Japanese whaling boat clash likely to ignite row over activists' tactics

Sea Shepherd's Paul Watson locked in feud with Greenpeace, which has labelled him an eco-terrorist

The damage inflicted to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) boat the Ady Gil in a collision with a whaling ship is likely to reignite the row over the environmental group's tactics.

Paul Watson, who helped set up Greenpeace in 1972, and now heads the SSCS has been labelled an eco-terrorist and dangerous extremist by his former comrades, with whom he is locked in a long-running feud.

While both groups have targeted the Japanese whale hunts in the Southern Ocean, Greenpeace refuses to co-operate with SSCS by sharing information on the whereabouts of whaling fleets because it says SSCS uses violent tactics. Watson counters this, saying his methods yield results and SSCS has sunk 10 whaling ships, with no injuries caused.

Watson was membership number 008 in Greenpeace. He founded SSCS's forerunner, the Earth Force Society, in 1977, the same year he was voted off Greenpeace's board of directors. There were concerns within Greenpeace over his methods, including an incident when he pulled a club from a sealer's hand and threw it in the water, but Watson claims he left on good terms. However, his departure only highlighted the groups' ideological differences.

In 1986, on being asked what he thought of being labelled an eco-terrorist by Greenpeace, Watson responded by calling them "the Avon Ladies of the environmental movement", something he says they have never forgiven him for. Five years later they agreed to refrain from criticising each other but the truce failed to hold, with each blaming the other for violating it.

The gloves really came off towards the end of 2008. In November of that year, Watson labelled his former organisation "Yellowpeace" for deciding not to send a ship to counter the Japanese whaling fleet. Greenpeace said its campaign had reached the "endgame" and it would instead concentrate on changing public opinion in Japan.

The following month it published a 2,672-word missive on Watson entitled Paul Watson, Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace: Some Facts. The article noted that "stories of divisiveness within the ranks of environmental groups distract from the real issues," but then went on to attack Watson on a variety of fronts, even challenging the idea that he was a founding member of Greenpeace, describing him instead as an "early member".

Watson hit back by issuing an even longer rebuttal. In response to Greenpeace's analysis that Japanese whaling would be stopped "by a domestic decision within the Japanese government to do so", he compared the group's attitude to that of "Jewish leaders in the Warsaw ghetto that resulted in the Holocaust".

Before the Ady Gil set sail for Antarctica in December, Watson told the Guardian that Greenpeace's claim he was not a founder member was "Bolshevik revisionism" and said his old organisation was bitter about the success of SSCS. "I think they're angry with us because of the success of Whale Wars [the hit TV series following SSCS in its Antarctic campaign in 2008], because we have actually made a difference," he said.

"We're not a protest organisation … we intervene against illegal activities and as far as we're concerned Japanese whalers are poachers."

Despite – or perhaps because of – his outspoken opinions, Watson has won the support of luminaries including the Dalai Lama, Mick Jagger, Daryl Hannah and Uma Thurman. SSCS even earned the dubious honour of being parodied in the US animated comedy South Park in an episode entitled Whale Whores, where its activists were depicted as "vegan pussies" posing as pirates and Watson got a harpoon through the head. Nevertheless, he proclaimed himself happy with the publicity.

At the beginning of Operation Waltzing Matilda, Watson talked up the impact the Ady Gil, formerly known as Earthrace, would have in confronting whalers. He said the boat, with a top speed of up to 50 knots (58mph) and able to dive under waves completely, would "give us the speed we need to intercept the harpooners. This vessel is twice as fast as a harpoon vessel".

But instead the $1.5m biodiesel-fuelled boat has come a cropper and the incident is likely to provide ammunition for those who criticise his methods.


Haroon Siddique

The GuardianTramp

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