MARINA DEL REY, United States

Award-winning actor Martin Sheen teamed up with conservation group Sea Shepherd Saturday to launch a new ship, as its exiled founder said he hopes to return to the US next year. Sea Shepherd founder Captain Paul Watson said via Skype that he hoped to return from France, where he said the government was being supportive despite two countries including Japan seeking his arrest. "I'm in a sort of exile in Paris... it's not the worst exile in the world," he joked.

"It's great over here. Everybody's been very friendly, the government's been very supportive. Hopefully we'll have all of this cleared up by next spring and I can return" to the US, he said. Watson was arrested in May 2012 in Frankfurt on a warrant from Costa Rica, where he is wanted on charges stemming from a high-seas confrontation over shark finning in 2002.  He was released on bail, but fled the country on July 22, 2012 and was a fugitive on the high seas for 15 months.

 He eventually entered the United States last October, and stayed here until a few months ago when he traveled to France, according to a Sea Shepherd spokeswoman, Lisa Agabian.

She told AFP there were still two "politically motivated" active Interpol Red Notices" from Japan and Costa Rica "which limit Captain Watson's travel, but we are continuing to work on getting them removed."

Sea Shepherd said last month that it would switch its high-profile Southern Ocean campaign from whales to toothfish - a rare species famed as "white gold" - if Japan cancels this year's hunt in Antarctica.

But Sea Shepherd, which has spent a decade harassing the Japanese harpoon ships during the southern hemisphere summer, said it would still keep its eye on any whaling vessels.

Meanwhile the captain of the new boat, the "Martin Sheen," cracked a bottle over the side of the research vessel, which will focus on battling maritime litter like plastics in the world's oceans.

"Plastic has become the deadliest predator of the sea," the Golden Globe and Emmy-winning "Apocalypse Now" and "West Wing" actor told a crowd at the boat-christening ceremony in Marina Del Rey, just outside Los Angeles.

"If we fail to clean up the plastic mess that humans have made and stop the pollution... we face the potential extinction of many species of sea life."

The French captain of the boat described how its six crew had encountered masses of plastic debris in the middle of the Pacific, on their two-week journey from Hawaii to Los Angeles for the launch.

"It was very sad to see that even in the most remote place far away from any human beings, you can find so much pollution," said captain Oona Layolle, a veteran of five Sea Shepherd campaigns.

Sheen, 74, said more than a million birds are believed to die each year from plastic pollution.

"Cleaning up the oceans is a major environmental imperative of our time... this vessel has a very specific mission and I cannot tell you how proud I am to be associated with it," he added.