Marine Harvest questions legitimacy of NSC marketing fee

Marine Harvest contends the marketing fee paid to finance the Norwegian Seafood Council (NSC) could be a form of state aid in conflict with the European Economic Area (EEA) Agreement, and is considering lodging a complaint against the arrangement to the European Free Trade Association’s (EFTA) Surveillance Authority (ESA).

Through the Norwegian Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries (NFD) correspondence lists, IntraFish became aware that a meeting had been held between Marine Harvest and NFD on February 26 concerning the marketing fee. Prior to the meeting, the ministry had prepared a number of internal documents with titles such as “assessment of marketing measures and financing of the Norwegian Seafood Council.”

IntraFish’s requests for access to all pertinent documents, as well as meeting minutes, were denied, but IntraFish was told who participated from Marine Harvest’s side, more specifically Public Affairs Manager Eivind Naevdal-Bolstad, and both Attorney Torben Foss and Consultant Knut Almestad from PWC (PriceWaterhouseCooper).

Foss is a veteran in the Norwegian fisheries and marine farming industry. His background includes a period as a fisheries advisor in Brussels, and he played a key role in Norway’s negotiations with the EU in fisheries’ issues. Foss also worked with the punitive duty issue, and has held a number of director positions in the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries. Since 1998 he has headed PWC’s seafood department in Bergen, according to the publication Norsk Fiskerinaering’s ”Who’s Who”.

IntraFish has asked the Ministry about whether the arrangement with NSC is in conflict with international agreements entered into by Norway.

“The Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries believes that the Norwegian Seafood Council’s activities are not in conflict with international commitments, and we have not experienced that other countries’ authorities have had any objections to the marketing fee,” wrote the Minister of Fisheries Per Sandberg’s Head of Communications Ingrid Dasnes in an e-mail to IntraFish a few weeks after the meeting took place.

Marine Harvest’s reply avoided a direct answer to questions about the meeting in February.

“We have regular meetings with the ministry. Some of the topics raised there have to do with financing of the NSC. Our view concerning the NSC matter is common knowledge,” was all Marine Harvest’s Head of Public Relations and Communications Ola Helge Hjetland was prepared to say about the meeting in his e-mail.

Fisheries minister Per Sandberg was however far more specific.

“They (Marine Harvest) have said they are considering lodging a complaint against the arrangement to the ESA. That’s more or less ‘old hat.’ They’ve been talking about doing that for ages. We disagree that this is in conflict with the EEA arrangement. So it will have to be up to the ESA to sort it out if Marine Harvest reports this to them,” Sandberg told IntraFish on Monday, immediately after emerging from a new meeting with Marine Harvest.

When asked whether Marine Harvest was threatening to go to ESA if the fee wasn’t lowered, Sandberg denied it.

“No, no, that’s not how it works. As I said, they are saying they are mulling over the fee in relation to the EEA Agreement. My aim is for us to find a good solution that everyone is happy with, without having to use a ton of resources unnecessarily on this. That’s what we’re looking at now,” said Sandberg.

According to ESA’s Press & Info Officer Andreas K. Pihl, they have as yet not received any enquiry from Marine Harvest concerning this matter.

Marine Harvest execs that participated in the Monday meeting were not forthcoming about the meeting when IntraFish encountered them on their way out. Later that day, IntraFish asked Group Communication Director Kristine Gramstad Wedler if the company plans to lodge a complaint about the arrangement to the ESA.

“For the time being, we have no comment to make on that,” Wedler said.

Marine Harvest won a case against the Norwegian authorities that was brought before the ESA back in 2012. There the ESA ruled in favor of Marine Harvest that the regulations stipulating a company could not control more than 25 percent of the marine farming production licenses in Norway were in conflict with the EEA Agreement.

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