Costa Rica seeking extradition of oceans advocate

Costa Rica

A decade-old incident at sea has controversial marine conservationist and star of Animal Planet’s “Whale Wars” Paul Watson entangled in a legal mess in Costa Rica, where authorities hope to try him for attempted shipwrecking of a Costa Rican fishing vessel in 2002.

On May 13, German police arrested Watson, the 61-year-old, bushy-haired founder and president of the environmental group Sea Shepherd, in Frankfurt on an outstanding 2006 warrant stemming from a confrontation with the Costa Rican fishing boat Varadero I. Sea Shepherd contends the vessel was in Guatemalan waters, and that its crew was illegally shark finning, a practice that involves catching sharks, removing their valuable fins and dumping the carcasses back in the water. Watson faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

After spending eight days in a German jail, Watson is free on bond, but cannot leave Germany until authorities rule on a Costa Rican extradition request. He is required to check in with authorities every day.

Watson’s Costa Rican attorney, Federico Morales, has filed two motions to block extradition, claiming Costa Rican officials failed to notify Watson of a 2006 court date. After he missed that date, Costa Rica issued an international arrest warrant, but Interpol refused to recognize it. It remains unclear why German officials decided to move forward with the arrest.

A film crew aboard Sea Shepherd’s Ocean Warrior (now renamed the Farley Mowat) caught the entire incident on video, which was used in the making of “Sharkwater,” a film about the practice of shark finning and the global decimation of shark species.

Watson’s arrest has prompted international conservationists to criticize the Costa Rican government, which markets Costa Rica as an eco-friendly tourist destination committed to natural-resource protection. It also has renewed focus on the country’s illegal and lucrative shark-fin trade, based in the central Pacific port city of Puntarenas. Costa Rica requires sharks to be landed with fins attached to their bodies; but until it enacted a 2010 rule that all fishing vessels must land their catch at a public dock, the requirement was easily circumvented through the use of private docks. Today, conservation groups say, shark finners are landing fins in Nicaragua, and then transporting them by truck to Costa Rica for export.

On April 22, 2002, Watson and his crew aboard the Ocean Warrior were en route to Costa Rica to sign a patrol agreement with Costa Rican officials to help protect Cocos Island, an uninhabited national park west of Puntarenas. Because of its abundance of marine wildlife, including several shark species, Cocos Island is known as Costa Rica’s “Treasure Island,” making it a prime target for poachers.

Encounter at sea

During its voyage, the Ocean Warrior came upon the Varadero I, which Watson said was illegally shark finning within the 200-mile no-take zone off the coast of Guatemala. International longliners like the Varadero I are not allowed to fish in other countries’ no-take zones, and it is unclear whether the vessel had a license from Guatemala to do so. According to Sea Shepherd, the Varadero I set an 80-kilometer (50-mile) longline in Guatemalan waters, and Watson says he and his crew observed the crew catching and finning sharks. They ordered the vessel to stop fishing and release its catch, but Watson said the crew continued, in the process hooking or strangling at least 17 sharks during the three-hour encounter.

Costa Rican authorities alleged Watson lacked authority to act against the Varadero I and its crew. Watson said he reported the vessel to Guatemalan environment officials, who told him to tow the vessel to shore, but that while towing Varadero I, the Ocean Warrior crew learned a Guatemalan gunboat had been dispatched to arrest them, not the fishermen.

Watson released the Varadero I, and the ship’s Costa Rican captain, Mario Aguilar, set course for Puntarenas. During the incident, the Costa Rican fishermen claimed the Ocean Warrior attacked them in an effort to sink the boat at high seas. In a June 3 story in Revista Dominical, the Costa Rican daily La Nación’s Sunday magazine, Varadero I crew members alleged Watson rammed their smaller boat seven times, heavily damaging it and injuring some of the fishermen on board.

“I shouted at the [Ocean Warrior crew], ‘Kill us and get it over with,’ because that’s what they wanted to do, kill us,” fisherman Faustino Gómez told Revista Dominical.

In an interview with EcoAméricas, Watson countered: “It’s total fiction. It’s all on film. We didn’t ram them once. We were intimidating them because Guatemala asked us to bring them in, and at one point, which is recorded on film, we got close, and for some inexplicable reason, the Varadero turned into us, and I turned, and he slammed in side-to-side. There wasn’t any damage done to the boat. … We specifically asked if anyone was hurt, they said, ‘No.’ … I’m sure we’re going to make a major film and kill fishermen in the process”, Watson added sarcastically.

Court-date dispute

After the incident, the Ocean Warrior crew continued to Puntarenas to sign the Cocos Island pact. Instead, Costa Rican officials arrested them and the pact was scuttled. Authorities eventually dropped charges of attempted shipwrecking and attempted murder—or so Watson thought, he says. He and his crew headed for Ecuador, where they set up conservation-enforcement programs for the Galápagos Marine Reserve. But in Costa Rica, charges of attempted shipwrecking and endangering the lives of fishermen stayed on the books, and a court hearing was scheduled for 2006. Watson says he knew nothing of the charges or the court date. When he didn’t appear, a judge issued the arrest warrant.

Watson says Sea Shepherd still hopes to work with Costa Rica on marine enforcement. But before that happens, he’ll likely stand trial in Costa Rica, voluntarily or in handcuffs. He says he fears for his safety, claiming shark finners have placed a $25,000 bounty on his head. But, he adds, he has offered to attend trial voluntarily if the extradition request is dropped. “If they get an extradition, they’re going to throw me into a prison cell for months and months, maybe up to a year, waiting for a court date,” Watson says. “A jail in Costa Rica is not the safest place to be. I think I’m being more than reasonable by saying, ‘Look, set a trial date. We’ll come with our witnesses.’ ”

- David Boddiger

Laura Chinchilla
President of Costa Rica
San José, Costa Rica
Tel: +(506) 2207-9170
Paul Watson
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
Friday Harbor, WA, United States
Tel: (360) 370-5650