Underwatertimes.com News Service - May 13, 2011 20:24 EST

Effective next month, two Sea Shepherd Conservation Society ships will enter the waters off the coast of Libya, an area declared to be in a state of war as NATO-backed rebel forces struggle to topple the despotic dictator Muammar Gaddafi, with the goal of intercepting bluefin tuna poachers and freeing any illegally caught fish in attempt to save the species from nearing extinction.

The territorial waters off Libya are a declared a no-fly zone by NATO, which means there will be a distinct absence of poaching surveillance in the region. NATO is not interested in illegal fishing operations, and no European Union or International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) inspectors will be allowed into the Libyan zone.

The Greenpeace Foundation is not conducting a bluefin tuna campaign, meaning that the only protection for the highly endangered bluefin tuna will be at the presence of two Sea Shepherd's vessels: the flagship Steve Irwin and the soon to be renamed fast interceptor vessel. The only non-military aircraft in this zone will be Sea Shepherd's helicopter the Nancy Burnet onboard the Steve Irwin.

This will be a dangerous campaign but the bluefin tuna are facing extinction within a few years unless they are effectively protected, and Sea Shepherd will not fail them. Last year, during the first Operation Blue Rage Campaign in 2010, Sea Shepherd crewmembers located and intervened against an illegal poaching operation freeing approximately 800 bluefins.

President of Sea Shepherd France, Lamya Essemlali, attended a meeting with the European Commission Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries on May 6, 2011. As a result, the commission will follow Sea Shepherd's campaign activities in June; Sea Shepherd will also prepare a complete progress report for the commission at the end of their campaign. Prior to taking action to release any unlawful catches, Sea Shepherd will confer with the commission regarding the potential illegality of the intercepted vessels.

This year, the bluefin will have some respite because nearly half of the French Bluefin tuna fleet will remain in port due to the cancellation of all fishing permits in Libyan waters for all Libyan-owned, French-registered boats. Ten of the tuna ships operating in the Mediterranean port of Sete, some 185 km (115 miles) from the city of Toulouse, will be confined to port because they are owned by Libyan companies with links to Gaddafi.

The conflict led to a delay in Libya submitting its 2011 Atlantic bluefin tuna fishing quota to the Madrid-based ICCAT, which determined quotas late last year and awarded permits in mid April; Libya's quota was canceled. "Because of the war in Libya, around a hundred fishermen from Sete will not go out to sea this year," said Raphael Scannapieco, owner of five tuna ships, three of which are registered in Libya.

The Libyan quota was to be set at 902 tons out of a total of 12,900 tons for all nations for the 2011 season starting on May 15. However, no fishing will be allowed at all in Libyan waters this year, making Sea Shepherd's job of identifying and interfering with poachers much easier this year than last.

"The profits from the poaching of bluefin are enormous," said Essemlali, President of Sea Shepherd France. "This kind of quick-profit enterprise does attract a criminal element and we must take every precaution to defend ourselves from the potential of violent attacks." The Sea Shepherd deck crew and bridge officers have been outfitted with bulletproof vests for this campaign in the event that the poachers are armed and potentially violent.

Sea Shepherd will not be intervening against legal tuna fishing operations, although we consider any so-called legal quotas to be grossly irresponsible, considering the recent diminishment of bluefin tuna due to excessive overfishing and mortality caused by the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill where the Atlantic bluefin spawn.

France, Italy, and Spain catch most of the Atlantic bluefin consumed in the world, and 80 percent of the haul is sold to Japan. Bluefin tuna can weigh up to 650 kg (1,433 lbs) and are found in the North Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Mediterranean Sea, where big commercial fisheries often fatten captured fish in floating enclosures.

Port captain Philippe Friboullet in Sete, France said the authorities would be informed if any of the Libyan-owned boats left port without the required fishing permits. Poachers can be expected from Libya, Malta, Italy, Spain, Tunisia, and Turkey.

"We will be armed with the regulations and in touch with NATO and the European Union Commission if we encounter any suspicious activity," said Sea Shepherd Founder and President, Captain Paul Watson. "Any bluefin tuna seiner or holding cage found in Libyan waters will be intercepted, the nets will be cut open, and the fish will be released. This year it is zero tolerance towards these illegal poaching operations and any fish in any net we encounter in Libyan waters will be freed and released."