The Russian-owned trawler Oleg Naydenov moored in Dakar. The ship was boarded after it was accused of illegally fishing in Senegalese waters. Photograph: Seyllou/AFP/Getty Images
Russia has renewed hostilities with Greenpeace after accusing the campaign group of encouraging Senegal to seize and detain a large factory trawler working its waters.
The Oleg Naydenov, a Russian-owned trawler that 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 in fines for alleged illegal fishing in its exclusive 12-mile fishing zone on 23 December.
The detention of the Oleg Naydenov has provoked a diplomatic row with the Russian government, which this week linked the detention of the ship to the Russian seizing of the Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise in October 2013.
"It turns out that the army of the sovereign Republic of Senegal acts on the command of Greenpeace," Alexander Savelyov, a spokesman Russia's Federal Fisheries Agency, told Russia's Novosti news agency on Wednesday. "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 strongly 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.
But the environment group and the Russian ship have a history of confrontations. 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 up by a tarpaulin. Greenpeace activists working from small inflatable boats removed the tarpaulin and painted the words "plunder" and "pillage" on its side.
Yesterday it emerged that Senegal has repeatedly accused the Oleg Naydenov of fishing illegally in the country's 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 massively 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.
Canoe fishermen in the waters off off Dakar, Senegal. Photograph: Randy Olson/NG/Getty Images
The result, say Senegalese fishermen, is that they cannot compete with the industrial trawlers, and that the price of fish – a staple diet for much of the country – has escalated, leading to hunger and increased poverty.
According to the UN, 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 the government revoke licences to foreign trawlers that allowed them 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.