects to help the national park service, the navy, the environmental police and the justice system.”

Sea Shepherd and other nongovernmental organizations started the first canine unit in Latin America to detect wildlife smuggling, including shark fins, sea cucumbers, lobsters, marine iguanas, lava lizards and other species. After drugs and weapons, wildlife trafficking is the No. 3 industry for global organized crime. Sea Shepherd would like to start a wildlife-detecting canine unit to patrol ports and airports in Costa Rica.

The group also installed an Automatic Identification System, or AIS, a satellite network that operates in Galapagos. Park rangers and navy officials can track fishing vessels inside the park via AIS units installed on fishing boats. The next step is to make it mandatory for every fishing vessel that enters the protected marine area to have AIS transmitters on board.

Cornelissen said it would take two weeks to install an AIS system on Cocos Island. “We at Sea Shepherd promise that we will install an AIS network on Cocos Island free of charge,” he said.

He also pledged to help finance transmitters for the 450 local longliners and 150 big longliners – mostly Taiwanese – that operate out of Costa Rica.

A third area that Sea Shepherd has offered to assist Costa Rica in is training prosecutors and judges on how to handle illegal fishing cases, which currently take years to resolve and so far have had little impact on poaching.

“We can turn this situation into something positive for Costa Rica and for marine resources. With this court case, we’re talking about a lot more than [Watson’s] freedom. There are forces out there that are making so much profit off the destruction of the oceans that they will stop at nothing to try to deter the people who are trying to prevent it,” Cornelissen said. “Let’s consider this situation an opportunity. And let’s think about what we were planning on doing 10 years ago, which is helping the Costa Rican government protect their resources.”

AFP contributed to this report.


Conservationist arrested in Germany on charges from Costa Rica

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