ClientEarth and Low Impact Fishers of Europe have taken further legal action against Dutch authorities over what they have termed 'fish fraud'

ClientEarth and Low Impact Fishers of Europe have taken further legal action against Dutch authorities over what they have termed ‘fish fraud’

ClientEarth and Low Impact Fishers of Europe (LIFE) have taken further legal action in the Netherlands over what they term an “alarming” failure to police overfishing and potential fish fraud.

The move is the last chance for the Dutch authorities before court action.

In March 2022, the group wrote to the EU Commission requesting for an investigation to be launched into the Netherlands over serious breaches in its pelagic fishing industry.

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The group claims that every year Dutch supertrawlers bring about 400 million kilos of frozen herring, mackerel and blue whiting into the EU market via the Netherlands’ ports – the equivalent of one third of all EU quotas, but national food and consumer product safety authority the NVWA is consistently failing to ensure that what is brought onshore is properly checked and weighed.

This group claims that this means thousands of tonnes of fish could be illegally entering the EU market every year. This puts some stocks at serious risk of overfishing and collapse, while jeopardising the livelihoods of small-scale, low-impact fishers.

Last year, LIFE and environmental lawyers ClientEarth moved to demand the NVWA swiftly improve checks, as required by EU fisheries law.

But the NVWA rejected this formal request, prompting the organisations to take another action, asking for concrete proof that fraud is not happening.

ClientEarth fisheries lawyer Nils Courcy said:

“As the gateway for a large part of EU fish onto the market, the Netherlands has a crucial guardian role to play in preventing overfishing. It is abnormal and alarming that Dutch authorities have rejected a request to properly check what’s being taken from the sea and enforce proper scrutiny of their vessels and ports. Their refusal to step up to the plate sends utterly the wrong signal – it seems they are saying that illegal fishing and overfishing can happen under their watch.

“We’re now stepping up action and asking the Dutch authorities again to provide concrete proof that fraud is not happening. If we don’t see convincing evidence to the contrary, we’ll be left with no choice but to go to court.”

ClientEarth and LIFE are requesting the Dutch authorities to provide the logbook records of Dutch-owned super-trawler Margiris, whose activities are under investigation following the mass discarding of blue whiting in the Bay of Biscay – as shown in SeaShepherd video footage.

They also ask the Dutch authorities to carry out checks on fish landed by refrigerated cargo ships– commonly known as ‘reefers’ – and increase control on fish boxes landed in the ports by pelagic trawlers.

Executive Secretary of Low Impact Fishers of Europe Brian O’Riordan said:

“We must put an end to impunity when it comes to overfishing. These huge factory vessels are potentially underreporting thousands of tonnes of fish each trip. If that’s true, this is depleting the ocean of its planet-stabilising ecosystems and unfairly depriving low-impact fishers and coastal communities from their source of livelihood.

“It is also undermining the whole EU marine management system and the scientific assessments that form the basis of EU fishing quotas.”

Meanwhile, the European Commission followed up with its infringement procedure against the country for breach of the EU Fisheries Control Regulation – warning that this case could be soon referred to the Court of Justice of the EU.

What is wrong with catch checks in the Netherlands right now?

An investigation published in Dutch media found out the following:

  • Because of lack of staff, there is a high presumption that huge quantities of fish are not properly weighed at landing, as required by law.
  • Fish landed by refrigerated cargo ships – commonly known as ‘reefers’ – are, according to Dutch port authorities, never physically inspected. They just rely on the estimated data declared by fishers in their logbooks.
  • A private company with no power of police is in charge of checking the boxes of frozen fish at landing on behalf of the port authorities.

Instead of being weighed at landing, fish boxes are sometimes weighed on board or after transport without having the necessary permission from the EU to do so.

What has happened since LIFE and ClientEarth launched their first action?

In June 2021, Low Impact Fishers of Europe and ClientEarth took their first legal action against the NVWA, requesting the authorities to enforce EU law. It followed the publication of an article in the Groene Amsterdammer highlighting issues with the Dutch fisheries control system, including the lack of staff, with only two inspectors to control all the fish landed in Dutch ports.

In November 2021, the NVWA rejected in a letter the joint NGO administrative request and has so far not provided any evidence of improvement of its control system.

In February 2022, the European Commission launched the second stage of its infringement procedure against the Netherlands for failing to enforce the EU Fisheries Control Regulation.

In March, ClientEarth and other civil society organisations sent a letter to the Commission urging it to push for an administrative inquiry in the Dutch administration over suspicions of fraud. Their request was echoed by Tjeerd de Groot, member of the Dutch Parliament (Tweede Kamer) in a question-and-answer session with the Dutch Ministry for Food and Agriculture.

Responding to him, the Minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality said the Dutch government would carry out such an investigation if the Commission asked for it.

On June 27, French NGO Bloom asked the European Public Prosecutor to investigate over suspicions of Covid relief fund fraud by the Dutch fishing industry.

On June 29, 2022, ClientEarth and LIFE sent their objections to the NVWA.

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Fresh legal action launched into Dutch authorities ‘fish fraud’

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