Press release: 16 June 2021

Legal challenge in the Netherlands to close open door for illegal fishing

Environmental lawyers ClientEarth and the small-scale fishers platform Low Impact Fishers of Europe have 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.

According to the organisations, and confirmed by a  recent investigation, the Netherlands food and consumer product safety authority (NVWA), which is responsible for implementing and enforcing the 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 for these fish species.

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 the quantities of catches declared by the fishers are correct.

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.

As a result, thousands of tonnes of fish per year could be illegally entering the EU market, putting some species at risk of overfishing, and jeopardising the livelihoods of small-scale, low-impact fishers.

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.”

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.

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.”


Notes to editors:

ClientEarth and Low Impact Fishers of Europe have lodged an administrative request  to the NVWA to enforce the law.

In October 2020, the European Commission warned the Dutch government against serious breaches of the EU Fisheries Control Regulation.

While the content of that letter of formal notice (the first step of the infringement procedure) is not public, 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.

-      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 derogations accepted by the European Commission to do so.

-       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.

About ClientEarth

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.

About Low Impact Fishers of Europe (LIFE)

LIFE is a European platform of small-scale fishers (SSF) organizations committed to fishing in a low impact manner. The aim of the organization is to achieve conditions in which fishing is performed in a sustainable manner and small-scale low impact fishermen and women can maximise their social and economic viability. LIFE is the only organization that provides a dedicated voice for SSF at EU level. LIFE also provides support to its members at sea basin and national level.