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Tuna pen damaged in St Paul’s Bay

Fishmongers at Shiogama, Miyagi prefecture Japan, checking bluefin tuna before an auction as the market resumed business since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami disaster. A substantial amount of tuna fattened at the Azzopardi Fisheries ranches is exported to Japan. Photo: Jiji Press/AFP

Fishmongers at Shiogama, Miyagi prefecture Japan, checking bluefin tuna before an auction as the market resumed business since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami disaster. A substantial amount of tuna fattened at the Azzopardi Fisheries ranches is exported to Japan. Photo: Jiji Press/AFP

A group calling itself the Animal Liberation Front has claimed responsibility for “liberating” Atlantic bluefin tuna by cutting the nets of “fattening pens” in St Paul’s Bay on Tuesday night.

“This species is on the brink of extinction and, therefore, we saw no other option to take action and free this highly endangered species,” the group said in the brief e-mail signed by “Jean Bobo”.

It is not known whether the international Animal Liberation Front, which, according to its website, campaigns to end the “institutionalised exploitation of animals”, was involved in this action. Questions sent to the international ALF and to “Jean Bobo” (by return e-mail) remained unanswered at the time of writing.

The owners of the net, Azzopardi Fisheries, said no tuna escaped despite the large hole close to the surface of the 50-metre diameter pen.

“Tuna tend to stay in the middle of the net as a group,” director Charles Azzopardi explained, adding, however, that the damaged net would cost €95,000 to replace.

He said this was an “unacceptable” attack on his property, considering he had all the permits and authorisation to breed tuna, something that, he stressed, was done under strict regulation.

“We cannot have a situation where people resort to violence because they do not agree with something. If they have a problem, they can meet us and we will discuss it. If they are right, we will stop our actions,” Mr Azzopardi said. “But if they are wrong, they should stop.”

He said a diver’s “knife kit” was found tangled in the net, indicating that the diver who damaged the net got stuck and endangered his life.

Mr Azzopardi denied that the fish were on the brink of extinction, saying that anyone who was passionate about fishing knew the seas were full of fish at the moment.

The police did not reply to questions about the incident by the time of writing but it is understood that an investigation is underway.

Contacted for a reaction, a spokesman for the Minister of Resources and Rural Affairs George Pullicino said the ministry would wait for the outcome of the police investigation before commenting. “It must be pointed out, however, that, as always, the government unreservedly condemns any form of illegal action.”

Meanwhile, the Federation of Maltese Aquaculture Producers condemned “without reservation” the attack and called on the authorities to take all measures to bring the perpetrators to justice and prevent repeat acts of vandalism.

“Private individuals have no right to take the law into their hands to intervene or hinder commercial operations, especially when these are conducted according to law.”

The federation added that the vandalism was misguided and could have ended tragically. It said tuna fishing in the Mediterranean was carried out in a highly regulated manner, with an annual quota set “according to science” with the most stringent controls worldwide, making it sustainable. Growing concern about the precarious situation of bluefin tuna in particular led the European Commission to push, unsuccessfully, for tighter controls and reducing catches.

Meanwhile, activists from Sea Shepherd, which organises similar direct actions at sea, yesterday issued an emergency call to its supporters to save their ship, the Steve Irwin, which has been detained by a Scottish court due to a pending lawsuit by a Maltese company. The company, Fish and Fish Limited, sued the conservation organisation after its divers in June last year damaged its tuna nets and freed a large number of tuna.

The Sea Shepherd claims to have evidence to show the fish were caught illegally. But Captain Paul Watson warned supporters that the boat would be held indefinitely and possibly sold unless they raised $1.5 million to post a bond.

The Steve Irwin was about to depart on an anti-whaling campaign when it was detained.

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