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Sea Shepherd vessel detained in Shetland Islands

The Steve Irwin- a ship of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society pictured at Hoegan on the Isle of Bressay near Lerwick in the Shetland Isles of the UK. Captain Paul Watson, the founder of the society said the organisation had now to fight for its vessel since a Maltese fishing company brought a civil lawsuit against the group

Jonathan Mitchell/jonathan mitchell The Globe and Mail

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and its Canadian founder are facing fresh trouble after one of their vessels was detained in the Shetland Islands.

The Steve Irwin, a 59-metre vessel, is being held as a result of legal action facing the organization, according to Alex Earl, the organization's director of business development.

The society has been served with a lawsuit from Maltese Fish & Fish Ltd. claiming damages to its nets and a loss of fish, Mr. Earl said. The wildlife protection society that's famous for disrupting Japanese whaling hunts and other direct action was campaigning in Libyan waters last June when Mr. Earl said activists spotted Fish & Fish with bluefin tuna.

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"Basically we saw the vessel [and]we regarded them as fishing out of season," he said. "And we cut their nets and released the tuna."

The company estimates damages to be worth €1-million, according to The Times of Malta, based on the cost of losing 600 fish weighing about 35 tons in addition to the cost of the lawsuit. The newspaper said the claims of illegal fishing were denied by the company.

There was no answer at Fish & Fish late on Thursday and no response to e-mail messages.

Captain Paul Watson, who was on board when the incident took place, is the founder of the society and an early member of the Greenpeace Foundation. Recently, the Sea Shepherd has gained popularity thanks in part to starring in the reality television show Whale Wars.

"We're very careful to examine who we're going against and we had no doubt that catch was illegal," said Mr. Watson, from Sydney, Australia, where he's on a speaking tour. "We're not protesting, we're intervening, this had to be done. The bluefin tuna is facing imminent extinction."

A group of activists including Mr. Watson had docked the Steve Irwin in the Shetland Islands earlier this month in preparation for another campaign.

The society's United Kingdom branch was served about four months ago, according to Mr. Watson, but was unaware the vessel would be held in Scotland until a bond of up to $1.4-million (U.S.) is paid.

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The duty port controller at Lerwick Port Authority said the vessel has been docked at the busy port since July 12.

So far $550,000 (U.S.) has been donated to the organization to pay for the bond, Mr. Watson said, but if necessary the group will take out a loan.

The bond is going through the Scottish court system, but the lawsuit will likely proceed in England, Mr. Earl said, adding that a U.K. law firm has been hired.

"We are aggressively pursuing all legal action to defend ourselves because we don't feel that they have a valid claim," he said.

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