From rising sea temperatures to overfishing and plastic pollution, the state of our oceans has never been more dire. In the latest ocean assessment released by the U.N. on Earth Day (April 22), experts warn that our human activities are fast depleting one of the planet’s most valuable resources, from the accelerating pace of sea-level rise to coastal erosion, ocean acidification and biodiversity loss. Almost 90% of mangrove, seagrass and marsh plant species are now threatened with extinction. Marine litter can be found in every single ocean habitat. Ocean heat has more than doubled since the 1990s. One of the biggest issues of all – overfishing – has translated to losses of US$$88.9 billion every single year and we could be looking at no fish left at all by 2048.
Attention on overfishing and our plundering of the oceans has recently dominated the headlines, thanks to the recent release of the popular and controversial Netflix documentary Seaspiracy, which uncovered the dark role of commercial fishing in a range of climate-related crises, from fuelling plastic waste, to the loss of precision marine species, to human rights and violations to antibiotic resistance – to name just a few. Part of the film followed the work of Sea Shepherd, the global conservation nonprofit on the frontlines of protecting and defending our oceans from illegal and unregulated fishing, and ensuring that the laws that do exist are being enforced.
We recently had the opportunity to sit down (via Zoom of course) with Canadian-American environmentalist Captain Paul Watson, founding member of Greenpeace and founder of Sea Shepherd, to hear about his own journey into conservation and the incredibly inspiring work that he and other activists are doing every single day.
Below, the transcript from our interview with the man himself- we talk about the many reactions to Seaspiracy, why he keeps on fighting when things keep getting worse and his views on everything from youth activism to cellular agriculture.
GQ: The first thing we want to know – why the ocean, all the things you care about?
PW: I was raised in an eastern Canadian fishing village, right by the ocean. You know, I ran off to sea when I was a teenager and joined the Norwegian Merchant Marine. I was in the Canadian Coast Guard. Then I was the youngest founding member of the Greenpeace Foundation in 1969. So the ocean is just really where I’ve always been.
GQ: Let’s turn to Seaspiracy because it’s having such a huge impact. There was also a big response to it, both good and bad, and here at Green Queen Media we actually rounded up some of the criticism and different responses to it. What’s one word you would use to sum the movie up and how do you feel about the reaction to the film?
PW: I don’t know if I can put it in one word. But the film has had an incredible response. We, of course, were expecting criticism. You know, the industry is putting millions of dollars into public relations to counter this kind of message. So I think it has had a great impact, a positive impact and I think it’s going to have a lot of influence.
I keep hearing these criticisms that the film is full of misinformation or that it’s not factual, but nobody really gives the examples of that. The one priority one I think they’re talking about is that the fishing industry is going to crash in 2048. They’re saying there is no scientific evidence for that. The predictions differ, with some saying that the ocean fish stocks will be diminished by 88%, which is still pretty close to 100%. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s 2048 or 2078. The point is, it’s going to crash and there is no sustainable commercial fishing anywhere in the world. When we talk about misinformation, the industry is so full of misinformation, it’s incredible. It’s very difficult to know exactly what’s going on.
Another part is that a lot of the people doing the criticising had been asked to participate in the film, and actually, they had refused to do so. They were given that opportunity. But personally, I don’t really see anything that’s actually really incorrect in the film.
GQ: Many NGOs felt attacked by the film and felt like it was saying that all NGOs were bad. What’s your take on that?
PW: I didn’t get that impression. But first of all, this is not a dissertation for somebody. This is a story. It’s a story about Ali and Lucy Tabrizi’s story and their experience, and that’s what makes films like these successful. If you look at Rob Stewart’s Sharkwater or Gorillas in the Mist that was about Dian Fossey, or the film about myself, Watson. They are all about people’s stories. I think that’s why Seaspiracy is trending on Netflix, because it is a story that people can relate to. I don’t think it pretends to be the perfect scientific comment on the state of the oceans.
GQ: What are some NGOs that you think are doing great work in the realm of marine conservation and protecting sea life?
PW: The strength of an ecosystem is in diversity. Therefore, the strength of any movement is in diversity. There are literally thousands of small organisations around the world, and literally tens of thousands of individuals who are addressing this issue. That is really the backbone. The strength of the entire marine conservation movement, anti-poaching groups all over the world, there are so many different things. But the Oceanic Preservation Society (OPS) is a good example. Parley for the Oceans, which is also in the film, is a good example. I mean, there are plenty of organisations involved and making a difference.
I think the film criticised a couple of things that some of these NGOs are doing, but didn’t actually criticise NGOs overall. For instance, I support the Earth Island Institute. I think they do good work. But when Mark Palmer says that you cannot guarantee that tuna is dolphin-free, that is a fact. I don’t think he’s being misrepresented when he says exactly that. It’s a fact and I think it was a fair statement.
The strength of any movement is in diversity. There are literally thousands of small organisations around the world, and literally tens of thousands of individuals who are addressing this issue.
GQ: You co-founded Greenpeace and you’ve been in the NGO world for a long time. Do you think that really big NGOs can keep growing without being compromised?
PW: That is a problem. You know, I was a national director of the Sierra Club in the U.S. between 2003 to 2006. One of the things that Carl Pope, who was the former executive director, said was that they wanted a big tent and you can’t upset too many people if you want a big tent. For instance, we can’t support veganism because that’s going to alienate people, we can’t come out against hunting and fishing, because that’s gonna alienate people. So for these big organisations, they need that large membership to bring in the large donations.
When we set up Sea Shepherd, I made sure that the funds we brought in do not get reinvested into fundraising. We don’t do direct mail. We’re not all things to all people. That’s why we’ve remained relatively small. But when you consider that Greenpeace’s annual income is about 350 million euros a year, while Sea Shepherd’s is 12 million – we have 12 ships and they have three. It’s not the money that makes it effective, it’s the passion of the volunteers involved. I actually do think that the smaller organisations tend to have more of an impact and are far more passionate and creative than the large NGOs.
GQ: In a previous interview, you talked about having children and the need to live in communities separated by wildlife. Ideally, maybe there wouldn’t be more than a billion of us and ideally, those who aren’t responsible wouldn’t have children. Is that still something you believe in today?
PW: It’s not so black and white to say you should have children or you shouldn’t have children. I think that as a human being, to bring another human being into the world, you need to be prepared to guarantee nurturing, education and love. And if you can’t, then you shouldn’t be doing that. It’s a gross act of irresponsibility. So the number of children you have is irrelevant. It’s how you raise them. How you bring them up. Unfortunately, the greater part of the human population right now, they aren’t providing that nurturing, education and love. That’s why we have so many problems in human society.
The number of children you have is irrelevant. It’s how you raise them. How you bring them up.
I was talking to a fisherman in Alaska one time, and I said: “Look, for no other reason, protect the fishery for the future of your children.” Then he looked at me and said: “You know, in five years, my mortgage is paid and after that, I don’t give a damn.” Why does someone like that have children? Because it’s just what you do. Nobody really thinks about it. It’s just what you do. So I think that when you give birth to a child, you’re really giving birth to future generations. There’s not just one child, it’s going to have reverberations right through into the future for hundreds and maybe thousands of years, and that’s a great responsibility. I think that if we approached it in that way, then it wouldn’t be a problem. But, you know, unfortunately, there’s just too many unwanted, unloved, abused children being brought into the world today.
GQ: So basically, consciousness is important in the act?
PW: Yes, absolutely. Consciousness. And sacrifice. I mean, having children means sacrifice. Sacrificing your own personal freedom, sacrificing economically, there are a lot of things you have to sacrifice. But also, the benefits of having children are an understanding that you do have an obligation to make this a better world and I think that that makes a big difference.
GQ: Do you think that it’s important to expose children to nature? Is that how we can train empathy with the environment and animals?
PW: People ask me, what do we teach our children? And my answer is nothing. Don’t teach them anything. Encourage them, encourage their imagination, encourage their intuition. Children have a natural understanding of the world as it is, you know, let them ask questions and answer their questions, but don’t lead them.
Many years ago, I had the opportunity to speak to a school in the Queen Charlotte Islands on the Haida Indian Reservation there in British Columbia. In the morning, we spoke to the kindergarten children, who all spoke Haida. They told us stories about whales. We didn’t have to say anything. By middle school, only half of them spoke the language and half of them cared. By the time we got to the seniors, nobody spoke the language and nobody gave a damn about whales. Through this education system, it’s taken all these beautiful, intelligent children and turned them into morons. It’s education, which I think is a core root cause for a lot of these problems. So let children educate themselves, encourage their abilities and encourage their skills.
Children have a natural understanding of the world as it is, you know, let them ask questions and answer their questions, but don’t lead them.
GQ: What about education like the Green School in Bali? Do you think that we need to nurture those places more, where they do put an emphasis on ecology in the curriculum?
PW: Absolutely. But let children guide the educational system. For instance, our educational system tells people you will study mathematics, you will study this, you will study that. Some people are good at it, and some people aren’t. I think what a proper education does is to say – what are this child’s intuitive abilities? Then how can we make this better? Is this person an artist or is this person going to be a scientist? We go from there and teach them. You can’t force them into these little pigeon holes of what they’re going to be.
When I was going to school as a younger child, there were things that I was good at and things I was bad at. If I did the things I was good at, I would but told what a great student I was. But if I didn’t and I was forced to do things that I didn’t like but just had no natural ability to do, that just brings down your grade point average and causes you all sorts of problems. So I feel like education should be an individual thing and structured on really on the imagination and the intuition and the intellectual understanding of each particular child.
GQ: You’ve been an activist for the oceans and the planet for a really long time. Why do you keep fighting? Do you ever feel that it’s not working? Are we getting somewhere?
PW: Well, the answer to an impossible situation is to find the impossible solution. That can be done through the combination of passion, imagination and courage. In 1972, the very idea that Nelson Mandela would become president of South Africa was unthinkable and therefore impossible, and yet the impossible became possible. I think that all problems can be solved by looking for that impossible solution. I never get depressed. I never get pessimistic.
That’s our approach with Sea Shepherd, we focus on what we’re doing now. And the future will unfold in response to our actions today.
Way back in 1973, I volunteered as a medic for the American Indian Movement during the occupation of Wounded Knee in South Dakota. We were surrounded by 3,000 federal agents who were shooting at us. 20,000 rounds a night they were shooting into the village. They wounded 46 and killed two. I went to Russell Means, who was the leader of the American Indian Movement. I said there’s no way we can win here. The odds against us are overwhelming. What are we doing here? He looked at me and he said something to me that stayed with me until today. He said: We’re not concerned about the odds against us. We’re not concerned about winning or losing. We’re here because it’s the right place to be, the right thing to do and the right time to do it. Don’t worry about the future, focus on the present. What you do in the present will define what the future will be.
And that’s our approach with Sea Shepherd, we focus on what we’re doing now. And the future will unfold in response to our actions today.
GQ: Do you think that the tide is turning? You could argue that environmental crises have never gotten more headlines than today. There’s social media, documentaries, there’s a lot of attention. Are we reaching a tipping point?
PW: Increased awareness was predictable and inevitable because as the situation deteriorates, more people are becoming more aware, and it’s affecting their lives personally. But that awareness doesn’t always translate into action. Unless it really touches you on a personal level.
One problem is that we have this incredible ability to adapt to diminishment.
So it’s when, you know, a habitat you love has been destroyed, or your children are affected. Then suddenly, you’re going to become an activist because you don’t have any choice. What’s becoming more evident is that this is all impacting people, more and more so. The world that we live in today was not the world of the 1970s or the 1950s. It’s been vastly diminished.
But one problem is that we have this incredible ability to adapt to diminishment. As things become more and more diminished, we just accept it and just move on. I mean, the very idea in 1965, that you would be buying water in plastic bottles and everyone paying more for that water than gasoline would be unthinkable. Nobody was going to do that. Yet, here we are. We’ve just adapted to diminishment. A species of fish that was popular in the 1950s is now no more, but we’ve forgotten about it and moved onto a new species of fish. Turbot, for example, was a fish nobody ate back in the 1950s. Now, it’s what’s available because the northern cod populations have crashed. We just move on and forget that we’ve wiped out species, we’ve driven them into extinction, then we forget that they’ve ever existed.
‘We’re not concerned about winning or losing. We’re here because it’s the right place to be, the right thing to do and the right time to do it.’
GQ: You talk about how there is no such thing as sustainable fishing but there are some NGOs and people who believe that sustainable commercial fishing exists. Why is that? Are they not looking at the same data?
PW: They probably believe that from their point of view, that sustainable fishing is really doing what it is doing. That the fish the corporate fishing industry is selling you, they’d like you to believe that it was caught by a few hardworking individuals out there early in the morning on their little boats, catching those fish and bringing them back to market. But the reality is giant super-trawlers. Hundred-mile-long gillnets. Long lines, giant driftnets, nets so big that they can fill three school buses full of fish. And in just one haul, dragging and destroying the bottoms with their bare bottom trawlers. This is the reality, it is not the individuals out there and their little boat, which is what the fishing industry would like you to believe.
As somebody who was raised in a fishing village, as somebody who has been raised by the ocean, as somebody who has travelled through all the world’s oceans and seen this diminishment over the last 60 years, it is a reality.
There’s also denial. When I hear scientists criticise Seaspiracy, for example, I say well follow the money. Who are they working for and who’s paying them? Because it’s the same as climate change, you can always find X number of scientists who are going to support the denial side and also scientists that of course support the fact that it’s a real thing. So it’s hard to say “scientists say this”, because scientists say a lot of things. And you can manipulate the science to justify whatever you want.
From my point of view, I just say as somebody who was raised in a fishing village, as somebody who has been raised by the ocean, as somebody who has travelled through all the world’s oceans and seen this diminishment over the last 60 years, it is a reality. I don’t need scientists to tell me that these statistics are wrong or these facts are wrong. I’ve seen the diminishment with my own eyes.
GQ: Is there a way forward for small-time fishermen and community fishermen around the world, especially in the Global South?
PW: Conservationists are not a threat to the livelihoods of indigenous and artisanal fishermen. The industrialised fishing corporations are the threat. They’re the ones that are taking the jobs away from them. You know, when these European and Asian fishing fleets go down the coast of Africa, and they plunder those waters, they’re impoverishing literally millions of people. That’s the reality of it. It’s industrialised fishing that is the problem.
In 1992, at the environmental conference in Rio de Janeiro, Gro Harlem Brundtland, who was the prime minister of Norway at the time, in a speech she coined the word sustainability. What does that mean? Today, it means business-as-usual. We call everything sustainable. Sustainable farming, sustainable logging, sustainable fishing, but it’s just a word doesn’t really mean anything. Unless you’re out there with your canoe offshore of, say Gambia, with your line in the water catching a fish for your family, then, you know anything else is really not sustainable. You can’t catch a fish called the Patagonian toothfish or the Antarctic toothfish off the coast of Antarctica, fly it halfway around the world to restaurants in New York or Paris, and charge an incredible amount of money for that and call that sustainable.
There is just no sustainable level of fishery anywhere in the world. It’s all collapsing and it will be collapsed by the tentative turn of the century. So, my recommendation, what I said in 2015 at the COP 21 conference was that if we’re going to protect the ocean, if we’re going to address climate change, then we have to shut down industrialised commercial fishing for at least 50 years. We need that moratorium to allow the ocean to repair the damage that we’ve done to it.
GQ: Do you support cellular agriculture, especially when it comes to seafood?
PW: I support anything that isn’t going to have an impact upon the ecosystems. You know, if you’re going to grow meat in, in laboratories, and you’re not killing animals, you’re not destroying ecosystems. I don’t see anything wrong with that.
If we’re going to address climate change, then we have to shut down industrialised commercial fishing for at least 50 years. We need that moratorium to allow the ocean to repair the damage that we’ve done to it.
GQ: COP26 is coming up. What do you think about it? Are these conferences just lip service?
PW: We have these conferences and all the world leaders get together and they have photo opportunities together and they make all sorts of promises. Then they go home and do nothing. It’s been that way every single year. I mean, I remember in COP 21, Justin Trudeau was the darling of the conference. He’s going to do this, he’s going to do that. Then he goes back to Canada, and now he’s a major supporter of Tar Sands Pipeline. Everything he promised to do, he didn’t do. The reason being is that politicians have their hands tied behind their backs by their voters. Any politician who’s going to come out and actually do something is going to lose the next election. That’s pretty much true in every country.
Don’t be deterred by criticism. Just harness your passion to the virtues of courage and imagination and go out there and change the world. Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do it.
GQ: Do you feel hopeful that things could change? There’s now people like Greta Thunberg, and all these young people and the movements they are creating. Will this make a difference?
PW: I love Greta Thunberg. She’s managed to talk to world leaders, she’s managed to mobilise millions of young people. She’s done a great job and that gives me a lot of hope for the future. There are so many young people who are doing so many wonderful things. What I always say to young people is don’t be deterred by criticism. Just harness your passion to the virtues of courage and imagination and go out there and change the world. Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do it.
GQ: We always end our interviews by asking – are you team rice or team noodles?
PW: Actually, I don’t eat either. But I guess before, I would have preferred noodles.
This interview was transcribed by Sally Ho.
Lead image courtesy of Sea Shepherd.