In Praise Of Sea Shepherds, Drift-Net Foes

IT WASN'T the Battle of Midway, but the war in the Pacific has clearly started again. Capt. Paul Watson, intrepid leader of the oceangoing eco-vigilante group Sea Shepherds, recently radioed to shore that his flagship, Sea Shepherd II, had disabled two Japanese drift-net ships.

On Aug. 12, Watson encountered six squid-fishing trawlers. Observing ``dead and dying seabirds in the nets'' of these ships (the killing of these birds is a violation of a Japan-U.S. treaty), Watson rammed two - the Shunyo Maru 8 and the Ryoun Maru 6, disabling their fishing gear.

Men aboard another vessel retaliated by throwing knives at the crew of Sea Shepherd II, but no one was hurt. Then Watson gathered in, and sank, one of their $1 million drift nets.

The Sea Shepherds are a small band of ecoteurs dedicated to saving whales and other sea mammals by physically interfering with commercial harpooning and netting in international waters. And who among us, upon hearing of this skirmish, is not a little bit happy that these eco-tars are out there, saving wildlife from Davy Jones' locker?

Herein lies the irony of radical environmentalism: Although the antics of these high-seas ragamuffins may sometimes elicit moral unease, it is impossible not to admire them. No one has yet found a way to stop pirate nations from killing nearly everything that moves in international waters. And although violent, the Sea Shepherds' response relieves, a bit, our feeling of helplessness as witnesses to this slaughter and our gut sense of retributive justice.

Drift nets are indiscriminate killers. Each more than 30 miles long and 30 feet deep, they catch everything that swims in their path. Last year, witnesses for the National Marine Fisheries Service reported that 32 Japanese drift-net ships, in an effort to catch 3 million squid, also accidentally killed 58,100 blue sharks, 914 dolphins, 141 porpoises, 52 fur seals, 25 puffins, 539 albatrosses, 8,536 shearwaters, 17 stormy petrels, and 22 marine turtles.

Yet this is a tiny drop in a gigantic blood-bucket. As many as 800 Japanese, South Korean and Taiwanese trawlers ply North Pacific waters, casting and retrieving their nets more than 50,000 times and in the process killing tens of thousands of seals and porpoises and more than a million seabirds. Among their victims are Alaskan salmon, whose decline now threatens that state's critical industry.

This carnage stirs impotent international outrage. The United States already forbids drift nets in territorial waters, and the United Nations has recommended a worldwide ban. But instead the practice is growing: Taiwanese are now drift-netting in the Atlantic as well.

The Sea Shepherds would step into this breach. Their exploits make better-known Greenpeace activists look like shuffleboard players on a Carnival Cruise. Watson renounces violence against humans but has no reservations about destroying their property. Possessing the fanaticism of kamikaze pilots (one of their ships was called the Divine Wind - a literal translation of ``kamikaze''), his little ragtag navy may one day go too far. Someone - perhaps among his own crew - might be killed. Yet he and his crew are immensely likable. All are amateurs. Not even Watson receives a salary. They are chronically short of money.

They endure hardships that would test Job. Their ships are rusting hulks without air conditioning and with toilets that often do not work.

Their enemies - including the U.S. and Japanese governments - are legion. They face continual attempts at sabotage (last June, a mole among the crew wrecked Sea Shepherd II's turbocharger, requiring $16,000 in repairs and delaying the drift-net campaign for six weeks).

Watson and his navy reveal the moral complexities of radical environmentalism. International law has not stopped drift-netting, so the Sea Shepherds use illegal and violent tactics to call world attention to this poaching.

While they may break every civilized norm in the book, so do their adversaries. And the Sea Shepherds are in a different moral category from radicals such as Earth First! and the Animal Liberation Front. These landlubbing activists commit crimes in secret while denying individual responsibility for them. The Sea Shepherds announce their own derring-do with megaphones and press releases, inviting punishment from authorities.

And throughout, they have not lost their sense of humor. A few years ago, the Sea Shepherds' crew was under siege by irate Faroe Islanders, angry that these ecoteurs were interfering with whaling. The Faroese attacked with guns and tear gas.

Watson responded by loading his ship's water cannon with lemon-meringue pie filling and attempting to fire at his foe. It is hard to get mad at a guy who can conceive such sweet revenge.

(Copyright, 1990, Universal Press Syndicate)