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ClientEarth Communications

16th June 2021

Fisheries Policy
Fisheries Enforcement

We are taking legal action in the Netherlands to protect fish

ClientEarth and the small-scale fishers’ platform Low Impact Fishers of Europe (LIFE) have just launched a legal challenge against the Dutch authorities for leaving the door wide open for misreporting of fish catches and overfishing, in direct violation of EU laws.

Only two inspectors to check every boat

EU laws designed to protect fish depend completely on proper checks and enforcement to work.

But according to a recent investigation, the Netherlands food and consumer product safety authority (NVWA), which is responsible for implementing and enforcing fisheries law, are routinely failing to check how much fish is actually being brought on shore.

For example, every year, Dutch supertrawlers bring around 400 million kilos of frozen herring, mackerel and blue whiting into the EU market via the Netherlands’ ports. That represents around one third of all EU quotas – how much is allowed to be caught – for these fish species. Every week, around 10,000 tonnes of fish are landed into Dutch ports.

But the NVWA is failing to ensure the proper weighing of the fish caught and landed by these and other vessels, with only two members of staff and no appropriate procedure to check that fishers are providing accurate data on what they’ve brought on shore.

Could instances of fraud be slipping through the net?

These checks are crucial for ascertaining that countries are complying with laws designed to protect the sea, fish stocks and fishers, and that fishing vessels are keeping to their allocated catch limits.

If they’re not being carried out, thousands of tonnes of fish per year could be illegally entering the EU market, putting some species at serious risk of overfishing, and jeopardising the livelihoods of small-scale, low-impact fishers if some are taking more than their share.

ClientEarth fisheries lawyer Nils Courcy said:

“By failing to properly check the amount of fish that is going through their ports to be sold on the EU market, the Dutch authorities are turning a blind eye to possible fraud and may easily be letting overfishing happen on their watch.”
A threat to marine ecosystems and the fisheries sector

The situation in the Netherlands has already led the European Commission to start an infringement procedure against the country for breach of the EU Fisheries Control Regulation. Meanwhile, our action with LIFE targets the authority specifically.

Courcy said:

“We need to improve and increase control activities in all Member States to avoid fraud and misreporting and ensure that the fish coming onto the EU market is fully traceable. Without this, there can be no such thing as sustainable fisheries. This not only creates an uncertain future for the fisheries sector, but also undermines the marine ecosystem and food web.”

As well as jeopardising EU fish stocks and marine ecosystems more broadly, underreporting of catches also jeopardises the accuracy of the data scientists work with to provide the scientific advice upon which fishing limits and quotas are set in the EU.

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

“Failure to properly control the weighing of fish catches means that the figures used by scientists to prepare stock assessments are unreliable, contributing to the vicious cycle of overfishing and the demise of many of the stocks that small-scale, low-impact fishers depend on for their livelihoods.”

What is wrong with checking fish catches in the Netherlands?

A recent 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 logbook.
  • 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.