Maltese fishermen yesterday again clashed with activists at sea as they were towing a tuna pen, as the government called on the Dutch to consider removing a conservation society's vessel from its ship registry, citing violent conduct.

Local fishermen fired flares yesterday as protesters from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society attempted to free tuna being towed in pens for the second time in three days.

In a post on its website, the society said the flares were aimed at the vessel's wheelhouse and crew on the deck, though this claim was denied by the Malta Aquaculture Federation which said they were only fired to warn off the protesters.

The tuna pen, located about 45 nautical miles off Libya, was one of two involved in the first attack last Thursday, when hundreds of bluefin tuna were freed with two Maltese divers being injured in the process.

Towed at no more than one knot, the pen owned by the company Fish and Fish was once again targeted by Sea Shepherd at 9 a.m. yesterday.

The campaigners approached the tuna pen by ship, helicopter and dinghy to inspect the catch before the fishermen fired the flares.

However, unlike last Thursday's clash, when Libya snubbed military and diplomatic requests to intervene, the Libyan navy, which was a few miles away from the incident, moved towards the society's vessel.

The ship's captain, Paul Watson, said in a post on the society's website: "At that point, in the interest of safety, I ordered the inflatable and helicopter to return to the Steve Irwin. We then retreated to a safe distance away from the waters claimed by Libya. The two vessels Tagreft and the Rabbah 1060 pursued and continued to fire flares at us. We were able to lose them quickly," he wrote.

The society also claimed it heard the Cesare Rustico radio the Tagreft and Rabbah 1060, urging them to do "whatever you can to damage them so they will never return."

However, Fish and Fish lawyer John Refalo said the fishermen only acted in self-defence and to ward off the oncoming activists, who had caused damage before.

"Again, Sea Shepherd told the fishermen they were only going to inspect the tuna but the fishermen knew what was coming," Dr Refalo said.

In a statement last night, the Malta Aquaculture Federation said the fishermen requested assistance from nearby vessels once they saw the activists approaching, fearing a repeat of last Thursday's incidents.

The federation said Sea Shepherd activists only decided to abandon the attack when they realised they were being followed by the Libyan forces.

"Their behaviour is reminiscent of school bullies confronted by a teacher, and they abandoned the scene in a great hurry to avoid being caught up by patrol vessels.

"Today we have all been lucky in that another disaster at sea has been averted. What is clear is that a continuing strong presence of security forces is required at sea if further incidents are to be avoided."

The latest incidents come in the wake of clashes with Greenpeace, which tried to free Ta' Mattew Fish Farms' catch last Sunday. This, however, was foiled by the Armed Forces of Malta, who repelled activists with fire hoses and blocked the Arctic Sea's path to the pen.

The recent clashes at sea between fishermen and the two environmental organisations have been elevated onto the diplomatic stage.

In two letters sent yesterday, the government called on the Netherlands, which registers the vessels of Greenpeace and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, to probe the incidents and reconsider the vessels' inclusion in the registry.

Through a letter sent by Malta's embassy in The Hague, the government said: "Actions taken in the past days under the maritime flag of the Kingdom of the Netherlands were anything but peaceful. The aggression on the property of tuna operators was unprovoked and premeditated."

The tuna in question was legally caught according to Maltese, European Union and International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas regulations, and was purchased by the farm operators with the consent of local and foreign authorities, the Maltese government said.

"The fish was therefore caught legally within the pre-established quota and belonged to the farm operator. Fishing carried out this year was highly regulated and in line with ensuring the sustainability of the stock, the relevant quotas having been set according to scientific study," the letter, seen by The Sunday Times, read.

The government also said that during the clash with Greenpeace a week ago, the activists ignored the Armed Forces of Malta's orders to stand down, and pointed out that two fishermen were injured in the clash with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

In light of this, it invited the Netherlands to investigate the violent protests and evaluate whether they were in breach of shipping regulations.

If this was the case, the government said the authorities should reconsider whether the Arctic Sunrise and Steve Irwin should be retained on the vessel registry.

"The government unreservedly condemns all criminal behaviour and unlawful acts at sea and hereby requests that an investigation be carried out by the maritime authorities," it wrote.

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