In the summer of 2012, small-scale Senegalese fishermen reported a rapid and significant increase in their catches. They attributed their rising fortunes to newly elected President Macky Sall's decision to revoke the licences of 29 large foreign trawlers, which together were taking as much as half of the country's catch of pelagic fish. The licences had been granted under dubious circumstances by the previous fisheries minister, as exposed in this report by Greenpeace Africa.
About two weeks ago, a French military plane flying over Senegal's Exclusive Economic Zone detected some of the same vessels that had been stripped of their licences continuing to fish in these waters. Among them was the Oleg Naydenov, a 108 metre long Russian-flagged trawler that is no stranger to law-breaking in Senegal. It was caught red-handed fishing illegally by the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise in March 2010, and again in February 2012. On both occasions it tried to cover its name and number to evade prosecution. The Surveillance Department of Senegal's fisheries ministry has also found it engaged in illegal actions on a number of occasions.
The Oleg Naydenov has now been arrested and brought to the Port of Dakar - joining the fate of the Arctic Sunrise, which remains in detention in Murmansk, coincidentally the trawler's home port. If found guilty, it faces a doubling of the usual fine, on account of its previous convictions.
Small-scale fishermen in many developing countries suffer from governments that are unable or unwilling to police their waters, yet are happy to sell fishing rights to foreign industrial fleets, often pocketing a few bribes along the way. It is encouraging that Senegal looks intent on overcoming these ills.
But Senegal and other developing countries won't be able to defeat illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing alone, nor should they be expected to. There is also an important responsibility for the flag States to control their industrial fleets when they venture into international or foreign waters. A grouping of West African States that includes Senegal recently requested an advisory opinion from the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea on the question how responsibilities should be shared between flag and coastal States. The arrest of the Oleg Naydenov, and Russia's reaction to it, illustrates the importance of that case.
Amongst the 29 foreign trawlers that lost their licences to fish off Senegal in 2012 were nine Russian vessels, several of them with a record of IUU fishing. The Russian Federal Fisheries Agency (RFFA) has never seemed very interested in ensuring its fleet off West Africa fishes legally. When Greenpeace publicized the 2012 incident with the Oleg Naydenov, the Agency at first denied anything illegal had happened, and then refused to explain why not after being presented with detailed evidence. The Vice Prime Minister also failed to respond to a letter from Greenpeace Russia asking him to put an end to illegal fishing by Russian vessels off West Africa.
The RFFA's response to the arrest shows its attitude remains unchanged. Rather than announcing its intention to cooperate in the investigation or to take steps of its own, it has launched into a series of accusations. Its statement that excessive force was used during the arrest would, if true, certainly be cause for legitimate concern. But its claims that Greenpeace pulls the strings in Senegal, instigated the trawler's arrest, and is prolonging its detention are an invention. Had Greenpeace known that the Oleg Naydenov was back to its old bad habits, we would certainly have called on the Senegalese and Russian governments to take action. The truth is we found out through the media once the vessel had been detained.
Soon, the trawler will presumably pay a fine or bond and will be on its way. It is to be hoped that Oleg mends his ways - and notices that the RFFA has started to keep an eye on him.
Daniel Simons is a Legal Counsel at Greenpeace International.