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.
Among Watson's statements excerpted in the newsletter was: "Between the year 1980 and the year 2040, we will eradicate, exterminate and destroy a great percentage of the species of plants and animals that are living on this planet. More species of plants and animal will be destroyed in this 60 year period of time, will be driven to extinction, than have gone extinct over the last 65 million years and that rate of extinction is unprecedented and we will be at fault for that.
"It is the greatest crime that any species on the planet has ever committed and we are in the midst of committing it. So therefore, when you take this incredible crime of speciescide and destruction of life, what's the smashing up of a few laboratories in comparison to that?"
Watson told ABCNEWS.com that it is true that he does not consider the destruction of property "violence."
"I maintain Martin Luther King's understanding of violence," he said. "You can't commit an act of violence against a non-sentient thing."
He said that since Sea Shepherd was founded no one has been hurt by its activities, even though it has sunk numerous whaling and fishing boats that were operating illegally.
‘Preserving Life, Not Taking It’
Had the Sportsmen's Alliance's initial report been accurate, it would have represented a major change in the professed philosophy of environmental activists.
The movement has by and large avoided injuring humans, despite causing millions of dollars worth of property damage across the United States. The most destructive of the activists, the Earth Liberation Front, maintains that one of its goals is to avoid injuring anyone, saying it considers all life sacred, even the life of people who despoil the environment.
The one real exception has been the campaign against Huntingdon Life Sciences, an international company that carries out research on animals. Officers of the lab have been attacked in both England and the United States, and there have been harassment campaigns as well.
Watson said that in his view there is no place in the movement for violence against other people.
"I think it would be self-defeating," he said. "The entire animal rights movement and environmental movement is based on non-violence. It's based on preserving life, not taking life."
He said he finds it ironic that he should have been chosen as the figurehead of an alleged ratcheting up of the activities of animal rights groups, because he says that all he does is try to enforce international laws and treaty agreements that too few people are trying to uphold.
"We only damage property being used in illegal things," he said. "We're actually more like a police organization than anything else."
Sea Shepherd has working agreements with Ecuador, Costa Rica, Trinidad and Tobago and Indonesia to help those countries fight poaching, and he said that in 1995 to 1996 the group worked with the U.S. government to help stop poaching of salmon and sturgeon in the Pacific Northwest.
Governments have not always been pleased with Watson's efforts.
Canadian authorities arrested him in 1993 when his ship drove off Cuban and Spanish trawlers that were fishing off Newfoundland. He faced trial on charges that could have put him in prison for life, but he based his defense on sections of the United Nations World Charter for Nature that call on nations, companies, organizations and individuals to do whatever they can to ensure that the charter is upheld.
In 1997 he spent 80 days in a Dutch jail after he was arrested in the Netherlands on a Norwegian warrant, for his conviction in absentia for the sinking of a Norwegian whaling vessel. There were weeks of protests in Amsterdam and at Dutch and Norwegian embassies around the world. He was released after a hearing, and Dutch authorities refused to turn him over to Norway.
He is under investigation for alleged attempted murder in Costa Rica, for an incident in April when his ship caught a Costa Rican fishing boat poaching.
Charges in the case were dropped once, after authorities were shown film of the incident shot by a documentary team that was traveling with Watson working on a movie about Sea Shepherd.
However, a new prosecutor appointed to the case revived the investigation, though no charges have yet been filed. Watson said he would not go back to Costa Rica until the issue is resolved.
In 2001, Sea Shepherd had a similar run-in with the Ecuadoran government, but was found not guilty.
He said he feels no swell of emotion among environmental and animal rights activists to take more drastic efforts to achieve their ends.
"I think there's frustration about the way things are," he said. "But I think we're all agreed that over the last 20 to 30 years there's been incredible progress made in getting people involved and making people aware. I think if there is frustration, it's in seeing the disappearing species, the disappearing wilderness."