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Highest Dutch court in antitrust cases upholds fines on shrimp cartel

Traders and Dutch, German and Danish producers' organizations representing shrimp fishers must pay fines, totaling more than EUR 4.4 million, for violation of the prohibition of cartels between 1998 and 2000. The lion's share of these fines, more than EUR 3 million, will be borne by two wholesalers involved. This is the outcome of the final ruling laid down by the Dutch Trade and Industry Appeals Tribunal (CBb), the highest court in the Netherlands in matters of antitrust law, in the long-standing legal dispute that lasted more than eight years over the fines that the Netherlands Competition Authority (NMa) imposed in early 2003. This is the first case ever in which the NMa has fined non-Dutch parties. The fines, though, have been lowered by the CBb.

At the time of the violation, approximately 480 shrimp cutters were active in the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark. Chairman of the Board of the NMa Pieter Kalbfleisch reacts: 'The fishermen's organizations concluded agreements on the maximum amount of shrimp that they could bring to land each week per cutter. On top of that, the fishermen and traders gave each other minimum price guarantees. The industry thus tried to camouflage the enormous overcapacity in the market. This is not good: consumers have apparently paid too much for their shrimp.'

The producers' organizations, citing European fishing regulations, argued that the national and European prohibitions of cartels did not apply to them. It has now been unequivocally ruled that they definitely should have taken into account antitrust regulations. Furthermore, the industry claimed that their agreements would benefit sustainable fishing efforts, as well as the environment. The CBb saw no reasons to have any doubts about the NMa's assessment that the minimum-price and catch quota agreements were motivated by the intention of the undertakings involved to keep their revenues at a level above normal market conditions. That is no justification for disregarding the prohibition of cartels.

'It is good that the court followed our interpretation of the competition rules. This way, more clarity is given to all parties involved,' Mr. Kalbfleisch says.

Furthermore, the Dutch parties involved were imposed a higher fine for having participated in a second violation (next to the primary violation) that occurred in the fall of 1999, when they made a joint effort in making it impossible for a new shrimp trader to trade at the Dutch fish auctions.