Fishing boats blockade Marseilles port to halt Greenpeace's tuna campaign

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The Independent Online

The Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior II was heading for a confrontation with French fishing boats outside the port of Marseilles last night as part of a campaign to draw attention to the collapse of tuna stocks in the Mediterranean.

Thirty tuna boats were blockading the entrance to the Marseilles ferry harbour, determined to prevent the Greenpeace ship from dropping anchor anywhere near the French port.

The environmental pressure group - which warned in June that tuna stocks in the Mediterranean were close to exhaustion - complained of censorship on the high seas. It said that the fishermen, aided by the city of Marseilles and the French government, were denying its "legitimate right to inform and debate".

Bowing to pressure from the fishermen, the city of Marseilles, and the nationally-owned ferry port, have reversed a previous decision and refused permission for Rainbow Warrior II to tie up at their docksides. Greenpeace said yesterday that it was not seeking a "publicity stunt" and would make no attempt to break through the fishermen's blockade.

The pressure group insisted, however, that the ship would continue to sail towards Marseilles until it had received written notification of the ban. Some sort of stand-off between the Rainbow Warrior II and French tuna boats in the approach to Marseilles harbour appears likely this morning.

Greenpeace, the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and other pressure groups have been warning for years that intensive demand from Japan is reducing the stocks of Mediterranean bluefin tuna to the same unsustainable levels as their cousins in the Atlantic and the Pacific.

After a fact-finding voyage through the tuna fishing grounds by another Greenpeace vessel, Esperanza, the pressure group called in June for all tuna fishing in the Mediterranean to be halted until controls were in place.

In May, Greenpeace and the WWF published a joint report which suggested that 45,000 tons of tuna were hauled from the Mediterranean in each of the past two years. The official quota is 29,000 tons. French, Libyan and Turkish fishermen, in particular, have been accused of busting their quotas.

French fishermen reject these allegations and accuse Greenpeace of "disinformation" and taking a "fundamentalist" approach. Mourad Kahoul, the president of the French association of Mediterranean tuna boats, said Greenpeace exaggerated the threat and unfairly singled out French boats. "Any Greenpeace ship is not welcome in Marseilles," he said.

The Rainbow Warrior II - the ship that replaced the original Rainbow Warrior, sunk by French agents in Auckland harbour in 1985 - is making a campaigning tour of Mediterranean ports. The vessel has already visited Genoa and Barcelona, inviting the public aboard to receive information on the threat to tuna stocks and other environmental problems in the Mediterranean.

Originally, Marseilles gave permission for the ship to anchor in its picturesque "old harbour" in the centre of the city. Following threats by fishermen to disrupt the visit, the permission was rescinded for "technical and security reasons". Greenpeace then asked for the right to land in the Port Autonome de Marseille - the nationally-owned ferry port used by ships sailing to Corsica and north Africa. This request was also rejected.

Pierre Ramel, Greenpeace director of campaigns, said that the group wanted to receive a landing refusal in writing before the ship altered its course for Marseilles. "We will not try to force the fishermen's blockade," he said. "We are not looking for a fight."

Ninety per cent of all tuna caught in the Mediterranean goes to Japan. The Japanese appetite for sushi is blamed by environmental groups for destroying the tuna stocks in the Pacific and west Atlantic.