Image" Brigitte Bardot ship
Sea Shepherd
The "Brigitte Bardot" is seen at anchor on the coast of France.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 6/1/2011 4:52:02 PM ET 2011-06-01T20:52:02

Activists with the group Sea Shepherd set sail from France on Wednesday with an unlikely destination: the waters off war-torn Libya. Their mission: stop any fishing for endangered bluefin tuna since it's illegal in those waters.

"Any tuna fishing vessel we find off the Libyan coast will be operating illegally," Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson said in a statement. "We will cut their nets, free the fish, and document and report their operations" to international officials.

"We have no need to worry about Libyan planes or naval vessels," added Locky MacLean, captain of the flagship "Steve Irwin".

"We will keep NATO forces aware of our activities," he added. "We can’t allow the poachers to profit from the war by taking these magnificent endangered fish."

Sea Shepherd, a group best known for taking on Japan's whaling fleet, said 46 crew are aboard the "Steve Irwin," named after the late Australian conservationist, and a faster "interceptor" vessel, which was recently renamed the "Brigitte Bardot" to honor the French actress known for her animal activism.

The two ships left before their scheduled sailing, Sea Shepherd said, because they feared some French fishermen who trawl off Libya might try to sabotage their departure from the port of Toulon.

When the group announced its intentions last month, it said crew would have bulletproof vests for protection and that divers would deploy with cutters to cut fishing nets.

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.

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.

Story: Tuna defenders to battle poachers — off Libya

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.

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