The Sea Shepherd's ship, Steve Irwin, is being detained in Scotland after a Maltese tuna company filed a civil lawsuit for damages in the British High Court.

The vessel, owned by the marine wildlife conservation organisation, was last summer involved in an incident with Maltese fishermen off the Libyan coast. It is being detained in the port of Lerwick in the Shetland Islands.

The Steve Irwin had rammed the pen, owned by Fish and Fish, to free the bluefin tuna its crew believed was caught illegally.

The Rural Affairs Ministry had defended the fishing operation, insisting all the paperwork was in order, and condemned the attack. Fish and Fish had estimated that the cost of losing 600 fish, weighing some 35 tons, coupled with the damage caused, would surpass €1 million.

The company is now suing the non-profit organisation for the damages caused by this incident. A spokesman for Fish & Fish confirmed the company had filed a lawsuit in the British Court.

Last Friday, just as the Steve Irwin was preparing to sail for a new campaign – Operation Ferocious Isles in the Atlantic, in defence of pilot whales – two court officials from Aberdeen boarded the ship and presented a detainment notice forcing the ship to abandon its mission and stay in port until the Sea Shepherd's lawyers resolve the legal issue.

This legal action is not being taken lightly by the Sea Shepherd as it has crippled its ability to conduct its "normal" business.

However, the organisation professes not to be unduly worried about the legal consequences of the law suit as it says it can present all the necessary arguments to prove the tuna carried in the Maltese fishing pen was illegal.

"Sea Shepherd is not particularly worried about the suit because their actions against illegal fishing operations are taken only after obtaining sufficient evidence to prove that the target is operating illegally, and they believe they have such evidence against Fish and Fish and will be defending the suit on that basis," a spokesman said.

"However, let's not forget that lawsuits can be filed for many reasons. This may have happened for financial redress, or simply because Sea Shepherd has had serious success exposing the illegalities of operations profiting from the destruction of bluefin tuna and they want to interfere with their activities . Either way, Sea Shepherd is confident their defence against this suit is strong," he said.

The organisation announced that due to this unplanned hiccup, it will send its second ship, the Brigitte Bardot, to conduct Operation Ferocious Isles. The Steve Irwin will be delayed until a bond can be placed by its legal department to free the ship from its detainment notice.

Still, it pledged not be deterred by the Maltese company. "This legal assault by the tuna fishing industry will delay them but will certainly not deter or stop them from defending the whales this summer."

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