Sea Shepherd Conservation Society founder Paul Watson, who was arrested in Frankfurt, Germany, on May 13, has been freed on bail and awaits possible extradition to Costa Rica. He and Sea Shepherd’s director of investigations, Scott West, met with Costa Rican Foreign Minister Enrique Castillo on Thursday in an effort to work out a solution to the impasse, which stems from a 2002 confrontation between a Sea Shepherd ship captained by Watson and a Costa Rican fishing vessel.
Watson had been traveling to the Cannes Film Festival last week when he landed in Frankfurt and was detained there on behalf of the Costa Rican government. This was unusual in that Interpol evidently had not issued an arrest-on-sight “red notice,” saying that Costa Rica hadn’t met the threshold for this kind of notice. Watson remains under house arrest in Germany and must report to the Frankfurt police twice daily.
“There’s no extradition treaty between Germany and Costa Rica, but apparently Germany entertains everybody’s extradition requests,” Watson said wryly in a phone interview Wednesday. “Just my bad luck to have entered Europe through Germany. If it had been France or Spain or anywhere else, I would have been OK.”
Protests were organized in many countries around the world on Wednesday asking for Watson’s release, including a group of about 300 people in Paris and several hundred in Berlin, where Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla was meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. According to an English-language Costa Rican paper, the Tico Times, a couple of dozen people also gathered outside the courthouse in San Jose, Costa Rica, to ask for Watson’s release and protest the practice of finning sharks, in which sharks are caught, their fins cut off and their bodies often dumped back into the sea while they are still alive.
In 2002, the Sea Shepherd group had intercepted a Costa Rican vessel, the Varaderos I, which was allegedly catching sharks for the lucrative shark-fin trade. Shark fin is considered a delicacy in some parts of the world.
“We caught these guys shark-finning in Guatemalan waters,” Watson said Wednesday. “We contacted the Guatamalan Ministry of the Environment and asked them what to do, and they asked us to escort them in. Which we did. And then they changed their minds and we released them.”
The entire episode was captured on video and was used as part of Rob Stewart’s highly acclaimed 2007 documentary film “Sharkwater.” Sea Shepherd had been patrolling the marine sanctuary around Cocos Island, which is a Costa Rican terrority, since 1992, and at the time of the 2002 incident had been en route to Puntarenas, Costa Rica, where the organization was to sign an agreement with the government to help police the waters around the uninhabited island park.
The Guatamalan government must have interpreted their communication with Watson differently, as it reportedly dispatched a gunboat to arrest the Sea Shepherd crew. Watson then released the Varaderos I, which he was towing in to port, and proceeded to Costa Rica, where he was arrested and charged with attempted murder and shipwrecking. Watson and his crew sailed away from Costa Rica, but a warrant remained for Watson’s arrest. The captain says no one was hurt or threatened, and that the fishermen are basically trying to extort money from him, asking for $200,000 to make the whole case go away.
“That’s why now, 10 years later, they’re coming out and putting this extradition hearing on,” he said. “I told them I was quite willing to address these charges, if I can be given assurances of safety and a fair trial. But I think they should drop this extradition thing and let me go there of my own accord.”
The agreement to police Cocos Island was scrapped, and Costa Rica has pressed several times over the years for Watson to make an appearance in court. Multiple attempts to reach both Costa Rican and Guatamalan authorities to comment have not been successful.
The Sea Shepherd organization now hopes to turn the negotiations into something positive for marine life. On its Website on Friday, Sea Shepherd posted a short story about the meeting with the Costa Rican foreign minister, quoting Watson as saying, “The meeting was positive and Mr. Castillo was very open to finding a solution to both the situation regarding my arrest and to the possibility of working with Sea Shepherd to protect sharks and the integrity of the Cocos Island Marine Reserve.”
Similarly, the piece in the Tico Times said that Sea Shepherd and local activists in Costa Rica held out hope that the negotiations could result in the confirmation of a pact regarding Cocos Island.
Season 5 of Sea Shepherd’s popular Animal Planet show, “Whale Wars,” will debut on June 1.