The Sea Shepherd Conservation society’s flagship vessel Steve Irwin has finally left Lerwick, almost three weeks later than intended, after £520,000 was raised in security for her to be released from the harbour following legal action by a Maltese aquaculture firm.
The Steve Irwin left this morning having raised over US$735,000 (over £450,000) from supporters in less than a fortnight, allowing the vessel and its crew to head for Faroe to continue its direct action campaign against the annual “Grind”, a local tradition where pilot whales are slaughtered. One of its other vessels, the Brigitte Bardot, has already begun defending the pilot whales.
The boat had been detained in Lerwick on 15th July after aquaculture firm Fish & Fish raised an action at the High Court in England seeking €760,000 (around £680,000) in damages after claiming it lost around 600 valuable bluefin tuna when divers from the Steve Irwin tore open netting and released the fish into the sea last year. It has been moored at Heogan in Bressay for the past fortnight.
A court date has not been set for the civil case, but Sea Shepherd said it was ready to battle with the company, which it said was trying to “intimidate” the campaigners and “hoping to cripple us financially, and thus reduce our ability to oppose tuna poaching in the Mediterranean”.
Thanking everyone who had donated to the cause, Captain Paul Watson said: “There is no court, no corporation, and no government on earth that will convince us that it is wrong to prevent the extinction of these fish. The economics of extinction is what we are fighting. Diminishment drives up prices and as the populations of fish in the oceans plummet, the price of frozen fish in the warehouses increases and this, the most expensive fish in the world will become even more expensive.
“With extinction, the frozen corpses become priceless. This is greed at the height of depravity, showing no respect for nature or regard to future generations, and we will not stand by and allow the bluefin to slip into the oblivion of biological extinction. Whatever the cost, whatever the risk, we intend to defend the bluefin tuna.
“We are in a war to save the oceans from ourselves. And if we lose, we all lose because if the oceans die, we all die – it’s as simple as that.”
Fish & Fish claimed it was authorised to operate a fish farm for bluefin tuna 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. Earlier this week Lady Stacey said it could succeed if the £520,000 security was provided.
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.