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'Whale Wars' Stars To Patrol Libyan Waters, Sea Shepherd Crew To Protect Bluefin Tuna

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GOJIRA LIBYA
AP

BRUSSELS — A U.S.-based organization of environmental activists plans to steam into Libyan waters to stop poachers from netting bluefin tuna.

The organization, called Sea Shepherd, will send two boats into the war zone – the 58-meter (190-foot) Steve Irwin, named after the Australian conservationist, and the 35-meter (115-foot) Gojira – said Paul Watson, the organization's founder. Sea Shepherd's headquarters are in Friday Harbor, Washington.

Founded in 1977, Sea Shepherd has undertaken many aggressive, high-risk operations at sea. In 2009, the group chased Japan's whaling ships for thousands of miles, working to disrupt their operations. Late in the year, the group's ship and a whaling boat collided at sea.

The Japanese government said Sea Shepherd's activities were tantamount to terrorism.

In their latest mission, Watson will captain the larger boat, and the smaller, faster boat will act as a scout, looking for targets, he said. The boats will carry divers who will cut the nets of fishing boats to free the tuna, Watson said. Last year, Sea Shepherd cut the net of one boat in the area, freeing about 800 fish, he said.

Once abundant in the Mediterranean, the bluefin has come under great threat as fishermen have plundered the waters far beyond sustainable levels. The European Union has ruled that none of its members can fish in Libyan waters this year because there is no way to check licenses and enforce quotas in a war zone.

Watson said his group had informed the European Union it will operate in Libyan waters and planned to inform NATO, which is leading the air campaign meant to protect civilians in Libya from attacks, primarily from their own government. Watson spoke by telephone from Cannes, France. The Sea Shepherd boats will set sail from southern France, near Marseille, around June 1.

The expedition carries risks, said Laurens de Groot, the organization's European director.

"We're expecting quite a bit of resistance when we get in there," de Groot said. "We might get into confrontations in which weapons are used. ... If they ram our vessel, we'll stand our ground."

Sea Shepherd's aggressive save-the-whales campaign has resonated with Western audiences and has been the subject of a popular series on the Animal Planet TV network, "Whale Wars," filmed from its ship.

Bluefin tuna are a prized delicacy in Tokyo restaurants, where a slice of sushi can cost 2,000 yen ($24). The fish are up to 10 feet (3 meters) long and weigh more than 1,430 pounds. One large specimen fetched a record 32.49 million yen – nearly $396,000 – in Tokyo early this year.

The fish spawn in the Mediterranean from mid-May to mid-June before heading out to the Atlantic. But their numbers are so severely depleted that experts fear they could disappear. Last November, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas voted to cut the annual quota that could be caught by about 4 percent, but environmentalists called the measure inadequate.

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Don Melvin can be reached at http://twitter.com/hashtag!/Don_Melvin

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