stores of blue carbon and endangering the long-term health of fish populations. It also endangers local fishing communities, whose sustainable fishing methods can’t compete with such heavy extraction. The boulders of naturally occurring granite obstruct bottom trawlers, shielding areas which are officially designated as protected but which were heavily bottom trawled before Greenpeace’s intervention. Last year the UK government’s Marine Management Organisation (MMO), funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, launched their own prosecution against Greenpeace and its then executive director, John Sauven, over its action to protect part of the Offshore Brighton Marine Protected Area (MPA).

CREDIT:
© Scott Heppell / Greenpeace

Last December, at Newcastle Crown Court, the judge heard pre-trial legal arguments on whether the MMO had jurisdiction over Greenpeace’s action. He also was invited by Greenpeace to comment on the lack of public interest in prosecuting Greenpeace over this matter, and a further hearing was fixed for Greenpeace to argue that the prosecution was an abuse of process.

The Judge’s ruling, delivered on January 12th, stated that the MMO are legally entitled to pursue their prosecution against Greenpeace, but the Judge required the MMO to conduct a review of their decision as to whether the case was in the public interest. The MMO were required to report back to the judge by the 19th of January before a formal decision by the judge on February 7th. The judge said at the time: ‘It touches on the absurd that this litigation is happening at all’. He went on to make certain general observations concerning the positions of the parties.

His Honour Judge Edward Bindloss: Both the licensable activity that required a licence and the protest undertaken by the defendants were for the express purpose of seeking to protect the marine environment.

HHJ Edward Bindloss: The licensing regime could be better used as a source of protection against those who actively seek to harm the marine environment.

The judge concluded: The 2009 Act introduced a licensing regime to protect the marine environment and Greenpeace were also seeking to protect the marine environment. Should the MMO be prosecuting in the name of marine protection the defendants actions in trying to raise awareness of the Government’s perceived failures in relation to marine protection?

In response on January 19th the MMO: ‘accepts that its resources would be better directed to matters where the risk of harm to the environment may be higher.’

MMO: ‘Accordingly, and very exceptionally, the MMO has, in all the circumstances and taking particular note of the depth and the extent of the Learned Judge’s comments on the matter, decided that the appropriate course of action is to propose to offer no evidence to all charges on the indictments against both defendants’.

On February 7th the MMO offered no evidence against Greenpeace and its ED and not guilty verdicts were recorded.

CREDIT:
© Suzanne Plunkett / Greenpeace

John Sauven, the former Executive Director at Greenpeace UK said:

“The Marine Management Organisation’s role is to protect our marine ecosystems, a vitally important job in a climate and nature emergency. Our action was designed to safely protect nature from destructive fishing in an area designated as protected but where the MMO is miserably failing to do its job. For them to waste court time and public money prosecuting us for doing exactly that is, as the judge said, absurd.

“This is a clear signal for the Environment Minister to take the urgent action needed to actively protect our oceans from industrial fishing and stop licensing destructive ships and fishing methods in all of the UK’s Marine Protected Areas.”

Both MPAs exist specifically to protect seabed habitats but there were no restrictions on fishing activity in either MPA when Greenpeace constructed its boulder barriers. In 2019, bottom trawlers spent 60,000 hours ploughing protected areas of seabed. This figure rose to 68,000 hours in 2020. Offshore Brighton, one of these MPAs which exists to protect seabed habitats, was ploughed by bottom trawlers for 3,099 hours in 2019. In addition, Greenpeace, along with the Marine Conservation Society, revealed last year that 26.5 million tonnes of carbon is stored in the seabed of the UK’s offshore protected areas alone. Damage to the sea bed is a significant source of damage to the climate.

The MMO’s previous Director of Operations, Phil Haslam, who decided to prosecute Greenpeace, has since moved from the MMO to industrial fishing company North Atlantic Holdings, as their Managing Director.

Since Greenpeace’s intervention, the UK government is consulting on closing MPAs to bottom trawling. These include the Dogger Bank, where Greenpeace’s first boulder barrier was constructed. The outcome of these consultations, and whether these will be full closures of the entire MPAs to bottom trawling, has yet to be seen. Currently the government is 6 months behind schedule in announcing its decision on the Dogger Bank with no end date in sight, despite promises made to Greenpeace and local fishermen by George Eustace, the Secretary Of State at Defra, in a meeting last month.

Speaking about Greenpeace’s campaign last year, Jerry Percy, director of the New Under 10s Fishermen’s Association, said: 

“It’s really quite simple, the small scale coastal fleet that the government has sworn to protect is now forced to watch their present and future livelihoods being destroyed in front of their eyes, firstly by the huge fleet of powerful EU owned fly-shooters that inexplicably have had all catch limits removed for their target species, and secondly, by massive EU midwater trawlers reducing the resilience of stocks in the Channel to the impact of climate change whilst threatening dolphin and porpoise populations. Tragically, it appears to be only Greenpeace that has been willing to lend its political and practical weight in defence of our coastal fishermen and communities.”

Kirsty Brimelow QC of Doughty Street Chambers and Mike Schwarz of Hodge Jones and Allen represented Greenpeace and John Sauven.