Nesvik grilled in court: “My view on production fish has been crystal clear throughout”

Aslak Berge

Former Norwegian Minister of Fisheries Harald Tom Nesvik (FrP) has defended his decision against the export of production fish.

There was great tension ahead of Nesvik’s testimony in the ongoing lawsuit between the Norwegian government and the Hav Line group. Nesvik was Minister of Fisheries from August 2018 to January 2020. Nesvik is currently in quarantine, but will take up the position as communications manager at the wellboat company Sølvtrans at the end of July.

Due to coronavirus challenges, Nesvik testified at a video conference to the court in Bergen on Monday morning. The theme was the decisions related to production fish during his term as minister.

An unshaven Nesvik, who turned 54 on Monday, did not rule out that he has discussed the matter with his predecessor Per Sandberg before taking office as Minister of Fisheries.

“I have talked to Per in the period before I took office, but do not remember that we talked about production fish,” he said.

Nesvik’s integrity has been a key factor in the ongoing trial. Nesvik was a social contact for Sølvtrans before taking up the position of Minister of Fisheries. It is a similar position he is now returning to.

“I have worked with politics for 32 years, and am used to assessing habilitation, and resigned in Sølvtrans when I was offered the opportunity to become Minister of Fisheries. I called [Sølvtrans CEO] Roger Halsebakk, who was then travelling in Denmark, to resign,” he said.

“We get the impression in the media that Robert Eriksson (CEO of Sjømatbedriftene – Norwegian Seafood Association) ed.) is taking the credit for influencing you in this matter. “We repented,” it says in a newspaper. What is your comment on that?” asked Hav Line’s lawyer Trond Hatland.

“No, that’s not correct. My view of production fish has been crystal clear throughout,” Nesvik said on a somewhat choppy telephone line. “As soon as I saw that a considered dispatch of production fish from Norway, I immediately engaged since I saw that it could be detrimental to the reputation of Norwegian fish”.

“We had regular discussions about this with production fish [in the Ministry – ed. note.]. What triggered it was the media message that it would be allowed to send out production fish, and when the media wrote about it, I got involved in the case,” he said.

“Did you talk to Per Sandberg in this regard?”

“No,” said Nesvik.

“Were you aware of his views on this?”

“About production fish? No.”

“Did you not understand that you had a line other than Sandberg?”

“Not on production fish, no. He had only commented on jobs related to the export of fish”.

“Did you know that a decision on a regulatory change for production fish could stop “Norwegian Gannet”?”

“No, and I do not understand that one has joined this line. They had been granted a derogation for a year and were able to adapt to the current regulations,” said Nesvik.

“Did you consider talking to Hav Line directly at one point?” Hatland asked.

“No, I thought the regulations were clear. And that companies like Hav Line and Optimar had considered whether this was within or outside the regulations”.

“What work was done on the part of the Ministry since you became aware of the decision to overturn?”

“It was done by the civil service, it is not the minister doing it. That is why one has civil service. Part of this is internal discussions,” he responded.

The reputation
A key element of the case is that the Norwegian Food Safety Authority rules were made at a time when one did not know that there was an issue with a harvest vessel going directly abroad. Nesvik did not agree with that.

“What the matter relates to is the reputation of the entire Norwegian seafood industry.”

“There have been plans for three slaughter boats, but, to my knowledge, no exemption has been granted to anyone other than “Norwegian Gannet”.

“Have you made any other regulatory changes from Monday to Friday before?”

“No, but I haven’t had any other regulatory changes that have been less extensive,” Nesvik said.

Today it is permitted to send other fish species of poor quality, but not salmon and trout.

“Have there been any signals that Norway has shipped bad goods under the non-compliance regulations before?” asked Hatland.

“Not related to non-conforming goods. We know that there are extensive campaigns going on against Norwegian salmon internationally,” Nesvik pointed out.

“In this case, we have also heard about shipping salmon from Northern Norway to Southern Norway, both by car and train. Now the train service is not so well developed in Northern Norway, do you know if any of that freight goes to Sweden?” asked the lawyer.

“Some of the shipping of fish by train may be coming to Sweden”.

“Could it be the Ofotbanen (from Narvik – ed. note) that goes through Sweden and that it brings fish?”

“I expect it, but assume this fish is not marketed to the consumer,” said the former minister.

“Can Hav Lines shipping to Denmark be compared to transit via Sweden?”

“I am not a lawyer, but consider it different that the fish are in transit in connection with transhipment in Denmark, and then the Norwegian Food Safety Authority has lost the right to inspect the quality. It is the Danish Food Authority which must take care of that.

“Can Norwegian authorities control production fish in transit through Sweden?”

“I am not aware that production fish have been sent through Sweden”.

“Are you aware that there is a Nordic collaboration on fish inspection?”

“Not unannounced inspection. We do not have the opportunity,” he said.

Own assessment
“With regard to the Hav Line case explicitly; was the judgement taken by external lawyers?”

“My assessment of quality is done in the department in the usual way”.

“When you started dealing with the Hav Line case, not in June 2019, did you consider whether you were fit to do so?”

“It was solely my own assessment that was used,” Nesvik said.

“Hav Lines exemption from the quality prescription expires July 1, 2020. Is there a date that is important for some reason?”

“It was important for that reason to give them time to rebuild the boat,” he said.

Nesvik then emphasized the importance of safeguarding one’s own integrity.

“I’ve never owned a share in my life. I have no ownership interests. I have no special interests. I’ve always been concerned about being extremely clean,” stressing his own integrity.

Government Attorney Torje Sunde challenged Nesvik on the issue that has been frequently mentioned in the media that this entire case deals with protectionism and the retention of jobs in Norway.

“It is clear that if we are losing reputation, we are also losing jobs in the country. But it is a different discussion than the quality regulation. I have been working constantly to create jobs for Norwegian seafood. This is a case that goes solely on the reputation part and offers no special benefit to Sølvtrans. For a wellboat company, they could apply to bring out live fish in the next round. A wellboat is not a competitor to “Norwegian Gannet”, in that case, it must be a wellboat with a killing station. This is a discussion about reputation, and it is a political issue,” Nesvik concluded.