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Sea Shepherd enters Libyan waters in search of tuna poachers

Wietse van der Werf
Engineer, Steve Irwin

Just over a week ago we left Malta with our ship the M/V Steve Irwin, on course to intervene against bluefin tuna poachers. Having recently returned from an eventful anti-whaling campaign in the Southern Ocean, the Mediterranean brings different challenges. The engine room has turned sauna and sleeping is made difficult by the soaring heat radiating through the deck above. We are in one of the most overfished seas in the world and have been patrolling the area south of Malta for illegal fishing operations.

In summer the waters of the Mediterranean are calm and warm. Warming up from the east, once the temperature near the surface reaches over 20C, it is an ideal spot for bluefin tuna populations to spawn. The bluefin tuna is a highly prized fish, which finds its way into the Asian markets as a sushi delicacy. The increasing demand for the fish has taken its toll on the Mediterranean populations, of which 85% has disappeared in the last 50 years.

Day and night we encounter fishing vessels. Our radar is filled with targets but so far all of the French, Italian and Tunisian vessels we have come across had fishing permits and frequently they were escorted by French or Maltese patrol ships. It is no surprise they don't take chances, with Sea Shepherd currently active in the area. Last week Greenpeace encountered a tuna pen which was being tugged to a tuna farm. In an attempt to free the fish inside, one Greenpeace crew member got severely injured when angry fishermen retaliated, harpooning one of the activists through the leg with a fishing hook.

With European navy and coastguard vessels patrolling the waters around Malta and in the Tyrrhenian Sea, we decided there was one place to go, if we were to find illegal fishing: Libya. At the time of writing we are approximately 20 minutes away from entering Libyan waters. The country claimed a 62 mile fishing zone off its coast in 2005 and has since stopped any independent observers or patrol vessels from entering. Inspectors from the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), which manages the bluefin tuna fishery, have been hindered from doing their work. Illegal fishing is believed to be widespread in the area, with one important bluefin tuna spawning area in the Libyan zone of the Gulf of Syrte attracting many fishermen. Greenpeace planned to head into Libyan waters a couple of years ago, but shelved the plan. While neither the EU, nor other Mediterranean countries acknowledge Libya's new 62 mile fishing zone claim, no nation has dared to enter the waters.

The situation is getting desperate for a fish which is set on a course towards extinction in the near future. In recent years, many attempts to give bluefin tuna added protection through the conventional political processes have failed. In this light, the willingness to directly intervene against illegal fishermen in this most lucrative type of fishing operation might be one of the last chances to get attention for the issue and get the species better protection to ensure its survival.

While the atmosphere on the ship is good, there is a slight hint of nervousness, not knowing what lies ahead. We all realise we are headed for a country which has facilitated illegal fishing for many years and might not back down from using force to hinder us. However, our crew is determined and ready to take the risks necessary to see the mission through. As Gaylord Nelson once said: "The ultimate test of man's conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard".