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

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."

"It's illegal for the US to use the IRS as a weapon against an organization in collusion with a foreign government," says Watson, whose group has maintained tax-exempt status since 1981. "Obama was making secret deals with Japan. No other president has done this. Every president since Reagan has stood fast on the whaling issue. This is the first administration to swerve. This president has reneged on every offer he ever made for us. I voted for him. That's what really gets me," says Watson, who was a Green Party candidate in Vancouver's 1995 mayoral race.

After last year's Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Watson "wanted to go to the gulf with a boat and clean animals. We were told, 'If you so much as touch an animal that's covered with oil, you'll go to jail.' So we couldn't rescue a single animal, because BP owns Obama. He's an industry guy."

On May 27 of this year, the Obama administration officially declined to grant endangered species status to the Atlantic bluefin. 

"At least Republicans are honest," Watson says.

So he battles for tuna, cod, salmon, dolphins and the heavily overfished Chilean seabass, which Watson insists cannot be caught sustainably, no matter what their packaging says at Whole Foods. (He says the word "sustainable" is a euphemism for "business as usual.") He battles for sea cucumbers, whose population has been decimated in the breathtakingly beautiful, mercilessly poached South Pacific. He fights for sharks, as detailed in the gory 2006 documentary Sharkwater. He fights for fur seals, although "I think we won this one. We got the EU to ban seal pelts. Seal pelts are now worthless in Europe." 

And because he fights for whales, "Japan treats Sea Shepherd like we're a nation they're at war with. It's sheer arrogance. They think nobody can tell them what to do."

In 2009, SSCS insiders went undercover at a trendy California sushi restaurant they'd heard served whale to trusted customers. Sneaked-out samples were DNA-identified as whale. The restaurant closed, its owner and chef slammed with federal charges. Last week, a Los Angeles seafood dealer pled guilty to providing the meat.

"But we know there's still a large distribution in whale meat among sushi restaurants in America," Watson says.

"A small group of people will pay a lot of money to eat endangered species. There's a special thrill in ordering something it's a federal crime to eat."

That thrill is alive and well. Mitsubishi Corporation hoards massive quantities of frozen bluefin, hoping to cash in on the species' collapse.

"Mitsubishi has a five-year supply of bluefin," Watson explains. "They'd like to get a ten-year supply, because diminishment translates to scarcity and scarcity translates to higher prices. If they drive the bluefin into extinction, we're looking at a million-dollar fish. So there's no interest in conserving them.

"I call it the economy of extinction."

Whale Wars' fourth season, which starts this Friday, "will hopefully be our last, because we've succeeded in driving the Japanese whaling fleet out of the Southern Ocean. They can move, but they know we will find them."

So it's on to Libya — and then the Faroe Islands, a North Sea Danish protectorate where thousands of pilot whales are slaughtered every year for sport. In a tradition known as "the Grind," massive quantities of whales — entire pods at a time — are corraled into shallow bays, gaffed, slashed, and slain. The sea turns Clamato-red. The crowds rejoice.

"It's barbaric, a big orgy of slaughter. We've got pictures of people ripping fetuses out of pregnant females for fun." 

Five-time Faroese prime minister Atli Dam told Watson "that it's part of their culture and that God gave this to them. Well, you can't use culture as a justification for destroying the planet." 

Last fall, he placed a dead baby pilot whale before the Danish Embassy in Paris. The carcass lay in a coffin, atop a European Union flag. Noting that Norway and Iceland can't join the EU because both kill whales, yet the Faroes enjoy EU benefits through Danish subsidies, Watson demanded that Denmark stop supporting the Faroes until they outlaw the Grind.

"We speak the one language everyone understands: economics," Watson says. "We don't try appealing to these people's morals or ethics, because I don't believe they have any."


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