SYDNEY – Paul Watson, the fugitive founder of the militant antiwhaling group Sea Shepherd, stepped down from key roles Tuesday, passing the Antarctic harpoon chase mantle to former Australian politician Bob Brown.
Watson, a Canadian, is wanted by Interpol after skipping bail last July in Germany, where he was arrested on charges brought by Costa Rica relating to a high-seas confrontation over shark-finning in 2002.
Due to a raft of legal issues he has stepped down as president of the group in the U.S. and Australia, and as captain of the Steve Irwin, the group’s flagship vessel, although he will remain with the fleet during this year’s campaign.
Watson’s whereabouts had been a mystery until December, when he confirmed that he was back onboard a Sea Shepherd vessel and ready for the group’s annual Southern Ocean expedition against the Japanese whaling fleet.
Sea Shepherd said he will take a back seat in the chase, with Brown — founder and longtime chief of Australia’s environmentally minded Greens party — to direct operations.
Sea Shepherd Australia director Jeff Hansen will codirect the campaign, and said the change in leadership is a natural evolution given the Australian chapter’s heavy involvement and the continent’s proximity to Antarctica.
Hansen said Watson’s legal problems also played a part in the decision. “We obviously always want to stay within the law in everything that we do, and in order for us to stay within the law Sea Shepherd Australia is taking over the leadership of this campaign, the management of this campaign and Paul will step down from the board in Australia and in America,” Hansen said.
Under a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Sea Shepherd must stay at least 500 meters from whaling vessels and is prohibited from physically confronting any vessel engaged by the Japanese.
They are also banned from “navigating in a manner that is likely to endanger the safe navigation of any such vessel” under last month’s court’s order.
Sea Shepherd claims to have saved the lives of 4,000 whales over the past eight whaling seasons, mounting ever-greater campaigns of harassment against the Japanese fleet. Tokyo claims it catches whales for scientific research — a loophole in the international ban on whaling.