SYDNEY, N.S. – Stunned and angry crew from the anti-sealing vessel Farley Mowat emerged from a Cape Breton jail Sunday, maintaining the dramatic seizure of their ship by a black-clad RCMP squad brandishing submachine-guns violated international law.
The Mounties’ elite marine team was called in Saturday by federal Fisheries Minister Loyola Hearn two weeks after a group of seal hunters complained that the Mowat came dangerously close to them in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
The flat-black, 54-metre ship, operated by the U.S.-based Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, was towed Sunday to a secure jetty in Sydney, where a few dozen curious but quiet onlookers snapped souvenir photos.
David Nickarz, the Mowat’s engineer, said Canada had no right to board the ship and arrest the 17 crew members because the Dutch-registered vessel was in international waters, where Canadian rules don’t apply.
“But I guess the people with the guns had a different opinion,” he said in an interview with The Canadian Press. “We’ve been marooned here in Sydney by the Canadian government.”
Crew member Merilee Nyland, one of the six activists who spent the night in a cold jail cell after refusing to submit to immigration checks, said the arrest of the crew in the Cabot Strait was traumatic.
“I came around a corner and all of sudden there were three men with guns in my face,” said the 23-year-old from Arlington, Wash.
David Jonas, a New Hampshire resident, said some of his shipmates were handcuffed and told they all faced charges.
“We were placed under arrest, forced to lie down on the deck,” he said Sunday. “We were then escorted to the stern of the ship and kept under armed guard … Canada did not have a right to board us and bring us to Sydney.”
Earlier, the Mowat’s captain and chief officer made brief appearances in a Sydney courtroom to face charges under federal marine mammal regulations and the Fisheries Act.
Captain Alexander Cornelissen – who hails from the Netherlands – and First Officer Peter Hammarstedt are accused of steering the Mowat to within 900 metres of the hunt. That’s an offence under federal regulations unless an observer’s permit has been granted. The Mowat does not have one.
The two men were granted bail and each must post $5,000.
The charges could result in fines of up to $100,000 or up to one year in jail, or both. The case resumes May 1 and the two accused are free to leave the country once they post bail, their lawyer said.
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, led by environmental crusader Paul Watson, has described the seizure and arrests as an “act of war.”
Watson, who was in New York when the RCMP launched their speedy Zodiacs from two coast guard vessels, was making his way to Cape Breton by car Sunday night.
His group took a personal swipe at Hearn on its website.
“In his zeal to kiss the bottoms of the seal-killing crowd, he has thrown reason out the window … Loyola Hearn is certainly the latest Nufie joke and the joke is about to backfire in his face.”
Canada’s provocative move came on the same day that the largest part of the annual hunt opened off the north coast of Newfoundland in a vast and forbidding area known as the Front.
Hearn said he had to take action before someone was killed on the ice.
“If I had let that go ahead, if the boat had gone to the front, if somebody had gotten shot, if somebody had gotten killed, who’d be to blame? I would,” he told CTV. “So we acted.”
He also rejected the claim that the Mowat was beyond Canada’s reach, saying the Fisheries Act gives him the authority to take action beyond Canada’s 12-nautical-mile territorial limit.
The Mowat will be detained in Sydney for as long at it takes Transport Canada officials to conduct a full inspection, Hearn said.
That means Watson’s group will remain on the sidelines as the bulk of the hunting gets underway – a political plus for Hearn, who represents Newfoundland in the federal cabinet.
In Sydney, one man among the crowd at harbourside said his reason for coming to the docks was simple: “Just to watch an international incident.”
The man, who declined to give his name, said the activists were “making a nuisance of themselves.”
Sydney resident Dave MacNeil said he supported Ottawa’s actions, which have attracted international attention.
“I don’t think they’re accomplishing too much other than putting people in danger.”
In Newfoundland, the head of the Canadian Sealers Association said the federal government “did the right and proper thing.”
Frank Pinhorn of Conception Bay South, N.L., said the ice floes are no place for observers.
“It’s going to come to a point where someone is going to lose their patience, they’re going to be a little bit edgy and they’re going to react,” said Pinhorn.
Throughout the weekend, Hearn said he was taking steps to ensure the safety of seal hunters, but he also heaped scorn on Watson’s group.
“These are a bunch of money-sucking manipulators,” Hearn told a news conference in Ottawa on Saturday. “They’re sole aim is to try to suck as much money out of the pockets of people who really don’t know what’s going on.”
Hearn said the Mowat came within nine metres of a group sealers at one point on March 30, shattering floes as sealers scrambled to get back to their small boat.
Despite Hearn’s insistence that Canada acted within its jurisdiction, the Fisheries Department has confirmed that on March 29 – one day after the hunt started – Foreign Affairs issued a diplomatic note to the Netherlands requesting help dealing with the Mowat “as it is flying a Dutch flag.”
A spokesman for the Dutch foreign ministry said the department was looking into the matter.
Under federal rules, seal hunters can take up to 275,000 harp seals this season, but low pelt prices and steep fuel costs have made the hunt a money-loser for many hunters. As a result, far fewer seals are expected to be slaughtered this year.