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Paul Watson, whose high-seas exploits chasing Japanese whalers have made him a reality-TV star, insists he’s no pirate.

“Protesting against illegal activity is not piracy,” the founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) said in a U.S. appeals court in Seattle on Wednesday during a hearing that will determine whether he and the organization should be held in contempt.

“I don’t care what people call us,” he said. “We’re not pirates.”

Watson is just as clear in his opinion of Japanese whale hunters: “They are criminals.”

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Watson’s appearance before an appellate commissioner was because the judges want to know if he’s in contempt of court for violating an order to stay away from Japanese whaling ships.

Watson, who is wanted by Japan and Interpol for criminal charges stemming from his anti-whaling activities off the coast of Antarctica in 2010, said he has been at sea for the past year to avoid arrest. He explained that his appearance in Seattle was the result of “high-level negotiations,” but did not elaborate.

If found in contempt, Watson and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society face fines of up to $2 million, although the Japanese whaling consortium that has sued Watson says it will forgo the fines if the fleet is left alone next season. The director of the Australian Sea Shepherd Society already has said it will continue with the harassment campaign this winter.

Moreover, the blustery 62-year-old eco-activist and the Friday Harbor-based Sea Shepherd Conservation Society face a possibly large monetary verdict in the civil lawsuit underlying the contempt action.

And that may not be all of Watson’s problems. Sitting in the back of the courtroom as Watson testified was Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Friedman, a criminal supervisor in the Seattle U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Friedman would say only that he was interested in hearing Watson’s testimony.

The contempt hearing arose from a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle in 2011 against Watson and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society by Japan’s Institute for Cetacean Research and two large Japanese whaling firms. The lawsuit sought an injunction to stop the high-seas harassment, and damages.

Watson has for years been a sort of anti-Ahab, an obsessive opponent of whaling who has risked ship and crew to interfere with the Japanese fleet — exploits documented on Animal Planet’s reality show “Whale Wars.”

The Sea Shepherd ships often run perilously close to the whalers in heaving seas, with crews throwing acid and smoke bombs, and dragging cables to foul propellers. The group claims it has saved thousands of whales.

Japan is permitted by international treaty to take whales for research, and the country kills as many as 1,000 of the sea mammals every year as allowed by the International Whaling Commission. However, the whale meat not used for study is sold as food in Japan.

Watson and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society say the research is a sham, and that much of the meat makes it way to the market.

Last year, U.S. District Judge Richard Jones ruled for Watson and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in the lawsuit, and refused to issue the injunction to stop the protests. The whalers appealed, and Jones’ decision was not only reversed, he was removed as trial judge for abuse of discretion.

Shortly after, a panel of judges on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — led by Chief Judge Alex Kozinski — issued an injunction of its own, ordering Watson, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and anyone working “in concert” with them to stay at least 500 yards away from the Japanese whaling ships.

The whalers allege that injunction was violated at least 10 times, including one incident in which a Sea Shepherd ship rammed a fuel vessel.

Watson claims he is not responsible. He said that by the time of the alleged violations he had resigned from every aspect of the organization he had founded in 1977 — right down to losing his salary and health benefits — in an effort to comply with the injunction.

He acknowledged he was on board one of the four protest ships when the violations occurred, but only because it was under way when the injunction was issued and he feared arrest if he went ashore.

He said he remained only as an observer, and urged compliance with the injunction, but said he could not force it because the operation was at that point being run by Sea Shepherd of Australia. That group’s director, Jeff Hansen, testified earlier this week that he believes his organization is beyond the reach of the U.S. courts.

Watson explained there are several Sea Shepherd organizations around the world, many started by former crewmates. He said they are affiliated with — but independent of — the U.S. organization.

The attorney representing the Japanese whalers questioned whether Watson’s attempts to comply with the injunction weren’t a fiction to allow the protests to continue while claiming he had no control over them.

The lawyer, John Neupert, suggested that if he had really wanted to comply with the injunction, he would have stayed in command of the operation and ensured that the ships did not violate the 500-yard rule.

Watson said he didn’t think he could do that, because he would not be able to stop the other captains if a whale’s life was in danger.

The panel has taken the matter under advisement.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report. Mike Carter: or 206-464-3706. Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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