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From Whale Wars to Bluefin Battles

Paul Watson has tuna industry in his sights

Since the Japanese whaling fleet gave up the fight with the Sea Shepherd boats in the Southern Ocean, turned tail and returned home in February, the next series of Whale Wars, which begins tonight on Animal Planet, may be, in part, an anticlimax.

But Sea Shepherd Captain Paul Watson has much more ocean to patrol and lots more life to protect.

Next stop: the Mediterranean, off the coast of Libya, where the Sea Shepherd fleet isn’t picking up human refugees, but rather watching over the Bluefin tuna.

Even in the Mediterranean, on the other side of the world, the Japanese market is still the focus of the group’s activities. That’s because even though they are critically endangered – a classification just one step from extinction – Bluefin tuna are still the most highly prized fish in Japan, highly sought after for sushi and sashimi. In January, a 754-pound giant Bluefin sold for a record $390,000 in Tokyo – roughly $525 per pound.

While Japan and the United States have blocked efforts to protect the fish, the European Union is making efforts to protect them. And Watson is taking his cue from a statement by E.U. fisheries commissioner Maria Damanaki. “Bluefin tuna caught by the Libyan fleet will be well on track to be deemed illegal,” she said.

Watson believes it is therefore “fair game” to go after fishing boats in the area.

Critics have called it inappropriate to be trying to save fish when there are so many humans who need help in and around Libya. But Watson, never fazed by critics, told reporters at a meeting in New York that poachers are taking advantage of the war to go in and illegally fish.

“NATO isn’t going to be concerned about fishing,” he said. “And the European Union is quite concerned about it, but they’re not going to send their inspectors, and so we’re the only people that are willing to go in there.”

Sea Shepherd will have two of their ships patrolling the waters off the coast of Libya. A crew of 46 set sail on Wednesday in one of their vessels, the Steve Irwin, along with a smaller “interceptor” boat, the Brigitte Bardot, named after the French animal protector and former actress.

“Any tuna fishing vessel we find off the Libyan coast will be operating illegally,” Watson said. “We will cut their nets, free the fish, and document and report their operations” to international officials.

“We have no need to worry about Libyan planes or naval vessels,” added Locky MacLean, captain of the Steve Irwin, referring to the no-fly zone and other measures taken by NATO.

The Brigitte Bardot interceptor vessel

Watson’s mission is to do everything he can to protect the oceans from greed and exploitation. He points to a 2006 study that concluded that if fishing around the world continued at its present pace, marine ecosystems would unravel and within a few decades there would be “global collapse” of all species currently fished. Five years later, the situation has only become worse.

“If we wipe out the fish, the oceans are going to die,” Watson said. “If the oceans die, we die. We can’t live on this planet with a dead ocean. So it’s really a question of self-preservation.”

What do you say? Do you think it’s inappropriate for an animal/environmental protection group like Sea Shepherd to be going into waters off the Libyan coast in the Mediterranean? Let us know in a comment below or on Facebook.

What you can do: Learn more about the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and support them here.