The Arrest of Captain Paul Watson

Coinciding with their mission “to end the destruction of habitat and slaughter of wildlife in the world’s oceans in order to conserve and protect ecosystems and species,” Seattle-based nonprofit group Sea Shepherd strongly opposes shark finning, a practice that kills an estimated 73 million sharks per year by cutting off shark fins and then throwing the rest of the shark’s body back into the water to sink and suffocate to death. Despite the fact that shark fins are virtually tasteless and devoid of nutrients, a single bowl of shark fin soup—a delicacy popular throughout Asia—can sell for anywhere from $50 to $400.

According to Sea Shepherd, “Over 8,000 tons of shark fins are processed each year. The fins only amount to 4% of a shark’s body weight. This means that some 200,000 tons of shark are thrown back into the sea and discarded.” Despite the fact that 18 species of sharks are now listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, attempting to intercept shark-finning vessels and halt the billion-dollar trade has proven to be difficult and dangerous. Evidence of this came to light recently when Sea Shepherd’s president

Captain Paul Watson landed in a German prison on May 13. The 61-year-old Canadian, who is expected to be released on $318,000 bail, was arrested at a Frankfurt airport on charges stemming from an April 2002 confrontation with a crew of Costa Rican shark-fin poachers. The poachers alleged that Watson, who was navigating the Sea Shepherd vessel RV Ocean Warrior, tried to ram their ship, the Varadero I, and kill its Captain. The Varadero I’s charges against Watson were originally dropped after a prosecutor saw footage of the Sea Shepherd documentary Sharks: Stewards of the Reef, which caught the incident on camera and proved Watson’s innocence. But the charges were suddenly reinstated last October, a decision Sea Shepherd believes was made in order to imprison Watson and hamper the group’s activism against Japanese whaling fleets. Japanese whalers lost out on two-thirds of their usual whale kills this past hunting season thanks in part to Sea Shepherd intervention, some of which was shown on the “Whale Wars’ reality TV show on Animal Planet.

“Ten years later they have decided to reissue the warrant at exactly the same time as we are really battling it out with the Japanese whaling industry,” said Peter Hammarstedt, Sea Shepherd’s spokesperson.

Once bail is posted, Watson must remain in Germany until the country’s Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Foreign Affairs decide whether he will be extradited to Costa Rica for trial. But Sea Shepherd claims Watson’s life could be in jeopardy if he is forced to enter Costa Rica, where they say mafia affiliates within the shark-finning trade have threatened to kill the Captain. In January 2011, a shark-finning affiliated gang held celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey and his crew at gunpoint and poured gasoline over their heads as they filmed a segment that captured thousands of illegally caught shark fins drying on rooftops for the show Shark Bait.

“It’s a multibillion-dollar industry, completely unregulated. We traced some of the biggest culprits to Costa Rica,” Ramsey reported after the incident. “These gangs operate from places like forts, with barbed-wire and gun towers. At one, I managed to shake off the people keeping us away, ran up some stairs to a rooftop and looked down to see thousands of fins, drying on rooftops for as far as the eye could see. When I got back downstairs, they tipped a barrel of petrol over me. Back at the wharf, there were people pointing rifles at us to stop us filming.”

To ward off a potential “death sentence” for Watson, Sea Shepherd and its supporters will be heavily campaigning this week to have his extradition blocked. “While we have won a victory with the decision to allow Captain Paul Watson out on bail, the battle to save his life must now intensify,” Sea Shepherd wrote on their website over the weekend. “The Higher Regional Court in Frankfurt has confirmed together with the General Public Prosecutor that the authority to save Captain Paul Watson’s life belongs to the Honorable German Minister of Justice. Continue to write, call, email, and fax the Honorable German Ministers of Justice and Foreign Affairs.”