The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society will not be getting much rest after the Japanese whaling season as it announced it is heading to the Mediterranean to oppose the illegal operations of Bluefin tuna poachers.

Both Sea Shepherd ships, the Steve Irwin and the Bob Barker, will head for the Mediterranean from the Southern Ocean. The organisation said this is a crucial year in the battle to save the species, adding that it will not cave in to threats and violence from the fishermen.

The organisation has a long-standing campaign against Japanese whaling, a saga at the centre of Animal Planet's Whale Wars series.

Announcing their venture into the Mediterranean, the organisation's founder and president, Captain Paul Watson, said: "We need to bring to the attention of the international public that one of the most unique fish species in the world, the Bluefin tuna, is on the brink of extinction due to the illegal fisheries driven by Japan's insatiable demand for this expensive fish."

Two weeks ago a single Bluefin tuna sold to Japan fetched $177,000 (€125,230). As the fish becomes rarer, the prices paid for it will become higher.

"This is the economics and politics of extinction," the organisation said, insisting that corruption, and the rising market value of the Bluefin was preventing any real conservation efforts.

The Sea Shepherd said its campaigns against Japanese whalers equipped it with the experience and resolve to tackle the violence of poachers. "We may lose a ship, but the loss of a ship is preferable to the loss of the Bluefin as a species. Ships are expendable, species are not," Captain Watson said.

While it is unlikely the group will come into contact with Maltese vessels, any success for the organisation will affect local trade. While Malta's fleet is small compared with other Mediterranean countries, thousands of tuna are brought to Malta in cages by foreign fishermen to be fattened and exported.

Last year, Malta exported €86.3 million worth of Bluefin tuna in 11 months, according to figures released in Parliament. A report produced by the Federation of Maltese Aquaculture Producers (FMAP) states that the industry has doubled its turnover over the two-year period to 2007. Tuna is now the third most exported commodity, according to the federation.

Last September, the European Commission recommended that the EU should support a temporary suspension of the global trade of Bluefin tuna.

But the recommended ban was shot down by Greece, Cyprus, Malta, Spain, France and Italy - all countries with a stake in the trade.

Conservationists are now hoping for a better result at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) to be held in March. The EU has to take a common position on whether Bluefin tuna should be included on an international list of hundreds of endangered species that require protection.

But the EU's stand is not yet clear because Stavros Dimas, the environment commissioner who favours a temporary ban, is at loggerheads with Joe Borg, the fisheries commissioner, who opposes it.

Last Tuesday, Malta came under fire in the London Times, which said Dr Borg was protecting the country's interest to the detriment of the species.

Dr Borg believes new measures introduced last November are enough to protect the species, a view not shared by the Greek Commissioner. Neither of the commissioners has signalled any willingness to compromise and, so far, the Commission's president, José Manuel Barroso, has preferred to leave the two commissioners to sort it out between themselves.

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