A Greenpeace activist had to be airlifted to hospital after having a boat hook slice through his leg during violent clashes at sea with fishermen.
French fishing crews sank two Greenpeace inflatables and badly damaged another as the conservationists tried to prevent them catching Atlantic bluefin tuna.
Frank Hewetson, an activist on one of seven inflatables deployed by Greenpeace for the operation, was badly hurt when a gaffe hook pierced his leg.
He was then hauled the length of an inflatable as a fisherman pulled on the gaffe hook to bring the vessel closer. Greenpeace remains uncertain whether the injury was deliberate or an unintended consequence of wielding dangerous equipment in a close-quarters encounter.
In turn, Jean-Marie Avallone, the owner of French fishing boats, claimed a fisherman had been hurt when the Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise rammed a trawler during a further clash yesterday.
Members of the conservation group questioned the claim and said they were unaware of any collision.
Mr Hewetson, who remains in hospital in Malta, was injured on Friday as activists attempted to free endangered bluefin tuna from a seine purse net and were met with a robust and armed response from the fishing crews.
Willie Mackenzie, an activist on board, wrote: “The fishermen reacted with a shocking level of violence and complete disregard for anyone’s safety. They attacked our inflatable boats.”
Olly Knowles, another activist trying to disrupt the tuna fishing fleets in the Mediterranean, said today: “Frank got a boat hook all the way through his leg. It made quite a hole. “A lot of the fishermen were very seriously armed with knives, clubs, and harpoons. There was a real intention to defend the net.”
The second confrontation took place yesterday as a cage full of bluefin tuna was towed towards the Tunisian coast to be added to a tuna ranch - where the live fish are fattened up for sale.
Greenpeace tried to cut away some of the ropes holding the net in place but they were again met by a robust response from the crews: “We were met with a less violent but still vigorous defence.”
It is the first time that Greenpeace has tried to free bluefin tuna from nets or cages and it marks a change in tactics for the group which has been frustrated by the continued failure of the European Union to stop issuing tuna quotas.
Atlantic bluefin tuna numbers are estimated to have slumped by at least 80 per cent since the Industrial Revolution and they have been especially hard hit by purse seine fishing. Research suggests fisheries are close to collapse and there are fears the fish may never be able to recover if severe limits on catching it are not introduced soon.
Fishing crews have been issued with month-long licences to catch bluefin tuna, which can fetch up to £100,000 each, until June 15 as the fish move into the Mediterranean from the Atlantic to spawn.
A spokesman for the Federation of Malta Aquaculture said: “The fishermen were acting within their rights and were doing nothing to provoke attention by these activists except for the fact that they were carrying exercising their trade.
“Greenpeace cannot pretend that such actions are measured and or peaceful. They are pure and simply designed to cause economic loss with violence against innocent operators.”
Atlantic bluefin tuna, Thunnus thynnus, can swim at speeds of more than 40mph, reach more than 13 feet in length, and weigh more than 550lbs, but numbers are dwindling.
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By Lewis Smith