The Netherlands accused of failing to report accurate catch totals

Vessels docked at a wharf in the Netherlands.

Environmental law group ClientEarth and the Low Impact Fishers of Europe (LIFE) have joined forces to file legal action against the Dutch food and consumer product safety authority (NVWA) over claims it has failed to police misreporting of fish catches and overfishing, in direct violation of the laws of the European Union.

The move comes one year after the organizations launched a legal challenge against the government of The Netherlands for routinely failing to check how much fish is being brought ashore from refrigerated cargo ships, more commonly known as reefers, and instead relying on estimated data declared by fishers in their logbooks.

A formal request was sent to NVWA in June 2022, demanding that the agency improve its monitoring system, as required by E.U. fisheries law, to safeguard fish stocks and the livelihoods of small-scale, low-impact fishers.

The challenge was prompted by an investigation by Dutch newspaper Groene Amsterdammer, which highlighted issues with the Dutch fisheries control system. Its investigation revealed a severe lack of inspectors to adequately monitor the 400 million kilograms of frozen herring, mackerel, and blue whiting landed into the Netherlands each year, and the delegation to a private company with no power of authority to check landed boxes of frozen fish on behalf of the port authorities.

Under the rules of the E.U.’s common fisheries policy (CFP), fishing companies must weigh frozen pelagic fish products before landing. The NVWA is tasked with properly checking and weighing a legally prescribed sample at the port to verify against declared weights, and claims to inspect at least 10 percent of the country’s catch.

In 2020, the European Commission finalized an investigation into the issue that concluded that millions of kilograms of illegal fish may have passed through Dutch ports in recent years, and informed the country’s government it was out of compliance with European rules for fisheries controls. After what it described as an inadequate response from the Dutch government, the E.C. set its infringement procedure in motion in February 2022, calling on the Netherlands to ensure compliance with rules on weighing, traceability, and catch registration. If the reply is not satisfactory, the E.C. may decide to refer the case to the Court of Justice of the European Union.

Simultaneously, LIFE and ClientEarth requested the NVWA swiftly improve its inspection process in 2021, but their request was rejected. In a press release, the organizations said that rejection prompted the organizations to take another action on 29 June, asking for concrete proof that fraud is not happening. If convincing evidence to the contrary is not provided in the near future, they believe they will “be left with no choice but to go to court.”

“As the gateway for a large part of E.U. fish onto the market, the Netherlands has a crucial guardian role to play in preventing overfishing,” ClientEarth fisheries lawyer Nils Courcy said. “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.”

In particular, the logbook records of the super-trawler Margiris, owned by Dutch company Parlevliet and Van der Plas, have been requested. The activities of this vessel, which is the second largest trawler in the world, can process 250 metric tons (MT) of fish per day and carry 6,000 MT, are already under investigation. This follows the mass spillage of more than 100,000 blue whiting in the Bay of Biscay earlier this year after the trawler’s net ruptured.

LIFE Executive Secretary Brian O’Riordan said The Netherlands’ factory vessels are “potentially underreporting thousands of tons 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,” he said. “It is also undermining the whole E.U. marine management system and the scientific assessments that form the basis of E.U. fishing quotas.” 

Photo courtesy of Wil Tilroe-Otte/Shutterstock


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