Russia has renewed hostilities with Greenpeace after the release of the protesters known as the Arctic 30, accusing the environmental organisation of being behind the seizure of one of its trawlers in Senegalese waters.
The trawler, the Russian-owned factory ship Oleg Naydenov, which regularly fishes off the west African coast, was boarded by armed Senegalese commandos near the maritime border with Guinea-Bissau last week and escorted back to the port of Dakar.
The Senegalese government has reportedly demanded €1.5m (£1.2m) in fines for its alleged illegal fishing in the exclusive 12-mile fishing zone on 23 December.
The ship’s seizure has provoked a diplomatic row with the Russian government, which suggested Greenpeace had orchestrated the seizure of the trawler in retaliation for Russia’s detention of the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise in October 2013, following its activists’ protest against Gazprom’s oil drilling in the Arctic.
The Arctic 30 were detained though finally released, as were two members of the band Pussy Riot, after an amnesty issued by Vladimir Putin last month.
“It turns out the army of the sovereign republic of Senegal acts on the command of Greenpeace,” Alexander Savelyov, a spokesman for Russia’s federal fisheries agency, told the Novosti news agency.
“As such the Senegalese army continues to hold the fishing trawler Oleg Naydenov along with citizens of Russia and Guinea-Bissau at a military base in Dakar.”
In a further statement, Savelyov said: “I am far from the thought that this is some kind of crude revenge for the Arctic Sunrise’s actions that led to the arrest of the activists for their protest. But I will say that Greenpeace’s actions are reminiscent of a woman of little social responsibility who can be used by any person of means.”
Greenpeace, which says it supports Senegal’s move, denied that it had had any contact with the Senegalese government.
“These accusations are a way for the Russian government to avoid taking responsibility,” said Ahmed Diame, Greenpeace Africa oceans campaigner.
The environment group and the Russian ship have a history of confrontation. When Greenpeace was monitoring illegal fishing off the west African coast in 2012, it claimed it found the Oleg fishing inside Senegalese waters with its name covered by a tarpaulin.
Greenpeace activists working from small inflatable boats removed the tarpaulin and painted the words “plunder” and “pillage” on its side.
On Wednesday it emerged that Senegal had repeatedly accused the Oleg Naydenov of fishing illegally in its waters, temporarily detaining the ship in 2010.
Senegal and many other west African fishermen are up in arms against the fleets of giant, foreign-owned, trawlers that spend many months at a time fishing close to the coast and hugely depleting stocks.
Senegal has estimated that 300,000 tonnes of fish are taken illegally from its waters each year. One large trawler, it is calculated, can catch as much as 250 tonnes of fish a day, roughly what 50 local fishing boats might catch in a year.
Senegalese fishermen say they cannot compete with the industrial trawlers, and that the price of fish, a staple food item for much of the country, has risen, leading to hunger and increased poverty.
According to the United Nations, overfishing in west African waters threatens to cause political instability by driving communities that live off the sea toward crime. Officials point to the precedent set in Somalia, where illegal fishing in the 1990s encouraged fishermen to turn to piracy.
In April 2011 small-scale Senegalese fisheries demanded that the government revoke licences to foreign trawlers letting the ships get access to local waters. More than 20 licences for Russian, Belizean, Mauritanian, and Ukrainian vessels were cancelled.
“Illegal fishing in west Africa is essentially out of control,” said David Doulman, senior fisheries planning officer at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation said in 2011.
Negotiations between the Senegalese and Russian governments and the ship owner are continuing.
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