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The Wild War to Protect Bluefin Tuna In Libyan Waters, and Obama's Troubling Role

The waters off Libya are a NATO no-fly zone, which is good news to poachers: No inspectors. No surveillance.

A war is raging in Libya, but it's not the one in the news.

Its battles are set in the dazzling Mediterranean offshore. Its warriors are foreign, their motives mostly mercenary. 

Their casualties? Atlantic bluefin tuna. Although it's not an officially endangered species — with help from the Obama administration — overfishing has reduced bluefin populations by 80 percent since 1970. A single bluefin typically sells for $75,000, and that's what will happen to those caught off Libya, unless Captain Paul Watson, armed with international law and big serrated knives, wins this war.

Two ships from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a nonprofit Watson founded in 1978, nine years after cofounding Greenpeace, are now speeding toward Libyan seas. French, Spanish, German, Italian and Maltese poachers ply these waters with impunity, although the EU has outlawed all fishing here due to Libya's civil war. It's a NATO no-fly zone, which is good news to poachers: No inspectors. No surveillance.

Except, that is, for the Sea Shepherd's 60-foot helicopter-mounted flagship Steve Irwin and its small, swift scout vessel. 

"Any boat we find will be an illegal boat," warns Watson, who says he liberated 800 tuna off Libya last year.

Bluefin are not killed upon being caught, but hauled live in huge underwater nets to shore stations "where they can be fattened up" like feedlot steers, Watson explains. Sea Shepherd divers slit those nets with knives.

It's the latest in a long series of rip-roaring and highly controversial rescue missions involving blades and ballistics, fire and ice, stink-bombs and blood. Sea Shepherd vessels ram Japanese whalers, get rammed back, and rock wildly under water-cannon fire on Animal Planet's Whale Wars and in Confessions of an Eco-Terrorist , a new documentary directed by SSCS veteran Peter Brown. 

Sea Shepherd crews have scuttled — that is, sunk — at least 10 whaling vessels. Sea Shepherd ships ram whalers, foul their propellers, intercept their harpoons, block their slipways to prevent loading, and barrage them with bottles of foul-smelling butyric acid. In return, Sea Shepherd vessels have been rammed, burned, flash-grenaded, fired upon, and depth-charged — including by a Norwegian naval vessel. 

Confessions of an Eco-Terrorist calls Sea Shepherd a "vigilante organization," its members "a band of pirates" and "the world's most wanted environmental heroes." Watson's many honors include the Amazon Peace Prize and inclusion among the Guardian's "50 People Who Could Save the Planet." He has been beaten, suffocated, immersed in icy seas, and even shot in the chest by opponents, he says. He's been arrested in many countries and charged with many crimes, including attempted murder, but never convicted.

"We don't do anything illegal. We target illegal operations. Everybody's so concerned about private property. They think private property is sacred." But if that private property is being used to flout conservation codes, all deals are apparently off. 

"We're an interventionist organization fighting against poaching on the high seas."

Recently, Watson was appalled to learn — from Wikileaks, of all places — that Barack Obama colluded with the Japanese government to disempower the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

In a confidential November 2009 cable Wikileaks released this year, the Japanese government asked the US government to revoke SSCS' tax-exempt status. This cable cited the head of Japan's fisheries agency as saying that US action against SSCS would "positively influence Japan's negotiating position" regarding future negotiations over the number of whales legally killed every year. Monica Medina, the Obama administration's representative to the International Whaling Commission, replied promptly that "the USG" — United States government — "can demonstrate the group does not deserve tax exempt status based on their aggressive and harmful actions."

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