The heart of the European fishing trade is located on an industrial terrain on Urk, and plaice caught in the North Sea laid the foundation for its international success. But the local fish processing industry is increasingly importing products from faraway Alaska. This leads to friction among the local fishers, who are drowning in Europe’s sustainability agenda and the sky-high fuel prices.
- Flatfish from the North Sea (sole and plaice) is a successful export product. But fishers are struggling, despite increasing demand. Their catches are declining, and their turnover is dropping.
- Moreover, fish processing companies and fish traders are importing more and more flatfish from surrounding North Sea countries. And from Alaska, where the catches are larger, cheaper and more sustainable.
- Current methods for catching flatfish involve disturbing the seabed with trawl nets; therefore, the European Union requires the sector to innovate with environmentally-friendly techniques. North Sea fishers who are still willing to invest in this are trapped between the high costs and low income – especially now that the war in Ukraine is causing a tremendous rise in the price of fossil fuel.
- The TV programme Pointer (KRO-NCRV) and Follow The Money are jointly investigating sustainable fish. You can watch the programme here. And in this dossier, you will find all our articles on the future of the fishery.
Because fish cannot wait, a young fish processor from Neerlandia Urk hurries into her work outfit after a short break: black safety shoes, her hair under a red cap, a blue plastic apron over her white lab coat. A new shipment arrived last night from Alaska and is waiting in the refrigeration areas downstairs.
In that cold labyrinth of storage, sorting areas and engine rooms, the fish is cleaned, filleted and packaged as quickly as possible. Every year, around 16,000 tonnes of farmed salmon from Norway and flatfish from the North Sea pass through the hands of the 200 employees at the fish processing plant, most of whom are migrant workers from Eastern Europe.
From Neerlandia, the fresh specimens, whole or in fillets, are sent to fishmongers and – via the wholesale trade – to the catering industry throughout Europe.
‘New’ types of fish
But most of the fish is frozen, destined for the export markets. Italy is one of the main buyers of the North Sea plaice. School canteens are an important customer because Italian children grow up with filetti di platessa, traditionally prepared fresh flatfish from the North Sea.
Recently, Neerlandia also started processing ‘new’ types of flatfish such as yellowfin sole, rock sole and Alaska plaice. These come from the Bering Sea off the Alaskan coast, where pollock and cod are also imported from. Nowadays, fish processors in Urk also trade once exotic species such as dorado and trout from Turkey and pangasius and tilapia from Asia.
The people in Urk are used to a wide variety of fish. Their small community (less than 22 thousand inhabitants) is the European centre for fish import and export. About 80 percent of everything that comes in is cleaned, processed, and sent on to the European internal market. The industrial estate south of the fishing village’s iconic lighthouse has become Europe’s ‘fish hub’.
In the 1980s, Urk fish processing companies specialised in new storage and processing methods for sole and plaice. They focused on producing ready-made dishes for the frozen section in supermarkets: fish schnitzels, fish fingers, fish in batter or sauce.
Traders plunged into the export business, first only to the European Union’s member states and later worldwide. Some 70 percent of the total volume of flatfish is processed here, with a turnover of 670 million euros in 2017.
The Netherlands is among the top 10 fish exporting countries, with hubs such as Yerseke, Katwijk and IJmuiden employing a total of about five thousand people in this sector. But the heart of the industry is still in Urk. There, with 2,350 jobs, trade and processing was the second largest employer in 2021.
The arrival of foreign concerns has given the Urk industrial area an international character. For example, Seafood Connection is based there, a subsidiary of Maruha Nichiro, a Japanese multinational company and one of the world’s largest traders in frozen fish.
With its takeover of the Rodé Vis family business, Norwegian smokehouse Lerøy Seafood has acquired the largest salmon business in Urk. The multinational company recently expanded by adding a fifth production house.
Neerlandia is one of the larger and oldest flatfish processors in Urk, with an average annual turnover of between 45 and 50 million euros. Cees Koffeman, sales manager of the fifty-year-old family business, likes to talk about what drives a fish trader and the true story behind it all. ‘When things are not going well – as is currently the case for the flatfish fleet that is struggling with the sustainability of the North Sea and the loss of fishing grounds – people often point their fingers at us, at the trade.’
From the office on the top floor of Neerlandia, Koffeman leads the way to the underground cold storage. When the umpteenth door closes behind us, the next hatch rolls up with a push of the button. Koffeman shows us his merchandise in a new cooling hall: enormous red plastic tubs weighing 400 kilograms each, filled with headed fish on ice. ‘This is yellowfin sole, recognisable by their yellow-coloured fins. In Asia, they have a separate market for those heads. So yes, we get them without.’
He picks one up. ‘In the Netherlands, we call this a Japanese dab; it is a substitute for the sweet dab from the North Sea. The yellowfin from Alaska most closely resembles this flavour.’ It is especially popular in France, says Koffeman. ‘Yellowfin sole and Alaska plaice are alternatives for North Sea plaice. Plaice is Italy’s favourite meat. With a 50 percent share of our turnover, Italy is one of our most important customers. Rock sole, on the other hand, mainly goes to Germany.
Dutch fishers catch an average of 20 thousand tonnes of North Sea plaice every year. That pays off when you have large volumes and low costs. But fuel costs have been at a record-breaking high for some time now because of the war in Ukraine. Last Friday, in Urk alone, at least five trawler owners decided not to set sail. It doesn’t pay off anymore.
From 2015 to 2018, the average price per kilo of plaice varied between 4.27 euro and a maximum of 6.17 euro. There is a price cap, Koffeman explains, because the fish is less exclusive than sole, which has a more specific taste. And according to a report by Wageningen University & Research, plaice fillets also compete on the world market with other white fish species, such as pollock and cod.
At the end of last year, Koffeman started importing directly from America. This became necessary for Neerlandia Urk because there is more demand than supply for plaice and sole. The annual reports of Eumofa, the European market researcher for fisheries, show that this is true for all fish species. Worldwide, fish is one of the most traded food products, and Europe is the largest importer.
The supply of sole from the North Sea dropped by an average of 17 precent between 2016 and 2020, and for plaice, by as much as 34 percent.
Before, fisheries used to catch between 60 and 80 thousand tonnes of plaice a year, but now they only catch around 20 thousand tonnes. The Dutch trawler fleet (the type of vessel that fishes for sole and plaice) shrunk from 374 in 2003 to 290 trawlers at present. The turnover of flatfish from the North Sea decreased by almost a quarter: from 305 million euros in 2018 to 234 million in 2019.
Scientists have no clear explanation for the decline in catches. Possible factors include the construction of protected nature reserves and wind farms, resulting in parts of the North Sea being off-limits to fishers. Climate change also plays a role. Plaice are now more often found in the northern parts of the North Sea.
Dutch processing companies are forced to import fish to maintain their market share. They do so from other countries along the North Sea (Belgium, Denmark and Great Britain) and the Aleutian Islands group in the Bering Sea (Alaska).
In Alaska, the yellowfin sole is the main flatfish species, but the Alaska plaice and rock sole are also more than welcome here for fish processing – especially when the North Sea has a limited offer.
The Alaska catch arrives in Urk as frozen, whole fish. ‘We used to buy flatfish from the Bering Sea, but then it was shipped to the Netherlands as frozen fillets via China.’ That changed with the corona pandemic when the fish transports from China were halted, and the Chinese government called on its citizens to eat more fish themselves.
Koffeman was quite happy about the fish he imported from China. ‘I have seen on video how they do things over there. Tightly routined, they skillfully and meticulously remove the meat with a pair of tweezers. Besides, labour costs are low there, and the profits were very good. But that import has now come to an end.’
But Koffeman says it is better this way. Now the fish is cleaned, filleted and frozen in Urk. A part of it is processed further and, for example, is coated in a crispy bread-crumb layer. ‘We try to earn a bit more by adding value because the supermarkets usually take a 35 percent margin’.
And by importing directly from Alaska, we also save emissions on transport, says Koffeman. ‘You remove yet another middleman, and that’s better for the environment.’ That sustainability is also appreciated by more and more customers, especially those in the supermarkets.
‘Quota’ to protect fish stocks
Sea fish are not available in unlimited quantities. Therefore, quotas (maximum quantities that may be caught of a species) are in place to protect the marine environment and prevent overfishing. These quotas are based on scientific advice and are set at the European level.
The Netherlands has high quotas for flatfish because it has been catching a lot of plaice and sole since the 1960s. But because of declining catches, it can no longer fish the permitted volumes (see also ‘Less flatfish in the North Sea’). In the past four years, Dutch fishers only used up 70 percent of the sole quota and 50 percent of the plaice quota.
‘Contingents’ to protect the trade in scarce fish species
The European Commission also provides tax benefits through reduced import tariffs for certain scarce fish species. For example, since 2010, there has been a zero tariff for a ‘quota’ of up to 10 thousand tonnes of frozen flatfish fillets from China and the United States, and since 2021, a quota of up to 7.5 thousand tonnes for whole, unprocessed flatfish.
The tax reduction only applies to processing companies that ‘add value’ to the product – think of fish with a crispy layer or fish in sauce – and are thus creating additional jobs.
The quota applies to all European fish processors on a first-come, first-serve basis. The percentage of the quota that Urk manages to secure is divided among the local fish processors.
Some Dutch fishers see the import of fish as unfair competition. With their small-scale North Sea fishery, they cannot possibly compete with the supply from Alaska.
Geert Hoekstra, economic researcher seafood in Wageningen, is familiar with the complaints about unfair competition, which he considers partially understandable. ‘In the past, fishery associations sometimes got angry with processors who imported plaice from Alaska via China. But fish wholesalers have to import, because the supply from the North Sea is steadily declining. If you want to retain your shelf space with the retailers in Europe, you need plaice, either from the North Sea or from the Pacific Ocean near Alaska. Not supplying it would kill their business.’
‘ A fisherman is a hunter, while us traders look for the best price for the volume that is caught’
According to Cees Koffeman, the conflict between fishers and traders is more ’a thing of the past’ but still visible today. He gestures, rubbing his fists together: ‘The trade and the fishers always clash. A fisherman is a hunter; he tries to catch as much as possible. While we look at how we can get the best price for the volume that is caught.’
Koffeman discovered that he has the gene of a trader more than that of a fisherman. ‘Fishing is repeating the same moves. With trading, you can move in different directions.’ During difficult times, the trader can look for alternatives all over the world. This is more difficult for the fisherman. He is tied to investments in a vessel, fishing gear and licences for a specific type of fish in a specific fishing area.
There is no doubt that these are difficult times for fishers who rely on the North Sea. The increase in the number of wind farms and nature reserves means there are fewer and fewer places to fish.
Thanks to ‘Brussels’, the relatively environmentally-friendly puls fishing – in which a lot had been invested – was banned. In the Netherlands, the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality is demanding that the benthic fishery sector transforms to ‘zero emissions’: less fuel consumption, less bycatch and less seabed disturbance; but how they are going to achieve that exactly remains a mystery.
It is striking that many young fishers are not deterred. One of the frontrunners in the transition to more sustainable fishing is Urker Hendrik Kramer. A few years ago, he persuaded the bank to invest millions in a hypermodern trawler, the MDVII. He uses it to fish for plaice in the North Sea during summer and squid in the English Channel and the southern North Sea during winter. With his energy-efficient vessel and fishing methods, Kramer sometimes saves half a tank of fuel. Although this saves him 5 to 10,000 euros per week, his catch is still not enough to cover the costs.
When you compare Kramer’s fishing volumes and fuel costs with the huge catches of the Amendment 80, a fleet of eighteen freezer trawlers on the Bering Sea, it seems completely hopeless. Each vessel of this Washington-based shipping company – from which the Urk fish processors have recently started to import directly – catches an average of 29 thousand tonnes of flatfish annually, a total of 551 thousand tonnes per year. Approximately 90 percent of this goes to the Chinese market.
‘Those Amendment 80 trawlers are very efficient,’ says fish consultant Willem Appeldorn. ‘They are equipped with the latest technology to minimise bycatches and disturbance of the seabed.’
Appeldorn is an expert on Alaskan fisheries and is familiar with the trade routes over there. He sold surimi (fish fingers made of minced white fish) and pollock from Alaska to Asian and European markets for years. He was also the one who advised Cees Koffeman of Neerlandia to take the leap and import yellowfin sole and Alaska plaice directly.
The fish that the Amendment 80 fleet catches is processed directly on board and arrives frozen at Dutch Harbor on the Aleutian Islands near Alaska. Appeldorn: ‘From there, the transits – with an average crossing of fifty to sixty days – go to the Netherlands. The fish travels via Asia to Rotterdam, or via the Panama Canal and Bay Side in Canada to IJmuiden.’
How sustainable is importing fish from the other side of the world? Ray Hillborn, professor of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences at the University of Washington, says the transport and storage costs of flatfish from Alaska are negligible in terms of its carbon footprint.
To determine sustainability, you have to look at the vessels’ fuel consumption, the undesired bycatch and the disturbance of the seabed, Hillborn stresses. And it turns out that the flatfish fishery in the Bering Sea has a very low fuel consumption compared to the European ones, he says. ‘Moreover, seabed disturbance is marginal, and the fish stocks are scientifically very controlled.’
According to Hillborn, the demand from the Netherlands does not affect the quantities of fish that can be caught in Alaska. The American environmental agency NOAA confirms that: ‘Science, not the market, determines the catch volumes of flatfish in the Bering Sea.’
However, Hilborn questions the bycatch. The Amendment 80 fleet fishes for flatfish but unintentionally catches a lot of halibut. Officially, most of it is thrown overboard because the trawler fleet only has a limited quota for that species – to protect the halibut market of local fishers. But the reality is that Amendment 80 vessels catch more halibut than is permitted.
The halibut fishers believe that they are losing income as a result. Hilborn: ‘One solution could be that both parties exchange fishing rights for halibut, but the smaller fishers strongly oppose that. They are afraid that the trawler industry will gain complete control of their halibut market.’
Flatfish from the Bering Sea seems to fulfil all sustainability requirements, making it attractive for the retail sector in Europe. Supermarkets want sustainable products at the lowest possible price – and the Amendment 80 fleet can supply plaice at 5.50 euro per kilo, for example. At 7.25 euro, the North Sea plaice cannot compete.
‘We cannot feed Europe with North Sea fish alone. The trick is to have both on the shelves’
The rock-bottom prices are also bad news for the smaller fishers in Alaska, who also see their margins decreasing. But according to trade economist Hoekstra, stopping the import is not an option. ‘We cannot feed Europe with North Sea fish alone. The trick is to have both on the shelves. It is also not desirable to have only imported fish because then you give local populations elsewhere a bag of money but deprive them of having their own protein-rich food.’
For that reason, Hoekstra is personally in favour of ‘close-to-home’ fishing. ‘The Netherlands is not a big fish-eating country. If we were to eat more North Sea fish instead of fish imported from outside Europe, we wouldn’t have to import as much for our own consumption. That means less pressure on fish stocks and local communities on the other side of the world.’
Salmon and flowers
But he acknowledges that a change in eating culture is difficult to bring about. ‘People have a personal preference for a type of fish because of its flavour or how it is prepared. We see the same thing now with salmon. The orange colour is on the rise in supermarkets, even in Italy. Raw salmon – sushi – is booming.’
That popularity also brought about a change in Urk’s industrial estate. ‘Many flatfish processing companies have switched to processing farmed salmon from Norway.’
Trucks carrying flowers to Scandinavia pick up salmon on their way back
Of the fish Neerlandia processes, 50 percent is now salmon. Koffeman: ‘The prices fluctuate strongly, but farmed salmon offers more certainty and regularity in comparison to wild fish. You have a year-round supply, and on top of that, it is a growing market.’
These days, Urk is actually busier with ‘exotics’ such as salmon from outside Europe than with the traditional sole and plaice from the North Sea. The processors can make use of long-established transport lines for their imports. Trucks carrying flowers to Scandinavia pick up salmon on their way back. ‘About eighty trucks a week,’ Jaap Brink from Profinis Accountants and Advisors recently wrote in Visserijnieuws, the magazine for fishers.
A fair price
What is to become of the North Sea fishers and the flatfish trade? ‘Until 2018, consumers accepted the higher prices for flatfish, due to a favourable dollar exchange rate and the lack of supply of alternative fish species for plaice,’ Geert Hoekstra wrote in the Round and Flatfish Industry report.
But now it seems that different times lie ahead. Wind farms and closed off protected nature reserves are seen as major threats to the North Sea fish supply. Hoekstra writes in the report that processing companies that depend on this will, ‘in the worst scenario’, also see the production of flatfish products move abroad.
Orange rust stains
In the cold storages of Neerlandia, the North Sea plaice lies directly opposite the red tubs of headed yellowfin. With its characteristic orange rust spots, the local variant is distinctly different from its Alaskan cousin and smaller.
‘It is still popular among the Italians,’ Koffeman notes the unprecedented success of the fish that put Urk on the world map. ‘North Sea plaice remains a high-end product, with a better structure and flavour than other plaice species. Italians are still willing to pay a little more for quality, but it is a price-oriented market. If the price increases too much, I fear they will look for other alternatives.’
‘But if North Sea fishers are able and willing to supply in a more demand-driven approach – by working together with the traders in a more focused way – then there will certainly be a permanent market for North Sea plaice,’ says Hoekstra.
At the same time, the supply of flatfish from Alaska is abundant and cheaper and can also contribute to making global trade more sustainable. Henk Staghouwer, the new Minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, told Pointer and Follow the Money: ‘Perhaps we need legislation and regulations. In the end, it is about earning a fair price throughout the chain. [..] It is unacceptable that the retail sector earns a good margin and the fisherman goes home with nothing.’
At the moment, Hendrik Kramer, the young sustainability pioneer with his ultramodern trawler, does go home with less than nothing. He endlessly searches for innovations that will yield more catch at lower costs, but he loses 10,000 euros every week. Bankruptcy is looming.
Follow The Money investigates sustainable fishing in cooperation with Pointer (KRO-NCRV).