Governments no longer control the right to fish — just a few fishing conglomerates do. Dutch companies are among them, with one standing out: Parlevliet & Van der Plas. The fish company accumulated fishing rights in countries across Europe and the world, using this as the foundation to expand the business and double its revenue to 1.5 billion euros. This comes at the cost of local communities, a Portuguese example shows. The operation happens under the radar; Follow the Money reveals how the Dutch fishing giant built its empire.
In the shallow waters near Portugal’s picturesque town of Aveiro, an 80-metre long fishing ship is rusting away. It’s been years since it has last been moved, waiting to be taken out of water since it stopped its activities in 2015.
The trawler is cod vessel Brites, and its slow death is a symptom of the ever-growing powers of a Dutch fishing company that profits from the European Union’s fisheries policy to outplay smaller firms — an expansion that has wide-reaching consequences for local communities.
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The ship belongs to Dutch company Parlevliet & Van der Plas, which bought Brites with its Icelandic business partner Samherji in 2015. But the firm, whose products end up in supermarkets all around the world, never intended to use the ship.
To be able to catch fish, businesses not only need vessels, but also the right to fish a particular species in a specific area
Instead, the firm was after something more precious than the tonnes of metal: the fish quotas tied to it.
To be able to catch fish, businesses not only need vessels, but also the right to fish a particular species in a specific area. They need quota, and cod quota is precious.
In several EU countries, including in Portugal, quotas are linked to a ship, so once a company buys that vessel it obtains those fishing rights.
Parlevliet — whose business currently brings in some 1.5 billion euros a year in revenue — needed the quotas to consolidate the family business’s operation in yet another European country in their portfolio of international fish-related businesses.
The company’s expansion is possible thanks to two things: the EU’s common fisheries policy and a system in many European countries that allows for quotas to be transferred between companies and ships.
This investigation shows how Parlevliet used this system to get bigger and wealthier, revealing an intricate net of vessels swapped between subsidiaries.
Big winners, big losers
In January of the same year that he bought Brites, Diek Parlevliet, the CEO and owner of his eponymous company, bought a Portuguese company together with Icelandic business partner Samherji.
Later that year, in May 2015, the Dutchman started the renewal of his vast fleet, a process in which old ships are replaced by newer ones. A publicity event: Germany’s then-chancellor, Angela Merkel, christened his new 86-metre-trawler Mark on the country’s chalk cliff island Rügen — pictures of which went viral.
But it was Parlevliet’s new Portuguese business, Absolutely Genuine Unipessoal, that was perhaps of greater significance. In the fishing town Aveiro, some 250 kilometres north of Lisbon, he bought — alongside Brites — two old cod trawlers from the 1970s: Praia Santa Cruz and Joana Princesa.
Although Diek Parlevliet often buys ships, the Portuguese deal was special. It helped the 68-year-old CEO of the fish business conglomerate gain more access to the lucrative cod in Norwegian waters, North Atlantic international waters, as well as in the area surrounding Svalbard, an archipelago North of Norway.
But this comes at a cost.
For one, Atlantic cod is heavily overfished. “The cod stocks in the North East Atlantic are clearly not recovering,” said Monica Verbeek, executive director of Seas at Risk. Fish like cod are caught with trawlers that harm marine life by dragging the nets along or near the ocean floor and clearing the ocean of all wildlife caught up in its nets.
“Overfishing [with] these demersal fishing practices results in diminishing fish populations. It also means more effort needs to be done to catch the fish: Vessels need to steam out further and do more hauls to get less fish,” Verbeek said.
In addition to an impact on fish stock, this kind of fishing also has broader indirect environmental consequences. Fishing near the ocean’s bottom, or demersal fishing, uses more fuel than other fishing practices. “The increase of effort also increases the emissions and the other environmental impacts like bycatch and destruction of bottom habitats,” she said.
Pointing to the company’s report about sustainable policies, Parlevliet rejected the concerns. “We are not concerned about demersal fishing in the North Atlantic,” he told Follow the Money. “Naturally, we make sustainable investments in fishing net facilities to prevent bycatch, reduce fuel consumption and therefore reduce emissions.”
Catching cod in large-scale fishing also has wide-reaching societal consequences. In the UK, for example, the popular cod fish is prepared in a crispy batter and served as fish and chips. In Portugal, bacalhau (literally “cod”) is the country’s national dish: white-fleshed salted cod, cooked until flaky and with good olive oil. But owing to overfishing and climate change, the fish has become increasingly scarce and expensive.
That has also hit Portugal’s town of Aveiro, an old fishing town that built its wealth on cod. The industry was already struggling in the 1960s after cod stocks declined in the north. Still, the country was able to negotiate cod quotas in different areas until 1986 when Portugal joined the EU and conceded control of fisheries to Brussels.
“This practically dictated the end of our distant fishing fleet,” the research department of Ílhavo’s Maritime Museum near Aveiro said in an email.
Today, only 4 to 5 percent of the cod is caught by Portuguese vessels. The rest is imported.
This change has a drastic impact on people’s lives. Jose Paulo Vieira Da Silva, from Aveiro, was an officer in the far distance fleet for more than two decades. He sailed with several ships, most of the time as captain, but moved from fisheries to a job as an inspection officer for the European Commission in 2003.
He decries the diminishment of the fleet. When he started as a fisherman, he could get a job anywhere — but that has changed, he said, with people who train as officers not finding employment in the field.
“There are no jobs for them,” he said.
Parlevliet rejected any possible connection between his business activities and a decline in Portuguese businesses.
“PP Group lets local companies continue operations with the same crew and salaries. So there is no socio-economic impact,” Diek Parlevliet said.
To the highest bidder
When quotas are distributed, the EU is ignoring parts of its own fishery policy, Jerry Percy, general manager of New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association (Nutfa), a representative body for small-scale fishermen in the UK, told Follow the Money.
In 2013, the EU amended its common fisheries policy to make it mandatory for member states to include social, economic, and environmental criteria when allocating quota.
“The access is privatised, it goes to the person with the biggest pockets and therefore the most lobbying power”
“Tragically, and probably because it was deemed ‘revolutionary’ and despite being written clearly, in essence, no member state has embraced it,” Percy said. “It is fundamentally ignored across Europe, to the detriment of a multitude of coastal communities. So the status quo persists. The access is privatised, it goes to the person with the biggest pockets and therefore the most lobbying power.”
Through its subsidiary Absolutely Genuine Unipessoal, Parlevliet bought the three rusty cod vessels from Portuguese company Verdemar, a Portuguese business that collected fishing vessels over the years from family-owned fishing businesses based in Aveiro.
One of the most important fishing areas for Portugal is in the far north, in international waters between Greenland and Canada. From the 13 vessels fishing in this area in 2015, only nine trawlers with an average length of 74 metres — the length of six city buses — are left today, belonging to only four companies, said Henrique Ramos, CEO of fish consultancy SeaExpert.
The Portuguese example shows how fishing conglomerates are the only ones having enough collateral to expand and buy up old vessels that include the lucrative quota.
”They're only bought for the quota. An opportunity for big companies who can afford it because these types of vessels are sold by auction, the highest bidder gets it,” Ramos said.
Getting a headstart
And while small businesses struggle to survive, companies like Parlevliet prosper and have built an empire that delivers fish to wholesalers, retailers and catering around the globe.
To tackle overfishing practices, the EU introduced a quota system in 1983 that set a maximum of how much could be fished of each species in a certain area.
This had long-term consequences: when Europe doled out fishing quotas according to its new common fisheries policy, the rights were allocated to all European fishing countries according to their historical catch — so the more countries had fished, the more and bigger quotas their companies got.
A few Dutch family companies managed to expand even before Europe’s quota system was introduced, mainly because they could afford to buy freeze trawlers, which the Dutch government made mandatory to transport raw fish in the 1960s.
The freezers allowed them to fish farther away while parts of the North Sea were closed for several years due to overfishing in the 1970s, according to Dutch fisheries historian Frits Loomeijer. This also permitted them to diversify their catch — both crucial for their rise later, he said.
By the late 1970s, only 15 of the 65 Dutch herring fishers were still standing — among them Parlevliet.
Profiting from fisheries without fishing
But a real game changer for Parlevliet was that individual countries made quotas tradable after the implementation of the policy throughout the 1980s; it made fishing rights an asset. This led to the rights becoming de-facto privatised in many member states.
By 1990 — just 7 years after the quota-system was implemented — three Dutch conglomerates had snatched up almost all the quotas for all valuable species that the Netherlands had.
Diek Parlevliet and his grandfather Dirk Parlevliet, who founded the company in 1950 together with the brothers Van der Plas, were never fishermen, but traders instead. “Thanks to good contacts in Europe, we have been able to buy fishing companies with quotas. In most cases the reason was that the entrepreneur had no successor,” Diek Parlevliet said.
Between 1994 and 2011 Parlevliet received around 40 million euros in European subsidies for the construction of trawlers and factories
What followed was Parlevliet’s rapid expansion across Europe — also with help from the EU. Between 1994 and 2011 Parlevliet received around 40 million euros in European subsidies for the construction of trawlers and factories, according to a report of research agency Profundo for Greenpeace.
After the implementation of the new system, Parlevliet swiftly opened subsidiaries in Germany and the UK, before continuing into France, Lithuania, and Spain.
As part of this same scheme to expand his fishing empire, Diek Parlevliet moved the fishing activities of the three vessels he bought to his new company in Lisbon. In Portugal, fishing companies have the freedom to trade the rights to other industry members within the country, and it’s also possible to get the quota from another ship for the year.
The accumulation of quotas was needed to expand the business further up the fish value chain. It was a collateral loan to set up fish processing and storage facilities.
This didn’t only happen in Portugal, and Parlevliet was not the only company doing it. The Low Impact Fishers of Europe (LIFE), a British organisation that unites small-scale fishermen, published an alarming report in 2017 arguing that the accumulation of quotas in the sector blocks opportunities for smaller fishermen.
From trawl to table
Parlevliet has almost doubled its revenue since 2016, from 847 million euros then to 1.5 billion euros in 2021. But it is difficult to assess how powerful Parlevliet really is. The acquisition of Portuguese cod quota and how it used its subsidiaries to acquire these was only traceable because Portugal and the UK, where part of its daughter companies are registered, have a relatively transparent system showing which companies hold quota on which vessels.
Still: According to a 2018 European Parliament study, Parlevliet & Van der Plas is one of Europe’s most powerful fishing companies.
Diek Parlevliet had a simple answer when asked how they became one of the biggest fish companies in Europe: “Good entrepreneurship.”
“My father, great-grandfather and the generations before them [...] during their years they were always innovative and enterprising. This line has consistently continued, seeing opportunities and converting them,” he said.
With at least 50 vessels sailing under 10 flags, Parlevliet catches fish that live in the upper and mid-level layers of the sea like mackerel, herring, blue whiting, but also closer to the sea floor with species like cod, haddock and halibut.
PP Group has 8,000 employees and more than 170 subsidiaries in 19 countries
In addition to the fleet, the company owns a share of every aspect of the value chain. In Europe, it has six processing companies making the fish into dinner-ready portions, storage and transport facilities as well as fishtrade and wholesale businesses, making a profit on every step of the way from trawl to table.
That makes the company a huge employer. PP Group has 8,000 employees and more than 170 subsidiaries in 19 countries, with the Netherlands, Germany, France, Portugal, Lithuania, Spain, and Poland in the EU.
In a report, however, the European Parliament finds that setting up fish companies up the value chain allowed Parlevliet to compete better with its large Norwegian counterparts and has strengthened its position towards retailers — and cites Parlevliet as the source for that argument.
Yet, the entrepreneur insists in an email that “it’s not the case [that] we have control over the supply chain.”
The writers of a European Commission report disagree, however, pointing to Parlevliet’s acquisition of Deutsche See in 2018, Germany's biggest supplier of fish and seafood in Bremerhaven: “Integrating Deutsche See GmbH into P&P Group’s supply chain allow P&P Group to control each step from fish catch to market,” the report states.
Lack of transparency
It is a combination of quotas and ownership of fish processing factories that handles the catch of its vessels on land that makes Parlevliet so successful. But it’s more than that: It also needed to invest in an effective and efficient fleet, for which an intricate system of swapping ships between its subsidiaries and taking advantage of fishing rights across the continent proved immensely beneficial.
While the vessel-swap technique is not illegal, it obfuscates information crucial for tracking the vessel’s history. When a vessel gets a new owner, it is often renamed and the slate is clean, making the historical information about the ship before the transfer difficult to find.
The puzzle of the fleet renewal could be filled in by connecting snippets of information being published in local news articles and an EU report.
Fishing regulators of each member state are obliged to report to the Council of the EU how much each country fished, but not what company or ship fished. While some countries, like Denmark and Sweden, readily release data on how big of a quota ships and companies have, others — like the Netherlands — don’t give out much information.
The amount of fish that used to be fished by three Portuguese vessels was now the task of the Santa Princesa, which has become the vessel with the most quota in the Portuguese fleet. In 2021, the latest year for which figures are available, the ship was allocated 25 percent of Atlantic cod in the so-called NAFO zone, lucrative international waters in the far north near Greenland and Canada, according to Portugal’s fishery administration.
This makes Santa Princesa’s share in these waters bigger than any other vessel in the Portuguese fleet.
Meanwhile, the brand new vessel Markhas has access to NAFO through Germany’s share of the European quota. And that isn’t all.
According to EU data, Parlevliet has 20 percent of the 31 ships with EU authorisation in this area. In other fishing areas outside the EU, Parlevliet has an even bigger share.
While the share of authorisations doesn’t necessarily say anything about how big their share of quotas are, it does indicate their influence in the fishing sector.
Swapping ships to wealth
UK Fisheries — which is jointly owned by Parlevliet and Icelandic company Samherji and to which their newly acquired Portuguese company Absolutely Genuine Unipessoal belongs — became part of the vessel modernization.
Fleet renewal can be expensive — but it seems to have been easier for Parlevliet and Samherji, who own many vessels together within UK Fisheries that they could swap around.
The fleet renewal took place between 2015 and 2019 and started in Germany, where the Arctic Warrior was replaced by a new vessel, Mark, named after Diek Parlevliet’s deceased son, in Sassnitz on Germany’s island of Rügen.
But that was just the beginning. UK Fisheries then reflagged the Arctic Warrior from the UK to Portugal and named it Santa Princesa 4. The switch of the country flag was needed to be able to catch their newly acquired Portuguese quota.
The duty of this vessel was just temporary: Soon, their Nuevo Barca was ready to take over the job, which in turn would later be replaced by yet another successor. In 2018, the old Nuevo Barca was reflagged from the UK to Portugal and named Santa Princesa. This is the ship that still holds Portuguese fishing rights of the three rusty old vessels.
That ship is fishing in international waters in the far north near Greenland and Canada, also known as the NAFO zone, as well as in Norway and near Svalbard.
Parlevliet declined to comment on the fleet renewal. “We don't share any financial statements which are not included in our annual report,” he said.
The NAFO area is very profitable. In 2014, the value of fish caught in the area was estimated to be 52.9 million, euros according to the European Commission’s annual economic report on fisheries. With 61 percent of the catch value in the area, Portuguese vessels had the biggest share. The area’s value increased to some 100 million euros in 2020.
Acquiring Portuguese quota and swapping vessels between its subsidiaries and reflagging them to Portugal seemed to do the trick
UK Fisheries vessel Kirkella had already access to NAFO and was replaced in 2019 by Kirkella II. The two new vessels cost around 100 million euros, according to Parlevliet. Acquiring Portuguese quota and swapping vessels between its subsidiaries and reflagging them to Portugal seemed to do the trick for both UK Fisheries fleet renewal and finding a vessel to fish the Portuguese quota.
By 2019, Parlevliet was operating two brand new super trawlers in NAFO together with Santa Princesa. In that year, the total catch value of NAFO was 82 million euros; the Portuguese fleet caught 68 percent of it. NAFO is just one new area that Parlevliet got more access to with its vessel Santa Princesa.
When, at the beginning of 2023, Parlevliet started a joint venture with another Portuguese company and took over the quotas of Portuguese vessel Coimbra, it expanded its reach. Businesses like Parlevliet seem to be putting smaller businesses out of business, and some local fishermen feel like they have no choice but to work together with them if they want their business to thrive.
Because the quotas are transferable, Parlevliet’s new company also swapped cod quotas with Empresa De Pesca Sao Jacinto, one of the oldest family companies still existing in Aveiro.
Tiago Pais, whose great-great grandfather founded the company in 1936, explained that he hopes that collaborating with the Dutch and Icelandic giants will give him access to quotas in regions elsewhere, since he doesn't have enough quota to secure stable fisheries for his 50-year-old vessel Coimbra.
“Basically this is the only big opportunity I found to make my company grow a bit more,” he said.