Sea Shepherd Conservation takes action against bluefin tuna overfishing

The struggle over the conservation of bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean Sea has escalated into violence and dangerous behavior on the water by both fishermen and activists who, disenchanted with failed diplomatic efforts to limit or even stop the species’ harvest, have decided to take matters into their own hands.

Because an international trade ban for bluefin was rejected this March at a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting in Qatar, controversial activist group Sea Shepherd Conservation Society shifted its attention from Pacific whales to Mediterranean tuna, making new enemies in doing so.

Sea Shepherd’s direct-action, aggressive-intervention tactics — ramming boats, hurling bottles filled with harmful or rancid substances like rotten butter — have been described by its critics as terrorist acts. Just recently, the Sea Shepherd vessel Steve Irwin, named after the late TV personality known as the “Crocodile Hunter,” allegedly rammed into a bluefin tuna holding pen, property of “tuna ranchers” who take captured fish, even juveniles, and fatten them up before sale.

It’s big business, and large, pristine fish command kings’ ransoms at Toyko’s famed Tsukiji wholesale market. The latest skirmish was over tuna being held by Maltese fishermen and likely destined for Japan, as are reportedly 80 percent of all bluefin taken from the Mediterranean. Sea Shepherd claims the fish were caught illegally after the season ended on 14 June, but Maltese fishermen (one of whom claims to have been injured) and the government deny this and are filing claims against the group.

“Sea Shepherd does not protest against legal fishing, we intervene against illegal fishing and in this case, this take of tuna was illegal,” claimed ship captain and group founder Paul Watson, who was reportedly expelled from Greenpeace some 30 years ago for his confrontational style; he claimed in a recent blog post to have been betrayed.

Watson has long stated that he is merely willing to do what governments are not. He also said that a fishing boat attacked the Steve Irwin with flares and pushed it into the holding pen, which contained about 800 fish he claims to have “liberated” in waters north of Libya with the aid of scuba divers.

Greenpeace isn’t off the hook either — literally. Days before the Steve Irwin incident, a Greenpeace activist tried to release tunas from a holding pen and got a large fishing hook lodged into his lower leg, courtesy of one of the fishermen. But Greenpeace and its noted Rainbow Warrior vessel opted to keep its distance from Sea Shepherd and declined to collaborate (the two groups are often mistakenly thought to be working together).

The frustration concerning bluefin tuna and the political maneuvers that allowed fishing to continue is understandable, but the actions these groups are taking to vent it are not.

Even the Dalai Lama has spoken out against the group. The Tibetan spiritual leader criticized Sea Shepherd’s tactics against Japanese whaling ships during his trip to Japan this week, urging non-violent resolution. A recently expelled Sea Shepherd member, New Zealander Peter Bethune, is facing two years in a Japanese jail for boarding a whaling ship with a bow and arrow. Yet Watson claims his group “takes every precaution to not cause injury.” Destruction of property, however, is obviously fair game.

It may claim to have saved the lives of many whales, but Sea Shepherd hasn’t stopped whaling by the Japanese fleet; in fact, it could be argued that its rogue methods have only served to embolden whalers and haven’t garnered public support needed for change. Its bluefin tuna campaign, the aptly named Operation Blue Rage, could very well have similar results.

Premium Membership in SeafoodSource is required to view this contentListen to or read about tuna fishery issues covered at the 2010 International Boston Seafood Show Tuna Forum 

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