Updated: Tuna conservation group denies injuring fishermen, says it freed 800 tuna
(Adds PL's statement)
The captain of a ship involved in an anti-tuna fishing clash with Maltese and Italian fishermen insisted today that his crew had not injured anyone, and his divers had managed to free some 800 tuna which, he claimed, were likely to have been caught after the season was closed. The fishermen were airlifted to hospital last night.
Captain Paul Watson of the Steve Irwin, flagship of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, in a report issued to the media, said that at about 1 p.m. yesterday (Thursday) the Steve Irwin came upon the Italian vessel Cesare Rustico towing two cages some 40 miles off the Libyan coast. One of the cages contained about 800 fish and the other was empty. Another boat, the Rosaria Tuna, was near by.
"The Captain of the Cesare Rustico said when we questioned him, that the tuna were caught on the morning of the 14th by the Libyan vessel Tagreft. When we replied that the number of tuna in the cage exceeded the quota for the Tagreft the captain said the cage also included tuna from seven other Libyan seiners. All the catches were caught on the 14th , the last legal day, he said. The other seven seiners named were the Khandheel 2, Hanibal, Ozul 2 Almadina, Morina, and Khaleej Eltahadi and one other that he had no name for.
"The problem for us with this explanation was that we had observed the Khandheel 2 on the 13th and 14th of June and it was not fishing and weather conditions for those two days made fishing virtually impossible.
"The extremely difficult conditions coupled with the position of the cages only 40 miles off the Libyan coast, when they should have been moving 25 miles a day, suggested to us that the fish were freshly caught within the last three days at the most," Capt Watson said.
"Their statement that all the catches were caught on the 14th sounded much too convenient, so we asked to examine the fish for juveniles and they refused. I then put the bow of the Steve Irwin onto the cage so we could look into the cage from the bow to examine it further.
"Suddenly the Maltese vessel Rosaria Tuna rammed the Steve Irwin on the aft port side and slid alongside the port rail as a fishermen tried to violently gaff Sea Shepherd crew members with a long sharp hook on a pole.
"The Steve Irwin crew retaliated with 8 litres of rotten butter forcing the fishing vessel to retreat and to stand off."
At 3.30 the two fishing vessels circled their cages defensively and the Steve Irwin stood off to notify ICCAT (International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna) of possible violations. They did not respond.
The Jean Charcot, the ICCAT inspection vessel will not venture south of 33 Degrees 40 Minutes North, the captain said.
"With two fishing vessels containing angry Italian crews there were risks involved with getting into the water to assess the Bluefin catch. But if the catch is illegal Sea Shepherd divers knew they must cut the nets and free the Bluefin tuna," Capt Watson added.
"Sometimes it is necessary to do what needs to be done despite the risks. The risk of losing the Bluefin tuna as a species is far more important than the risks to our own lives and freedom.
"And so we decided to free the tuna.
"At 1600 hours a five person dive crew entered one of two cages being towed by the Italian fishing vessel Cesare Rustico.
"As the Steve Irwin held off the Cesare Rustico and the support ship Rosaria Tuna, the Sea Shepherd dive crew dove into the net to identify the size, age and quantity of the Bluefin tuna within; once it was clearly established that the cage was over stocked and that a high percentage were juveniles, Sea Shepherd divers freed the 700-800 tuna."
He claimed that the cage held a large number of juveniles and that the fish were caught after the official closure of the season and exceeded the quota. Referring to reports about the injured fishermen, the captain said no one was injured by his crew's actions.
"We saw one man dive into the water from the side of the cage. We saw him get up and give us the rude Italian arm signal. We had another fisherman slash at the crew with a hook on the end of a long pole and we had one of the vessels ram us in the port stern area," he said.
MALTESE FEDERATION SAYS ATTACK WAS VICIOUS AND UNPROVOKED
The Federation of Maltese Aquaculture Producers said it was shocked to hear about two Maltese seamen were injured in "a vicious and unprovoked attack by the Sea Shepherds".
"At around 15.00 today the Steve Irwin attacked an Italian tug boat (Cesare Rustico) towing cages belonging to fish & Fish Limited. The tug was sailing in company with the Maltese flagged Rosaria Tuna as a support vessel. The fish had been caught legally by a number of purse seiners operating according to ICCAT regulations, and subsequently purchased by the Maltese farming company. Contrary to what has been stated by the Sea Shepherds the vessel Tagreft was not present," the federation said.
"The Steve Irwin approached the convoy with the intention of freeing the fish in the cages despite it being clear that the fish was caught legally. Though it was also obvious that the crew of the vessels would have resisted such a move it was an unequal struggle. The Steve Irwin was initially constructed as an offshore patrol vessel for the United Kingdom with a displacement of nearly 900grt. It is equipped with a helicopter and instruments designed to overpower fishing boats. On the other hand the tug and the support vessel are small boats each having a displacement of around 150 grt."
The federation said it was not true that those on the Steve Irwin acted in self defence.
"On the contrary those on board assailed the two vessels specifically to tear the cage and ruin the catch. They used rubber bullets to subdue the crew. They threw bottles, acid, ammonia and other stuff at the crew. They didn’t care that their actions were exposing people to danger. They didn’t care that the fish were caught legally. They in fact think they are above the law and can do as they like. They are more than irresponsible. They are armed, dangerous and bent on causing harm to private property."
The federation said it expected the intervention of the Maltese authorities. "Nobody has the right to take the law in his hands. This is a fundamental precept of our way of life and it is certainly not going to be unlawful threats and activities by so-called environmental activists that is going to change it."
In a statement, the Labour Party condemned the attack on Maltese fishermen and expressed solidarity with the victims.