Fifteen Americans are among the 21 crewmen of the Sea Shepherd who face a court hearing Monday in Perce, Quebec, a necessary step in the process of deciding whether to put them in jail for life.

I was not surprised, therefore, to see that Paul Watson, ship captain, is taking a lively interest in Canadian law, and he agreed to answer a few questions that are bound to nag those who in general think seals and whales should be left pretty much unslaughtered, but who do not think a gang of humans should be drowned or blown up, etc., in the process of saving sea animals.

The Sea Shepherd interfered with (what a grand word it is; when Victorian ladies were raped they were "interfered with," so you should know that in this case it is not a euphemism for rape) the annual seal hunt last March in the St. Lawrence breeding grounds of the harp seal.

The hunt was stopped for three critical days, Watson says, by his ship and crew, who sailed about in the ice and faced the hunting ships and turned them back. Watson has the reputation for being second to no man in the world for aggressive tactics to deflect whalers and sealers from their butchery ways. With steely gaze I asked him precisely what happened last March, and that is precisely what he was prepared to speak of for several hours.

No violence was used, he said, and not one human was hurt. There was not even a fist fight, though there was no great love lost, either.

"The actual words I radioed to the captains of the sealers were, 'Captain, please refrain from placing your men on the ice this morning, and would you kindly return to your base on the Magdalen Islands.' "

Ships turned back. No violence.

Still, as I reminded him, if in a holdup a guy points a gun at you and then later claims it was just a toy he got at the drug store, he has still robbed you under the threat of death. Even if his words happen to be polite.

Watson, after all, once rammed and sank a whaling ship off the coast of Portugal and while nobody was hurt, let alone drowned, still ramming ships is a hazardous tactic, no matter how dandy the intended aim. The sealing ships certainly knew Watson had rammed and sunk a whaler earlier. How could Watson say no violence was used, when every sealing captain feared Watson might ram his ship?

And would Watson think the charges were excessive if, say, 200 Canadian sailors went down in a rammed ship?

"First," he said, no sealer was rammed and there was never any intention of doing it. The Sea Shepherd has never accounted for a single violent act against a human. It would be ironic, I grant you, if we ever practiced or intended violence against humans when our respect for life is such that we take risks just to save the lives of sea mammals.

"Second, you ought to consider just what that ramming and sinking off Portugal involved. The ship we sank was a pirate whaler, acting entirely illegally in its hunting of whales. We encountered it out in the open Atlantic, and I agree it would be an unthinkable thing to ram a ship hundreds of miles out at sea. We did no such thing. We followed it right into Oporto, doing no violence at all.

"We did, I admit, intend that that ship would never kill another whale. We radioed the ship we intended to ram her, and said the ship should be cleared of every crew member. Then we waited while they got off, and rammed the ship. This was a thousand feet from the dock. It is not the same as ramming the ship far from shore, without warning."

He said he was not surprised to be charged, along with his crew, for violating the Canadian Seal Protection Act, by approaching within half a mile of a seal without a proper license to kill the seal. He did, obviously, not only get within the forbidden limits, but actually landed and played with the baby seals and so did his crew.

The Seal Protection Act protects seals, needless to say, by allowing the seal killers in and keeping the seal protectors out. Americans understand this, of course. It's sort of like saving Vietnam by destroying it.

"But we were astounded," he said, "by the other charges. Conspiracy to commit extortion has a sentence up to 14 years in jail. This involves what they claim is depriving seal hunters of their legal right to use their ships in the lawful occupation of killing seals.

"Another charge is conspiracy to commit mischief. It's claimed we endangered the lives of the sealers, and this can result in life imprisonment.

"We did not place any lives in danger, but we face life imprisonment--the maximum sentence--for the crime of saving the seals' lives. The government of Canada is out for our blood."

Bail was set, following the arrest of the crew last March, at $53,000 for the 16 men and five women of the Sea Shepherd. That sum sprang all of them.

"It does sound low," said Ben White of Fairfax, one of the crew members whom I phoned, "when you consider the possible sentences. I think the court was surprised how we had to scrounge from our families to raise the bail. It was low, at least by American standards, and I think they may have hoped we post the bail and then just leave Canada and never return for the trial. That way, we could never enter Canada again, and the seal hunters would never have any more trouble from us.

"But all 21 of us will be in that court next Monday. We're pretty serious about what we've done. We don't just go up there and break up a seal hunt then get our tails out."

Later Watson wrote a letter to me, saying if he's sent to jail, he'll go without protest and go happy, knowing 70,000 seals are alive that would be just hides now except for the Sea Shepherd.

He and the others are uneasy about the language problem in French-speaking Quebec.

Marc Busch, first mate, who comes from Australia, said that earlier experiences in Quebec courts were in French and he had no idea what was being said, though his fate depended on it. He believed there was one interpreter who kept whispering to Watson, but that was not a great comfort to Busch.

At the Canadian Embassy here, minister counselor Patrick Gossage said the Charter of Rights and the Constitution of Canada both guarantee a trial in the language the defendants can understand. He did not know if the Monday court hearing would be in English or French. If French, he said there would be a word-for-word translation, given consecutively after about every three sentences.

What about the men who hunt seals, making very little money from disagreeable work, as their fathers did--didn't Watson feel some responsibility for their living?

He said of course he did. He said that even with government subsidies to the seal hunters, they only get $13 a pelt. He said the Sea Shepherd offered them $20 a pelt to leave the 60,000 Newfoundland pelts alone. Not that he had any money to back this offer up, but he was sure he could raise it. (The day after Watson made the offer, the Fund for Animals offered to put up the cash, and two weeks later the International Fund for Animal Welfare offered up to $8 million for the lives of the seals, Watson said.)

He also proposed a tourist industry in which the sealers instead of hunting seals would take visitors to view and photograph the pups on the ice. He figured this would provide $35 million to $40 million a year to Newfoundland, against $3.6 million, at best, from the seal kill. The provincial fisheries minister proclaimed this idea nonsense, Watson said, "but if ships can get through the ice to kill seals, they can get through the ice to take visitors who want to see them playing around alive."

I asked Watson what would have happened if the sealing ships had not turned back when he asked them to.

"Nothing. We had no way to stop them. They would have just gone ahead and clubbed the young seals as usual and there would have been nothing we could do. We called their bluff, but if they had kept going we couldn't have stopped them." Watson's whaling ventures are not part of the present court case, but may shed light on his contention of nonviolence. The Sea Shepherd sailed until whales were eventually found with whaling ships hunting them. Watson and some of the crew then got into small boats with lively motors. They sailed between the whales and the harpoons of the whaling ships. They counted on the whalers not to harpoon the Sea Shepherd crew.

It struck me not every prudent and experienced man would take this gamble on the open sea, far from observers. But then as a wit once wrote, a shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.