SYDNEY, N.S. – Canadian writer Farley Mowat put up bail money Monday to free anti-sealing activists arrested on the waters off Cape Breton, saying the seizure of a ship named after him was a totalitarian act.
Mowat, 86, said he was deeply honoured when the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society named their vessel the Farley Mowat, and was ashamed of the Canadian government when he saw it being towed under arrest into Sydney on the weekend.
“A gross miscarriage of justice has been perpetrated by Fisheries Minister Loyola Hearn and any Canadian with any conscience would try to rectify it,” the animal rights activist said in an interview from his home in Port Hope, Ont.
“I have some conscience – not much – and a little money – not much – so I’m putting both to use and I’m doing my best to rectify a wrong.”
The ship’s captain and chief officer have been charged with getting too close to the hunt in the Cabot Strait – the body of water between Newfoundland and Cape Breton.
Paul Watson, president of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, took the $10,000 donated by Mowat and paid the bail to free two crew members jailed in Sydney.
Half of the bond was in 2,500 toonies, which Watson described as “doubloons.”
Watson said he wanted to pay the bond in coins because he considers Canada’s seizure of the Farley Mowat an act of piracy – and that’s how pirates like to be paid.
“It’s a pirate’s ransom,” said Watson, who has cultivated an image as a pirate himself, painting his 54-metre vessel flat-black and flying the Jolly Roger.
Watson said the coins had to be counted twice after Cape Breton court officials lost track the first time and had to start over.
It was the latest theatrical flourish in a drama being played out following Canada’s decision to crack down on Watson and the Sea Shepherd group in the struggle over the embattled East Coast seal hunt, which started March 28.
Government officials and animal welfare activists hurled insults at each other throughout Monday.
“I consider him to be a terrorist,” Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams said of Watson, who infuriated many in the region by saying recently that the slaughter of young seals was a greater tragedy than the deaths of four Quebec sealers last month.
Ordinary citizens waded into the fray, with callers to a phone-in show on VOCM radio in St. John’s, N.L., strongly supporting Hearn’s decision to arrest what the Newfoundland minister called “a bunch of money-sucking manipulators.”
“I’d like to have the money that they’ve raised off the backs of poor Newfoundland sealers,” said a caller named Don.
Mowat called both Williams and Hearn “guttersnipes.”
“They’re big mouths,” he said. “They’ll call anybody anything but if someone turns around and calls them what they are, Lord Jesus me son, then the shit hits the fan.”
Hearn, bristling at Mowat’s comments, remarked on one of the author’s better-known books about Newfoundland life, “The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float.”
“I’d suggest to Mr. Mowat and Mr. Watson this one is not going to float either,” Hearn said outside the House of Commons.
Watson took umbrage with Williams’s description of him as a “terrorist.”
“I’ve never been convicted of a felony,” said Watson, who is originally from St. Andrews, N.B. “I’ve never injured a single person in my life, so this is ridiculous.”
Still, the Sea Shepherd group is infamous for militant tactics aimed at stopping hunters from killing seals, whales and other marine wildlife.
The group claims to have sunk six whaling ships since 1979, saying no one was hurt in those actions.
Watson, who arrived in Sydney on Sunday night, said the seizure Saturday of his vessel hasn’t sidelined his push to end the East Coast seal hunt, which he called a cruel and unnecessary slaughter.
He described the Sea Shepherd campaign this year as “brilliant,” thanks largely to Hearn.
“Mr. Hearn just handed us all of the publicity we needed to direct worldwide attention to this issue.”
Hearn later conceded that Ottawa was, at one time, losing the public relations war to the anti-sealing movement.
“We have done, I think, a poor job over the years by being too diplomatic – sending our nice little diplomatic notes around,” he said. “They got to nobody except foreign bureaucrats.”
But he insisted the bid to save the hunt is on the rebound and the European Union prepares to vote on a motion this summer to ban all imports of seal products.
“We’ve addressed it now minister to minister,” said Hearn. “We have an ambassador, our fisheries conservation ambassador, who’s been doing a great job internationally at high levels.”
There was nothing diplomatic about Hearn’s decision Saturday to approve a provocative operation by the Mounties’ elite marine unit to storm and seize the Mowat.
The order came two weeks after a group of seal hunters complained that Watson’s ship came dangerously close to them not far from Cape Breton.
Captain Alexander Cornelissen, who hails from the Netherlands, and first officer Peter Hammarstedt are accused of steering the Farley 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.
Both Mowat and Watson said the seizure and arrests were illegal since the Farley Mowat is a Dutch-registered vessel and it was outside of Canada’s 12-mile territorial limit.
On Monday, Hearn said the ship was seized within that zone, but he staff later said the minister misspoke.
Two Maritime law experts said Monday that Canada was within its right to arrest the ship and its crew if they were indeed violating seal hunt regulations.
“Canada has jurisdiction over fish and marine mammals out to 200 nautical miles,” said Ted McDorman, a law professor at the University of Victoria. “So for purposes of marine mammal management, the waters out to 200 nautical miles are Canadian waters.”
William Tetley, a professor of maritime law at McGill University in Montreal, said international ships have a right off passage in many Canadian waters but they don’t have the right to violate Canadian laws.
“The Farley Mowat had a right of passage through the Cabot Strait and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, but it had to be innocent passage,” Tetley said.
“If they’re going to do something that is illegal, that’s not innocent, and if they have committed a crime and are subject to arrest, they’re not innocent. So they were properly arrested.”
Cornelissen and Hammarstedt are due back in court May 1.
– with files from Chris Morris in Fredericton