A direct action marine conservation group was today told to put up £520,000 in security to have its ship released from Lerwick harbour.
Sea Shepherd’s vessel Steve Irwin was arrested over a fortnight ago on the authority of a judge at the Court of Session in Edinburgh after a Maltese-base aquaculture firm raised an action for damages. It is currently moored at Heogan in Bressay.
A bid to have the arrestment recalled was earlier rejected but Lady Stacey has now said it can succeed if the security is provided.
The aquaculture firm, Fish & Fish, has raised an action at the High Court in England seeking €760,000 after claiming that it lost about 600 valuable bluefin tuna when divers from the Steve Irwin tore open netting and released the fish into the sea.
It said it was authorised to operate a fish farm for the species by the International Conference for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas and bought live fish caught in the authorised fishery in the Mediterranean and transported them to the farm in floating cages.
It claims that on 17th June last year bluefin tuna were being taken from Libyan waters to Malta when the Steve Irwin arrived at the cages. It alleges the former fishery patrol vessel Westra rammed one of the cages.
It also maintains that bottles were thrown at crew members involved in the fish transportation and a diver was shot at with a rubber bullet, before the nets were torn allowing the fish to escape.
Following the decision to arrest the Steve Irwin Sea Shepherd UK sought to have the order recalled but the move was rejected last week by Lord Emslie.
In his decision the judge said: “This was a wholly extraordinary event. It involved a deliberate physical attack on the high seas.
“A cage was rammed. Divers went down and nets were cut, allowing tuna to escape. A rubber bullet was fired and liquid-filled bottles thrown. From start to finish, the impression is one of concerted offensive action over a short timescale.”
The judge added: “A key Sea Shepherd campaign at present is to pursue and expose those responsible for illegal fishing practices by which the bluefin tuna is allegedly threatened with extinction worldwide.”
He said the Steve Irwin appeared to be one of its major assets and if the damages claim brought by Fish & Fish succeeded the firm might very well be left with no means of satisfying the court order without the arrestment of the ship.
But Lord Emslie said the practical consequences of his decision might require further discussion, including the possibility of alternative security being offered.
When the case came back before Lady Stacey, Roy Martin QC, for the charity, asked her to fix security at £400,000 to release the ship from the arrestment so that it could sail.
He said it had been valued at £350,000 to £400,000 and argued that the sum offered as a bond was reasonable.
Mr Martin said that if caution was fixed at £400,000 then that sum could be made available immediately providing for the release of the vessel as quickly as possible. If a higher amount was set additional funds would have to be found.
But Robert Howie QC, for Fish & Fish, maintained that “a significantly larger sum” than £400,000 should be fixed as security. Another valuation of the ship estimated it be worth £640,000.
The Shetland Times has so far had no response to queries to Sea Shepherd as to whether it is likely to pay the £520,000 requested.