Fish don't sleep

Aquaculture and fisheries are storming ahead. The need is simultaneously increasing for lawyers who understand that fish neither sleep nor wait for the permits to be approved. “We know how this works because we have a presence along the entire coast and work according to the same clock as the rest of the industry – in other words, the one that ticks 24 hours a day,” says Ole-Martin Andreassen, leader of Norway’s largest and closest-at-hand law firm for fishing and aquaculture.

Aquaculture and Fisheries have revitalised the Norwegian coast. Norwegian seafood worth about NOK 100 billion will be sold in 2018. Even the smaller firms along the coast have become large operations on a national scale and are hubs in complex value chains with loads of sub-suppliers.

“Basically, you cannot engage in commercial fisheries without first obtaining a licence. So this industry is by its very nature completely regulated,” states Andreassen.

The seafood business is unusual in other ways as well. One is that people never stop working.

“Fish don’t sleep. In fisheries and aquaculture, things roll along 24 hours a day. People work extremely hard and expect their advisors to roll along with them,” he says.

In addition, there is never enough time.

“This is an industry with short, tight time horizons. Fisheries is seasonal, the permits have to be in place when the fish swim past, the location must be approved when the smolts have reached the weight for being put out. Getting good solutions in place for brief periods of time is what makes this field distinctive. If problems arise, the capacity must be there to employ resources and get them quickly resolved.”

SANDS is rigged for this.

“What is special about SANDS is the extent to which we are present where the industries are located – we are practically in the boat – and that we are scaled to provide advice and legal services to the entire value chain exactly where it is needed.”

COASTAL LAWYERS. Ole-Martin Andreassen is sitting in a conference room in SANDS’ Tromsø office. He started his career as a lawyer and partner at PwC’s office in the city. When the Enron scandal upended large parts of the accounting-driven legal industry in 2002, he brought about ten lawyers with him to what became SANDS’ Northern Norway office. SANDS already had ambitions of building national practices with a regional presence.

“When you practice business law in Tromsø, it is natural for you to orient yourself towards seafood. I had also had a keen interest in traditional fisheries. Eventually as the aquaculture industry sailed into view, it was natural to look in that direction as well,” recalls Andreassen, who had written a master’s thesis on aquaculture licences.

It was good timing, as the aquaculture industry turned a corner at the end of the millennium and picked up speed after a long series of ups and downs in the 80s and 90s. Along with the growth came new demands for legal assistance.

NEW RULES, NEW LAWYERS. For the fishing industry, the regulatory requirements on the industry’s operators have steadily become more extensive. The businesses have become far larger and operating has become more expensive. So the demand is also increasing for business law services, explains Andreassen:

“You see now that good legal advice is absolutely necessary to avoid problems and disputes, but it also creates value in itself. You make more good choices when you have good assistance. It may be a shipbuilding contract you might have carried out before, but where the sums have now become so large that value can be added and the risk of losses minimised by taking the right contractual measures.

Both fisheries and aquaculture have gone through a structuring and professionalising process.

“In particular, major upheavals have occurred in aquaculture, which at first was merely a sideline for fishermen and farmers in the rural communities. It has gone from many small companies to several large regional and locally owned companies, where even the smallest have sales of NOK 100 million a year,” reports Andreassen.

In addition, there has been far greater focus on the different ways these industries act as stewards of community assets.

“Overall, the regulatory requirements for how the business is conducted have become far more stringent. Obviously, the law and the business lawyer are at the centre of that.

PRAGMATIC FISHERIES. Tromsø, Senja, Bodø and Båtsfjord. Private equity is now being accumulated in all the rural communities, after these for a long time had been Norway’s economic Achilles heel.

“There is a real optimism, and it’s building out in the regions because the business community is doing well. It is fun to be part of. And we can do that because SANDS is absolutely uniquely positioned to assist,” says Andreassen.

When Andreassen joined a national firm, he was given the responsibility to build up the department nationally. SANDS already had an office in Trondheim. Bergen became a focal point for resources. With offices in Ålesund and Tromsø as well, SANDS could say with authority that they were centrally located in all regions where fisheries and aquaculture are important. SANDS has a seasoned group of lawyers, with 12 partners along the coast whose work is dedicated to fisheries and aquaculture.

“Deep down, of course, we have to have good professional expertise at a national level,” acknowledges Andreassen, “but what distinguishes us to an even greater degree from other lawyers is the question we always ask the client: ‘Yes, but what can we get from this commercially?’”

In fisheries and aquaculture, the answer to this question entails a high degree of pragmatism. For example, it does not always pay to fight the legal battles even if you have the law on your side.

“You have to respond to the decision from the administrative agency, because otherwise the capelin will be gone from the coast before the appeal comes up.

Such pragmatism requires knowing the underlying sectors thoroughly. If the lawyers assist a shipowner or a fish buyer or a supplier, there is differing, industry-specific logic when it comes to profitability and risk.

“We have colleagues at SANDS who individually are leading experts in all stages in both fisheries and aquaculture and who understand the machinery from the inside. Our size and geographic presence are a major competitive advantage for our clients.”

LOCAL PRESENCE. SANDS works broadly in fisheries and aquaculture. It covers everything from battles to obtain permits to political lobbying. This also stems from being where the industry is evolving.

“One aspect of this is that we have a professional relationship with officials in the administrative bodies and occasionally at the political level in the ministries – in the sense that we are well aware of the decision makers and processes and know when we need to contact B first and not A,” says Andreassen.

The lawyer says it feels like a privilege to help a national industry with historic roots to again become a mainstay of the Norwegian economy. The growth trends in the industry will be reinforced, with further professionalising and structuring in sight. With that, the demand for more specialised legal expertise will also increase.

And the basis of the fisheries and aquaculture industries is always the marine life and the relationships among the people who work with it.

“Just as you cannot go to the family doctor with everything, people out here properly understand that not all lawyers are the same. They are looking for seasoned expertise – people who know what they are doing and who answer the phone when it rings,” says Andreassen.

“After all, the fish don’t sleep.”