Capt. Paul Watson has been accused of a lot, including attempted murder, but he says he was shocked when someone quoted him as saying taking a human life to protect endangered species would just be "collateral damage."
Watson, a former member of the Norwegian and Swedish merchant marines and of the Canadian Coast Guard, says his fight is to uphold the law, so he founded the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in 1977 to protect marine wildlife from poachers and fishing and whaling being carried out in violation of international law.
The mission of Sea Shepherd is "not to protest, but to intervene to uphold international law, to stop illegal whaling." Based in Malibu, Calif., the group claims 35,000 members and such celebrity supporters as actors Pierce Brosnan and Richard Dean Anderson.
As a founding member of Greenpeace, he has been one of the world's leading environmental activists for more than three decades and early on took risks to defend wildlife or protect the environment.
According to the biography posted on the Sea Shepherd Web site, Watson "became the first man to put his body between a harpoon and a whale" when he did it in 1975. He was with the American Indian Movement during the standoff at Wounded Knee, S.D., acting as a medic.
Still, he says he was surprised when he was told about a report by the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, alleging that he told a gathering of environmentalists and animal rights supporters that if a human died from one of his actions, he would consider it "collateral damage."
The report from a group that advocates for hunters and sport fishermen seemed to give fuel to growing concerns about the threat of terrorism from the animal rights movement — concerns that were raised earlier this year before a congressional subcommittee.
"Oh, boy, that's taken out of context," Watson told ABCNEWS.com from one of Sea Shepherd's two vessels, which was crossing the Pacific from the Galapagos Islands to Tahiti, where preparations were to be made to head to Antarctica to challenge the Japanese whaling fleet.
"What I was saying was that the animal rights and environmental movement are probably the most pacifist in history," he said.
The "collateral damage" reference was to convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh's assertion that it was the U.S. government that taught him that children's lives lost in a military operation were "just collateral damage." He said he was trying to make a point about government hypocrisy, and in no way offering a warning about an escalation in the activities of his group or anyone in the animal rights or environmental movement.
"I certainly never said any such thing," Watson said, adding that his speech was recorded and was available for anyone to hear. "I used the quote from Tim McVeigh to illustrate just the opposite. It's stunning that they would use that and completely turn it on its head."
Man of Peace?
Several days after the initial report, which was picked up by newspapers around the country, the Sportsmen's Alliance sent a correction regarding the "collateral damage" quote, but stood by its reading of Watson's message.
"Further examination of Watson's statements at the conference reveals that this alleged man of peace clearly puts political goals ahead of concern for people and their safety," the group's newsletter said.