Sea Shepherd founder Captain Paul Watson.
Maltese tuna ranchers Fish & Fish have no intention of dropping their lawsuit against activist Paul Watson of the conservation NGO Sea Shepherd, whose flagship Steve Irwin had freed around 800 live blue-fin tuna from a cage being transported to a Malta-based tuna pen in June 2010.
Fish & Fish claim that the vessel had rammed the cage, causing damage to its property and endangering the lives of its employees, a claim Sea Shepherd has consistently denied, arguing that it was in fact a Maltese tug that had rammed Steve Irwin and caused the collision.
The tuna ranching firm estimated the value of the freed tuna at just over €1 million: a rough indication of the sort of prices the blue fin tuna, an endangered species, now fetches on the Japanese market, to which they would otherwise have been exported.
But Fish & Fish's efforts to sue the conservation society in the UK have so far proved unsuccessful. Mr Justice Hamblin of the Admiralty Court threw the case out of court earlier this month, and ordered Fish & Fish to pay Watson's legal expenses, amounting to €250,000.
Dr John Refalo, legal counsel to the tuna ranchers, admitted on Friday that this was a setback, but added that the case would not stop there, after filing an appeal earlier this week against the conservationist organisation.
"This was a preliminary ruling, and we are currently filing for permission to appeal - something that is not granted automatically in the British system," he told MaltaToday.
Refalo added that the case was dismissed only on a technicality: a previous attempt to sue Paul Watson (a Canadian citizen) in the United States had similarly been overturned on the grounds that the Steve Irwin was registered in the UK.
Following the latest developments, Fish & Fish are likely to pursue the case back in the United States.
"One way or another we will get him," Refalo added. "It will just take more money..."
In comments to MaltaToday, Paul Watson echoes Refalo's view that the case against Sea Shepherd would cost Fish & Fish more money - but the outcome, he adds, will not be what the tuna ranchers expect.
"Fish and Fish misjudged us," he said when contacted this week. "They had our ship seized in Scotland using the Scottish legal system. They were quite surprised when we raised the bond of ₤532,000 (€677,000) within 10 days. They were further surprised that we secured the best admiralty law firm in London to represent us. And they were quite surprised that they lost."
Watson insists that the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is always prepared to fight for its cause: not just on the water but also in the courtroom.
"If they decide to appeal, we will fight them on the appeal and a review of the case indicates any attempt to appeal will simply cost them more money and they will not overturn the verdict."
Watson also defended the 2010 actions - part of an operation called 'Blue Rage' - and insisted that the only illegalities had been committed by the tuna ranchers themselves.
"Sea Shepherd has been active since 1977. During that time we have not caused a single injury to a single person, we have not been convicted of a single felony and we have never been successfully sued," Watson told this newspaper. "The reason for this is we are not a protest group. We intervene against illegal activities. In 2010 we inspected dozens of fishing operations and did not intervene because we did not see any evidence to suggest they were acting illegally.
"However with this situation in question, the incident took place after the closure of the fishing season, they had no ICCAT inspector on board, they refused to show any papers, they refused to identify who they were working with and we found a good percentage of juvenile fish in their nets. We released the fish on these grounds. We did not ram the cage. Our intention was to put the bow of our ship beside the cage to observe what was inside. The Rosario rammed us in the stern and pushed us into the cage. This was filmed from our helicopter."
Watson proudly asserts that the success of Sea Shepherd in combating the illegal tuna trade has served as an inspiration for others. "Last week a team from the group Blackfish cut the nets of tuna farms in Croatia and freed 1,000-plus tuna. They were motivated by our success against Fish & Fish."