Sea Shepherd claims ‘violent assault’ by Maltese vessel after freeing 800 tuna

The anti-poaching group Sea Shepherd has claimed it was rammed by a Maltese fishery vessel Rosaria Tuna and that a fisherman aboard the ship “tried to violently gaff” its crewmembers with a hooked pole.

adds reaction by Labour Party

Yesterday, the group’s divers managed to cut open a tuna cage and free 700-800 bluefin which it said were mostly juveniles and that the fish had been caught after the official closure of the season. It also claimed the fish it freed exceeded the quota. “Sea Shepherd holds the position that this operation by these two vessels was illegal,” said Captain Paul Watson, in his blog this morning. The group is not connected to Greenpeace, which is also engaged in similar patrols to look out for illegal tuna fishing.

The Armed Forces of Malta yesterday said two Maltese fishermen had to be airlifted by a Malta-based Italian air force rescue-helicopter, after “sustaining injuries when they were working onboard a Maltese-operated vessel towing a tuna-pen.”

Reuben Silvio, a diver working onboard the support vessel Rosaria Tuna, which is operated by firm ‘Fish and Fish’, was injured when members of Sea Shepherd’s vessel Steve Irwin “attempted to hook up and damage the tuna-pen under tow,” the AFM said in a statement. Another diver, Joe Barry, was also injured. Both were reported to be in stable condition. The boats were located some 35 nautical miles from Libyan shores, and around 150 miles from Malta. 

But the Sea Shepherd is disputing these claims. “No one on the Steve Irwin, in the helicopter, or in the Delta saw any incident where a fisherman was injured. We saw one man dive into the water from the side of the cage. Then, we saw him get up and give us the rude Italian arm signal. Another fisherman slashed at the crew with a hook on the end of a long pole, and one of the vessels rammed us in the port stern area.”

The Sea Sheperd helicopter reconnaissance flight yesterday found two fishing vessels, one of which was engaged in transferring bluefin tuna into a net being towed by the other vessel. The vessels were inside Libyan waters about 42 miles off the North African coast.

At 1pm, the Sea Shepherd vessel Steve Irwin came upon the Italian vessel Cesare Rustico towing two cages, one of which contained about 800 fish; the other was empty.

“The captain of the Cesare Rustico said when questioned that the tuna were caught on the morning of the 14 June by the Libyan vessel Tagreft. When we replied that the number of tuna in the cage exceeded the quota for the Tagreft, the Captain said the cage also included tuna from seven other Libyan seiners,” Captain Paul Watson, of Sea Shepherd, said in his blog.

Watson claims that since 14 June was the last day of legal fishing, and the recent weather conditions for the last two days had made fishing virtually impossible, “the position of the cages only 40 miles off the Libyan coast, when they should have been moving 25 miles a day, suggested to us that the fish were freshly caught within the last three days at the most.”

Watson said Sea Shepherd were refused to examine the fish for juveniles. “I then put the bow of the Steve Irwin onto the cage so we could look into the cage from the bow to examine it further.”

Suddenly, Watson said, the Maltese vessel Rosaria Tuna rammed the Steve Irwin on the aft port side and slid along “as a fisherman tried to violently gaff Sea Shepherd crewmembers with a long, sharp-hooked pole.”

The Sea Shepherd crew retaliated with 8 litres of rotten butter forcing the fishing vessel to retreat and to stand off.

The Federation of Maltese Acquaculture Producers are claiming that the Sea Shepherd activists "assailed the two vessels specifically to tear the cage and ruin the catch. They used rubber bullets to subdue the crew. They threw bottles, acid, ammonia and other stuff at the crew. They didn’t care that their actions were exposing people to danger. They didn’t care that the fish were caught legally. They in fact think they are above the law and can do as they like.  They are more than irresponsible. They are armed, dangerous and bent on causing harm to private property.”

In a statement signed by their lawyer John Refalo, the FMAP said the skirmish was "an unequal struggle. The Steve Irwin was initially constructed as an offshore patrol vessel for the United Kingdom with a displacement of nearly 900grt. It is equipped with a helicopter and instruments designed to overpower fishing boats. On the other hand the tug and the support vessel are small boats each having a displacement of around 150 grt.”

At 3:30pm, Watson said the two fishing vessels circled their cages to protect them. “With two fishing vessels containing angry Italian crews, there were risks involved with getting into the water to assess the bluefin catch. But if the catch was illegal, Sea Shepherd divers knew they must cut the nets and free the bluefin tuna,” Watson said.

At 4pm, a five-person dive crew entered one of two cages being towed by the Italian fishing vessel Cesare Rustico. “Once it was clearly established that the cage was overstocked and that a high percentage were juveniles, Sea Shepherd divers freed the 700-800 tuna.”

A Sea Shepherd cameraman filmed the release of the fish from the centre of the cage and swimmers confirmed that all 700-800 tuna inside the enclosure were freed. “They shot out of that net like racehorses,” said Canadian cameraman Simon Ager. After freeing the bluefin tuna, the Steve Irwin headed north and out of the waters claimed by Libya.

Government's reaction
In an official statement, the government thanked the Maltese armed forces for their work to protect the legal operations of the fishermen.

The government said the operations are all legal and operating under the ICCAT (International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas) and the European Union. “Moreover, these operations are being constantly monitored and inspected by the inspectors themselves of both entities… It is a pity that, even though the fish captured is legal and the amount conforms to the quota established by the ICCAT and the EU, attacks by the Greenpeace are still going on, and yesterday’s attack was not an isolated one,” it said referring to other actions by Greenpeace, which is carrying patrols for illegal tuna fishing.

Labour's reaction
Twenty-four hours after the statement issued by PN on Thursday evening, the Labour Party has also condemned “the manner in which fishermen on a Maltese fisheries’ boat were illegally attacked”

In his statement, Labour’s main spokesperson for Agriculture and Fisheries, Joseph Sammut, claimed that during this attack “not only the interests of our country and the daily livelihood of all those involved in the tuna industry were undermined, but also those of Maltese workers who were physically assaulted”.

Sammut also called on the government to do its utmost “to do its utmost to take action and procedures against Sea Shepherd Conservation” and ensure that Maltese workers who are working offshore are protected so that similar accidents were avoided.


Joseph Bugeja
The government thanked the armed forces for their helping the Maltese fisherman. That is transprting them to hospital. Well that was the least that theycould have done. I would have prefered that the AFM would have shown the same zeal in defending their compatriots as they have in getting into malta illigal immigrants. This island has rally turned into a tub of shit.