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Tuna Captain: “We’re In Danger The Whole Time And We’re Fed Up With It!”

The capture in the Indian Ocean of the Spanish tuna hauler FV Alakrana has revived controversy over the protection of French and Spanish tuna boats threatened by pirates off the coast of Somalia.

“We’re in danger the whole time and we’re fed up with it!” complained the captain of a Spanish fishing vessel who has been working in the region for the past 25 years.

“For years we’ve been watching piracy develop in the Indian Ocean and we’ve been trying to draw public attention to the problem. The situation has become unbearable for tuna boats,” complained the captain, speaking by phone from the high seas.

The Alakrana, a 100-metre industrial purse-seiner, was seized Friday on the high seas between Somalia and the Seychelles with 36 crewmembers on board and was brought closer to shore by the pirates.

It is currently anchored off Harardere in the central Somali region of Puntland, where it is being observed from a distance by two frigates, one Spanish and one French, which are part of the European anti-piracy initiative Operation Atalanta.

Around 15 French tuna boats and some 30 Spanish tuna boats, some of them captained by Frenchmen from Brittany, normally operate in the Indian Ocean, whose waters are rich in tropical tuna.

Because of the pirate threat at least 12 of these vessels have already left the zone and moved into the Atlantic and the Pacific.

Tuna catches, which topped 200,000 tons in 2007, is on the decline as purse seiners have been repeatedly targeted by pirates over the past two years.

Sailors say warships in the European Union's naval force dubbed Atalanta do not patrol regularly enough given that the zone they are supposed to police is almost the size of the Mediterranean Sea.

Contrary to merchant vessels, which follow clearly defined shipping routes, "the fishing fleet is spread out over several thousand kilometers -- that's huge and impossible to protect," the captain said.

And “the danger extends well beyond Somali coastal waters since attacks have been reported near the Seychelles”.

The solution of moving in a convoy -recommended for cargo vessels- does not work for fishing vessels, which have to work singly and go where shoals of tuna take them.

Handicapped by their nets, which are weighted at the bottom, tuna boats are particularly vulnerable as they cannot escape from suspicious-looking boats.

French sailors have struck a deal to have soldiers on board to protect their vessels.

“It's what works best for the time being,” said the captain, who nevertheless admits there could be a "risk of things getting out of control". Michel Goujon, who heads a trade body, the Organization of Frozen Tuna Producers, told AFP that had tuna boats not been allowed to have soldiers on board, they would have stopped fishing in waters off Somalia.

Spanish fishermen would also have liked the same sort of protection from their army. Madrid has refused, arguing that it does not have the capacity to provide this and has told ship owners to use private security guards.

“The attacks are just beginning” this season said the captain, before waxing philosophical: “those who prey on tuna have themselves become prey”.