San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Paul Watson: ‘There’s a price on my head’

From the print edition

Captain Paul Watson, the 61-year-old founder and president of conservation group Sea Shepherd and star of Animal Planet’s “Whale Wars,” is under house arrest in Germany after being detained on charges of attempted shipwrecking in Costa Rica in 2002. His capture sparked international outrage and became a thorny issue for the green-minded administration of Costa Rica’s President Laura Chinchilla. 

Watson, who said he fears for his life if transferred to a Costa Rican prison, spoke Tuesday with The Tico Times about the 2002 incident, his arrest a decade later, the forces behind Costa Rica’s shark-finning industry and his plans to return to the Central American country to continue conservation efforts.

Excerpts follow:

TT: Are you relieved to be out of jail?

PW: Well, I’m still under house arrest, but it’s still better than being in prison.

How do you feel that 10 years later all of this is resurfacing?

The whole thing is very confusing to me. If we go back 10 years, in fact if we go back 11 years, to 2001, we assisted the rangers at Cocos Island [a national park 365 miles west of the Pacific port of Puntarenas] in arresting the Ecuadorian longliner The San José. That was the first vessel to be confiscated by the Costa Rican courts for poaching in Cocos Island. So as a result of that, we were invited by Costa Rica to work in cooperation with the Ministry of the Environment and with the Cocos Island rangers. 

We were on our way [to Costa Rica] in 2002 to do that. As we were passing through Guatemalan waters, however, we came across a Costa Rican vessel that was shark finning in Guatemalan waters. Now, Costa Rica is saying we took the law into our own hands. We didn’t. 

We contacted the Guatemalan Ministry of the Environment and said, “What should we do?” They asked if we could bring them in, which we then proceeded to do. At one point, and we documented everything for the film “Sharkwater,” the Costa Rican boat came up alongside, he came straight towards me and then he slammed into the side of me. It was like a side-to-side collision. 

There wasn’t any damage or anything done. But this warrant is trying to say I tried to ram and sink them. You know, in 35 years we’ve never caused an injury to anybody. That’s not our intention, to kill people or even injure people. Anyway, what happened is we were bringing them into San José [Guatemala], they took our rope fly and agreed to be towed, and we were towing them, and as we approached a couple of hours out of San José, the San José port captain told us to release them and said he was going to arrest us. I said, “Well, what the hell is that all about?” and all I could think of is some money’s exchanged hands somewhere here, because it didn’t make any sense. 

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? And the [Costa Rican] minister of the environment [Elizabeth Odio, now vice president of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands] was there, and she refused to meet with us. Then we were boarded by a judge and a prosecutor and these charges were brought against us. 

So 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. 

So then we headed off to Cocos Island, where we were removing toxic waste and sealing it in barrels when I was told that we could be arrested again, and I said, “What for?” They said, “We can hold you for a year while we investigate the allegations of these fishermen.” And I wasn’t about to go into a jail in Costa Rica for a year. So, we went to Panama, and I never heard anything more from it since. 

Apparently, they said I was supposed to go to court over it in [2006], but nobody told me. I wasn’t given a date or time or place or anything by anybody.

In June 2006, judges declared you a fugitive because you didn’t show up for that court appearance. 

Yeah, well I wasn’t even aware of a court appearance, so I couldn’t show up for it. And then, of course, nothing happened until October 2011, and I don’t know if it’s just a coincidence, but in October 2011, the Japanese laid civil charges against us in Seattle [in the United States], which they lost. They were trying to seek an injunction against our activities and they lost. 

Paul Watson 4

Activists hang a placard of Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson in front of the Federal Ministry of Justice in Berlin, Germany, on May 18. Photo by Kay Nietfeld | AFP

But they had allocated $30 million from the earthquake-tsunami relief fund towards security against us, and they were using that for litigation, for [public relations] and for security, and it just seems more than coincidental that Costa Rica would lay the extradition thing the exact same month that Japan comes after us with this injunction. …

My problem is not that I don’t believe I can get a fair trial in Costa Rica, my problem is that I’ve gotten threats from the shark finners in Costa Rica throughout the last 15 years. I’ve been told that there’s a price on my head by some of them, and I’m not too concerned about the court, I’m concerned about the jail. If I get into a jail in Costa Rica, I could be killed, because of that contract. 

So what I’m asking for, if Costa Rica wants me to go to court, I need some sort of guarantee they’re not going to put me in a position that’s going to jeopardize my safety. 

One other issue that is confusing is that on March 2 of this year, Interpol announced it was not going to issue a red alert on the extradition request, so we’re trying to understand how Germany would move forward and arrest you if [Interpol] sent out a notice to 190 nations [saying] it didn’t feel the request met its statute. 

I have no idea. I know that if I had arrived in France or the Netherlands or England, it wouldn’t have been a problem. But Germany for some reason decided to exercise this arrest without any explanation. So, I don’t really have any answers for that. I know that this certainly isn’t going to be good for Costa Rica, but it’s going to attract a lot of attention to shark finning, and that’s what I keep saying: This isn’t about me, this is about shark finning. 

There are organizations coming to me saying, “We’re going to boycott tourism to Costa Rica.” Sea Shepherd isn’t supporting that position. But I can see that if I do get to Costa Rica, then it’s just going to get more fired up, and I’m actually quite astounded at the incredible international reaction in my favor. I didn’t think I had that many fans, really, but it’s amazing.

Ten years ago, when the issue of shark finning in Costa Rica, particularly in Puntarenas and at the private docks, came to light, there was a movement to shut it down. But here we are 10 years later. So what effect has that had on shark populations?

About 90 million sharks a year are being killed, and from what I understand, Costa Rica, Puntarenas especially, is contributing to this. Our position is [that] we would like to work with Costa Rica to try and end this, just like we worked with Ecuador in the Galapagos. 

For 12 years, we’ve been in the Galapagos making a lot of progress working in partnership with the police and the coast guard. We don’t want to be in an adversarial position with the Costa Rican government. We’d like to work with them. 

But it also goes back 10 years, I was very closely working with Claudio Pacheco, who was head of the Coast Guard at the time, and he was the one who was telling me about just how powerful the Taiwanese interests were in Puntarenas, and I think they ended up shutting him down too. 

I remember at one time coming back from Cocos Island, and I called him up and said, “Claudio, I got five Taiwanese longliners here, what can I do?” He said, “They’re Taiwanese? We can’t do anything.” That’s what he told me. He said, “All you can do is document it,” and that’s what we did.

When we were going to Costa Rica to make this agreement with the Ministry of Environment, I think we angered a lot of people, and I think that put a lot of pressure to bring the courts down on us. Because it just didn’t make any sense at the time. Nobody was injured, no property was damaged. 

Apparently now, a couple of fishermen are saying they were injured, but that certainly wasn’t the case at the time. Nobody was saying anything about that, it wasn’t even mentioned in court. And now one of the guys said he hurt his finger, broke his thumb or something.

At least from the video footage, you don’t see any indication of that.

No, and they actually voluntarily accepted our tow. We didn’t forcefully take them under tow. They knew they were in the wrong.

Also, 10 years ago, there was talk that possibly this whole incident, as far as the legal action against you, might have been orchestrated to scuttle the Cocos agreement. Did you feel like that at the time?

Well, actually we did feel like that at the time. In fact, Claudio Pacheco actually indicated to me that he felt that was what was happening. I just felt he was very frustrated in the position that he was in, and we were just trying to do everything we could to help the rangers on Cocos Island. We were providing them with equipment, and we just had to abandon Costa Rica and move on and work just with the Galapagos. 

Has Mr. Martínez, the [Varadero I] owner or anyone representing him attempted to contact you or your attorney about a financial settlement to avoid charges?

No, they never have, but apparently if they did, that’s a civil thing and doesn’t have any impact on any of the criminal charges. 

There’s a global movement [May 23] to protest your arrest, including during President Chinchilla’s visit to Germany and here in Costa Rica. What do you hope comes out of that?

What we hope to do is focus attention on using this case to highlight shark finning, and we’re doing campaigns in the southern Pacific this summer, in Fiji, Tonga, places like that. Hopefully we can highlight that. 

And also, we really want to get in to see just what is the situation in Costa Rica, and bring this to the light of day. I’ll probably end up [in Costa Rica] at some point, but we shall see.


Conservationist arrested in Germany on charges from Costa Rica

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