The Netherlands has revealed that fraud is likely happening unchecked across its entire fisheries sector, in an admission that will ring alarm bells for consumers, industry players and the European Commission. The revelations came in a ruling from the Hague Administrative Court today.
ClientEarth and the Low Impact Fisheries of Europe (LIFE) had sued the Dutch authorities for leaving the door wide open for fish fraud after information about unlawfully lax catch checking procedures came to light. A newspaper investigation had revealed that just two individuals were responsible for making sure that every one of the thousands of tonnes of fish that come onshore every week had been legally caught.
Around 400 million kilos of seafood come through the Netherlands’ ports each year – representing around a third of EU quotas for the bloc’s most popular stocks.
A cornerstone of the EU’s fight to end overfishing is setting quotas, and weighing and documenting everything that comes on shore to ensure fleets are sticking to them. But the structural failures by Netherlands food and consumer safety authority the NVWA mean that illegal seafood could be entering the market on a large scale – jeopardising ocean protection and risking illegally caught fish ending up on people’s plates.
ClientEarth fisheries lawyer Nils Courcy said: “This news is relevant to every single person in the EU. It’s about the very real possibility that the NVWA, supported by EU taxpayers’ money, has allowed illegal fish to arrive on EU dinner plates and put the fight against overfishing in jeopardy. We put immense trust in authorities to make sure what we are buying and eating has not caused illegal harm to people and nature. Cases like these show that that trust can be misplaced.
“It’s also about jobs. The Netherlands’ flagrant non-compliance with fishing rules that dictate the survival of the fishing industry is as shortsighted as it is inexcusable. If you want secure jobs, you need to save your fisheries. If stocks collapse, the fishing industry crumbles with them.
“The fight to end illegal and unreported fishing is global and it’s essential. The EU pledged to be a frontrunner with its fisheries legislation – but lax port checks mean they are falling at the first hurdle, and significant quantities of illegally caught seafood are likely slipping through the net.
“This case hits on a core truth – laws are as good as their enforcement, and nothing without it. If a port as big as this is waving trawler-loads of seafood through with barely a question, claims of sustainable fisheries management in the EU are farcical.”
The judge ruled that the complaint made in the case was not specific enough, due to the near impossibility of civil society accessing the data necessary to pinpoint a claim. But the admissions by the NVWA and government ministers over the course of the case confirm exactly what ClientEarth went to court to prove. It should now be impossible for the Netherlands not to act.
Marta Cavalle, Executive Secretary of LIFE, said: “This case has once again shown that EU laws are not functioning if these are not properly enforced by Member States. Illegal fishing and fish fraud has not only a huge impact on the ecosystem placing fish stocks and fisheries at risk but Small-Scale Fishers’ activities and livelihoods, who depend on such healthy stocks, are also directly threatened, putting fleets and their communities in the Netherlands at the edge of collapse. It is therefore vital that the Netherlands and other EU member states use a functioning control system and show clear signs that they are committed to reversing this unfair situation.”
The European Commission also has an ongoing infringement proceeding over serious concerns with fisheries control in the Netherlands.
As the cases progressed, the NVWA started to put the wheels in motion on portside security improvements, promising to significantly increase the staff employed for catch control, implement a new method for port checks, and check vessels called reefers that previously fell outside of their scope. ClientEarth has submitted legal requests for documents that would confirm the extent of the changes, and whether they would bring the Netherlands into compliance with the law. Hundreds of documents have already been released, and are being assessed by the lawyers, with many more due in the coming weeks.
Courcy said: “There is a legal imperative for every EU country to protect fish stocks – they are what keep the ocean alive and well, able to protect us from climate change, sustain fishing communities and feed millions. Overfishing threatens to scupper all of these vital functions and we need to see the laws designed to combat it actually enforced. That’s what this case was about. The Netherlands has held up its hands and admitted it has a major problem. Many powerful actors will now be watching to see how they move to tackle it.”
Notes to editors
Which law was the case based on?
Under Article 5 (3) of the EU Fisheries Control Regulation, “Member States shall adopt appropriate measures, allocate adequate financial, human and technical resources and set up all administrative and technical structures necessary for ensuring control, inspection and enforcement of activities carried out within the scope of the common fisheries policy. They shall make available to their competent authorities and officials all adequate means to enable them to carry out their tasks.”
By failing to ensure correct weighing of catches and therefore risking letting illegal fish onto the EU market, ClientEarth and LIFE argued that the Dutch authorities are not fulfilling their obligations to implement an effective control system.
Key notes from the ruling – case # SGR 22 / 8276 BESLU V149
Niet betwist is dat de NVWA signalen heeft dat binnen de Nederlandse zeevisserij wordt gefraudeerd en dat regels mogelijk structureel niet worden nageleefd. Ook wordt niet betwist dat het toezicht op die regels niet aan de daarvoor geldende normen voldeed en dat de Europese Commissie daarom een inbreukprocedure heeft gestart.
It is not disputed that the NVWA has signalled that fraud is taking place in Dutch sea fisheries and that rules may be structurally not being complied with. It is also not disputed that the supervision of those rules did not meet the applicable standards and that the European Commission has therefore initiated infringement proceedings. [Machine translation]
Overfishing in the EU
The EU promised to end overfishing by 2020, under the Common Fisheries Policy – almost four years on, quotas are routinely set far above scientific advice, and data shows clearly that multiple stocks in the Baltic Sea are collapsing, with the situation described by the EU as ‘dire’. Port-level monitoring failures compound the issue in two ways: it increases the risk of unchecked day-to-day overfishing – and this lack of information would undermine the data that informs quota-setting in the first place.
Investigative platform Follow The Money published an investigation today on Dutch private companies’ hold on EU fishing.
ClientEarth and LIFE v NVWA – a timeline
May 2021: an investigation published in Dutch media highlights major 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.
June 2021: ClientEarth and Low Impact Fishers of Europe (LIFE) take their first legal action against the NVWA – an administrative request for them to enforce the law. In November 2021, the NVWA rejected the joint NGO administrative request via a letter.
March 2022: ClientEarth and other civil society organisations send a letter to the Commission urging it to push for an administrative inquiry in the Dutch administration over suspicions of fraud. Their request is 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 says the Dutch government would carry out such an investigation if the Commission asked for it.
June 2022: ClientEarth and LIFE send their objections to the NVWA.
September 2022: The NVWA publishes a report highlighting high risks of fraud in the Dutch fisheries sector.
January 2023: After a last warning, ClientEarth and LIFE file the case before the Hague administrative court.
December 2023: Court rules.
Core problems with catch checks in the Netherlands
- 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 – meaning it is not possible to know if EU catch quotas are being respected. 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 – which entails a higher fraud risk – without having the necessary permission from the EU to do so.
From: Twee inspecteurs voor de totale zee (Original investigation)
Asks of the NVWA
ClientEarth and LIFE outlined multiple requests of the NVWA to improve fisheries control and bring it in line with the law.
Among others, they asked the Dutch authorities to carry out checks on fish landed by refrigerated cargo ships – commonly known as ‘reefers’. The organisations also wanted the NVWA to increase checks on fish boxes landed in the ports by pelagic trawlers. The NVWA has released some indications that they take action on these, but ClientEarth will review the documents released as part of an information request to explore these actions.
Other relevant litigation
In October 2020, the European Commission warned the Dutch government against serious breaches of the EU Fisheries Control Regulation.
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. The case is still ongoing at this time.
In June 2022, French NGO Bloom asked the European Public Prosecutor to investigate over suspicions of Covid relief fund fraud by the Dutch fishing industry.
ClientEarth and illegal fishing
ClientEarth has engaged in the fight against overfishing and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing for many years.
ClientEarth is a non-profit organisation that uses the law to create systemic change that protects the Earth for – and with – its inhabitants. We are tackling climate change, protecting nature and stopping pollution, with partners and citizens around the globe. We hold industry and governments to account, and defend everyone’s right to a healthy world. From our offices in Europe, Asia and the USA we shape, implement and enforce the law, to build a future for our planet in which people and nature can thrive together.
Low Impact Fishers of Europe (LIFE) is a European platform of small-scale fishers (SSF) organizations committed to fishing in a low impact manner, currently representing 34 organisations in 15 Member States and 10.000 small-scale fishers. The aim of the organization is to unite SSF to achieve fair fisheries, healthy seas and vibrant communities. LIFE is the only organization that provides a dedicated voice for SSF at EU level and provides support on the ground so they become actors of change.