Between a rock and a hard place

Words by Chris Thorne
Photography by Suzanne Plunkett

It might sound a little strange to hear that Greenpeace has been placing giant boulders into the Dogger Bank Marine Protected Area.

So, here are the reasons why we did it, how we did it and how it fits into our global vision for ocean protection.

The Dogger Bank is the UK’s largest sandbank. It is a crucial marine habitat that underpins the entire North Sea’s ecosystem. It extends into Dutch and German waters and is designated as a Marine Protected Area (MPA).

But the Dogger Bank MPA is protected in name only. After witnessing systematic and illegal “dark” bottom trawling taking place in the Dogger Bank, we felt compelled to protect it ourselves. We built an underwater boulder barrier, ensuring that 47 square miles of the Dogger Bank will be off limits to destructive bottom trawling. The UK government has failed time and time again to protect the Dogger Bank, and the rest of our protected areas, so we felt that now is the time to step up and deliver real protection for as much of our oceans as possible.

For several years, Greenpeace has been campaigning for a new Global Ocean Treaty to replace our broken system of global ocean governance. This would pave the way for 30% of our oceans being fully protected by 2030. This protection is urgently needed. Industrial overfishing, along with the climate emergency, deep sea mining and various other threats have pushed our oceans into crisis. Our vision of global ocean protection has gained support from around the world, with many governments and scientists backing the target.

The UK government is one of them, and it has admirably spearheaded the Global Ocean Alliance, a group of nations which publicly support the 30×30 target. Our government loves to present itself as a ‘Global Ocean Champion’ and has made this one of the cornerstones of its global environmental policy. However, a closer look at ocean protection here in the UK’s waters, on our Government’s doorstep, reveals an alarming picture totally at odds with the rhetoric our Government uses to speak about ocean protection.

Greenpeace Dogger Bank MPA illegal trawling North Sea
Greenpeace Dogger Bank MPA illegal trawling seal
Greenpeace Dogger Bank MPA illegal trawling Esperanza

Just 36% of the UK’s waters are covered by MPAs, but most of these are little more than paper parks, lines drawn on a map with no tangible protection. Almost all of them, especially those in offshore waters, lack any site condition monitoring to assess their progress towards conservation targets, and only five out of the UK’s 73 offshore protected areas ‘might be’ progressing towards their conservation targets. None of this a surprise when you learn about the destructive practices that our government still allows in our MPAs.

Supertrawlers, vast floating fish factories, spend thousands of hours each year fishing in these supposedly protected areas with no regulation or monitoring. Electric pulse trawlers prowl our protected areas, electrocuting areas of seabed to catch fish, and perhaps most egregiously, bottom trawlers rip up the seabed in 97% of the UK’s protected areas, which were set up specifically to protect seabed habitats.

The Dogger Bank protected area is one of these paper parks. It was created with the sole purpose of protecting the seabed. But when one of our vessels, the Arctic Sunrise, visited the Dogger Bank on a research trip back in June 2020, we were shocked to discover just how extensive bottom trawling was in the area. In just two weeks, researchers on the Arctic Sunrise witnessed 19 industrial bottom trawlers ploughing the Dogger Bank’s protected seabed. This is equivalent to driving a bulldozer through an entire forest on land.

To make matters worse, the majority of these bottom trawlers were operating AIS dark by turning off their automatic tracking systems to gain a competitive advantage and to obscure their fishing practices from the authorities. Turning off satellite tracking systems for all vessels over a certain size is illegal. It is against UK and international law and is more commonly associated with distant waters fleets in far flung corners of the global ocean, far from the eyes of the general public – not so close to home in the North Sea. In such a busy part of our oceans, it is like driving down a motorway with your headlights off at night, and it poses a serious safety threat to all passing marine traffic. Our government has consistently failed to properly protect our MPAs, despite years of campaigning, but after witnessing this illegal, destructive fishing activity, we felt compelled to act.

Greenpeace Dogger Bank MPA illegal trawling London
Greenpeace Dogger Bank MPA illegal trawling on board
Greenpeace Dogger Bank MPA illegal trawling boulder

We resolved to stop bottom trawling in as much of the Dogger Bank as feasibly possible by placing giant, inert granite boulders at precise intervals in the area where we witnessed this destructive bottom trawling. Any bottom trawler that attempts to fish around our boulders risks snagging its gear, and damaging it. We commissioned an independent scientific agency to conduct a full Environmental Impact Assessment for our activity. This concluded that our placement of boulders would not damage the ecosystem, and we decided to proceed.

In September 2020, we returned to the Dogger Bank with our largest vessel, the Esperanza, and more than 30 tonnes of granite to deploy our first set of boulders into our new bottom trawler exclusion zone. We made sure that what we were doing was safe for all other mariners by immediately informing all the relevant authorities of the precise locations of each boulder. They pose no threat to passing marine traffic, and any bottom trawler that chooses to continue fishing in the area does so with full knowledge of the locations of each boulder, and the risks posed to their gear by continuing to fish there.

We have been overwhelmed by how positive the public response has been. Thousands have got in touch expressing their support, and celebrities including Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, Stephen Fry and many others asked if they could sign their names to our boulders, along with MPs from across the political spectrum. What’s even more heart warming is to see so many small scale, sustainable fishers from across the UK come out in support of our action. They’ve seen first-hand the damage industrial bottom trawlers have done to the North Sea. They’ve destroyed their livelihoods, and we are so happy to be able to help our local fishing communities by protecting part of the Dogger Bank.

The industrial fishing industry has unsurprisingly come out against our action with some, frankly, ridiculous claims about us endangering their vessels and crews. Any skipper of an industrial bottom trawler who chooses to fish over one of our boulders does so with full knowledge of the threat to their gear, and it would be grossly negligent on their part to do so. They also conveniently forget to mention or address the illegal and destructive activity of so many of their vessels in the Dogger Bank.

Greenpeace Dogger Bank MPA illegal trawling activism
Greenpeace Dogger Bank MPA illegal trawling seabirds
Greenpeace Dogger Bank MPA illegal trawling police helicopter wind farm

We deployed a second set of boulders, collected from Hamburg in Germany, before heading to London to load a final two boulders, sculpted into full stops by Turner Prize nominated artist Fiona Banner. A third sculpted boulder was placed on the doorstep of DEFRA at the same time, to send a message to the Environment Secretary George Eustice that he couldn’t ignore. We then placed these final two sculptures into the Dogger Bank bottom trawling exclusion zone, turning our boulder barrier into an artistic installation at sea.

It was a huge logistical challenge transporting over 60 tonnes of granite from Germany to the Dogger Bank, and placing it precisely and carefully, but our boulder barrier has now protected 47 square miles of the Dogger Bank from all destructive bottom trawling. This is only 1% of the entire Dogger Bank protected area, and it’s just the beginning. Our government still refuses to act, despite repeated promises to properly protect our oceans after Britain leaves the Common Fisheries Policy. Our departure is now just two months away, but still we have had no credible commitments. They even voted down amendments to the new Fisheries Bill which would have banned supertrawlers from fishing in our protected areas.

Even after revealing illegal bottom trawling in the Dogger Bank to the authorities, they’ve done nothing. No investigations have been launched, and they’ve given no commitments to properly protect our oceans or the Dogger Bank.

It is ridiculous that Greenpeace is being forced to take action to protect UK MPAs from destructive fishing. This should be a job for our government, which loves to call itself a ‘global ocean champion’, but we can’t stand idly by while our most important marine areas are destroyed before our eyes. We are proud of what we’ve done in the Dogger Bank, but we know this is just the start. We will continue to protect our oceans however we can, until our government steps up and delivers the protection our oceans need.

Photography by Suzanne Plunkett courtesy of Greenpeace UK.

Photography by Suzanne Plunkett