Image: Sea Shepherd ship in camo colors
Gerry Waneck  /  Sea Shepherd
The flagship of Sea Shepherd's fleet is the Steve Irwin, seen here sporting new camouflage colors.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 5/18/2011 7:34:43 PM ET 2011-05-18T23:34:43

Wearing bulletproof vests and backed by a helicopter, activists well known for their anti-whaling campaigns plan to sail into Libyan waters to stop poachers from netting highly endangered bluefin tuna.

Sea Shepherd will send two boats into the war zone — the 190-foot Steve Irwin, named after the Australian conservationist, and the 115-foot Gojira — said Paul Watson, founder of the group based in Friday Harbor, Wash.

Watson said he'll captain the larger boat, which has a helicopter and was recently repainted in blue/gray/black camouflage colors. The smaller, faster boat will act as a scout, looking for targets.

The boats will carry divers ready to cut the nets of fishing boats to free the tuna. Last year, Sea Shepherd cut the net of one boat in the area, freeing about 800 fish, Watson said.

The crews plan to set sail from Cannes, France, around June 1.

Image: Sea Shepherd vessel "Gojira" his hit by water cannons from Japanese whaling ship
Sea Shepherd via Reuters
Sea Shepherd's Gojira ship, one of two that will be deployed to Libyan waters, is hit by water cannons from a Japanese whaling ship in Antarctic waters on Feb. 4.

Once abundant in the Mediterranean, the bluefin has come under great threat as fishermen have plundered the waters far beyond sustainable levels. The European Union has ruled that none of its members can fish in Libyan waters this year because there is no way to check licenses and enforce quotas in a war zone.

Watson said his group had informed the European Union it will operate in Libyan waters and planned to inform NATO, which is leading the air campaign meant to protect civilians in Libya from attacks, primarily from their own government.

The expedition carries risks, said Laurens de Groot, Sea Shepherd's European coordinator.

"We're expecting quite a bit of resistance when we get in there," de Groot said. "We might get into confrontations in which weapons are used. ... If they ram our vessel, we'll stand our ground."

In a statement, Sea Shepherd added that the "deck crew and bridge officers have been outfitted with bulletproof vests for this campaign in the event that the poachers are armed and potentially violent."

Founded in 1977, Sea Shepherd has undertaken many aggressive, high-risk operations at sea. In 2009, the group chased Japan's whaling ships for thousands of miles, working to disrupt their operations. Late in the year, the group's ship and a whaling boat collided at sea.

The Japanese government said Sea Shepherd's activities were tantamount to terrorism.

In their latest mission, Sea Shepherd's aggressive save-the-whales campaign has resonated with Western audiences and has been the subject of a popular series on the Animal Planet TV network, "Whale Wars," filmed from its ship.

Image: Sea Shepherd boat collides with whaling ship
Institute of Cetacean Research of Japan via AP
The Sea Shepherd's anti-whaling vessel Ady Gil collides with the Japanese whaling ship Shonan Maru in Antarctic waters on Jan. 6, 2010.

Bluefin tuna are a prized delicacy in Tokyo restaurants, where a slice of sushi can cost 2,000 yen ($24). The fish are up to 10 feet long and weigh more than 1,430 pounds. One large specimen fetched a record 32.49 million yen — nearly $396,000 — in Tokyo early this year.

The fish spawn in the Mediterranean from mid-May to mid-June before heading out to the Atlantic. But their numbers are so severely depleted that experts fear they could disappear.

Last November, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas voted to cut the annual quota that could be caught by about 4 percent, but environmentalists called the measure inadequate.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Video shows boats collide in anti-whaling clash

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