The European Commission has fined one German and three Dutch shrimp traders a total of € 28,7 million for operating a price fixing and market sharing cartel between June 2000 and January 2009. [Press release of November 27th, 2013, decision has not yet been published.]
According to the Commission, the Dutch traders Klaas Puul and Heiploeg agreed as of 2000 on both purchase and sales prices and on a division of the Belgian, French, German and Dutch markets. Heiploeg has been sanctioned with the highest fine (€ 27 million). Later they were joined by Kok Seafood (fined € 0,5 million) and the German trader Stührk (fined € 1,1 million). In 2009 Klaas Puul brought the cartel to the Commission's attention and in accordance with the 2006 Leniency Notice, "got off the hook" without a fine.
The revenue on the EEA shrimp market varies every year, but is always at least € 100 million. The four cartel members have an estimated combined market share of 80%. Consequently their anticompetitive behavior had, according to the Commission, a direct impact on the prices charged to the end-consumers. Perhaps this inspired the Commission to include in its decision a passage stressing that any person or firm affected by the cartel may seek damages before the courts of the Member States.
This decision and even some traders' names sound awfully familiar: in 2003 the Dutch competition authority fined several Dutch, German and Danish shrimp traders and producers' organizations for price fixing and coordinating fishing quantities between 1998 and 2000. Amongst them were the three Dutch traders now fined by the Commission. In that case the cartel members invoked the agricultural exemption of (old) EU Regulation 26 and claimed that the cartel prohibition was not applicable. The Dutch competition authority found however that their behavior was not necessary to achieve the goals of the common agricultural policy and therefore not exempted from the cartel prohibition. The producers appealed the decision right up to the highest court, sustaining their position during an 8 year battle. The Dutch Trade and Industry Appeals Tribunal confirmed the infringement of competition law but reduced the fines by approximately 70% (to € 4,4 million) given the lack of clarity of the application of the EU exemption.
In the new case EU Commissioner Joaquín Almunia found the anticompetitive behavior of the four traders "astonishing taking into account that the sector had already received a clear warning via the previous conviction of some traders by the Dutch competition authority". Perhaps the previous Dutch decision did have some effect. It may have triggered the leniency application of Klaas Puul. When faced with potential fines in the tens of millions of Euros, the Leniency Notice is attractive bait.