Meet the weird and wonderful creatures of Dogger Bank

From puffins and seals to the bizarre ‘fried-egg’ nudibranch, this shallow patch of ocean is packed with amazing animals. And with new proposals to ban destructive fishing in the area, there’s new hope for the sea life of Dogger Bank.

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What is Dogger Bank?

Located about 100 km off the east coast of England, Dogger Bank is a large shallow area in the North Sea. It was once part of a landmass known as Doggerland, connecting Europe and the British Isles during the last ice age. Scientists think stone age humans would have once hunted wooly mammoths in this area.

A sun-dappled basking shark swims towards the camera with its huge mouth open.

The basking shark is the second largest fish in the world, reaching 6-8 metres in length, with a mouth that can be over a metre wide. Despite its fearsome appearance, the basking shark only eats the tiniest ocean creatures. Swimming with its mouth open, it uses special ‘gillrakers’ to strain microscopic zooplankton from the seawater. © Greg Skomal / NOAA Fisheries Service

Today, the long-submerged Dogger Bank is home to some very different residents. Unusually, Dogger Bank’s waters are rich in tiny floating plants called phytoplankton all year round, providing a perfect feeding ground for a variety of birds and sea creatures.

A puffin glides above the surface of the ocean, with several small fish in its colourful beak

Nicknamed 'sea parrots' the puffin is a carnivore that lives on small fish such as sand eels and herring. Despite always looking slightly disappointed with themselves, puffins are world-class athletes. A puffin can flap its wings up to 400 times a minute and speed through the air at 88km/h. They are are also excellent swimmers and can dive up to 60m in search of their favourite fish. Puffins lay just one egg per year usually with the same mate. Some puffin couples have been together for 20 years! © Duncan Nelson/ Pixabay

Dogger Bank is being trashed by industrial fishing

But the same things that make Dogger Bank a wildlife hotspot also make it a target for the fishing industry. Dogger Bank has long been known as a fishing area, but the rise of huge industrial fishing ships that can pull up hundreds of tonnes of fish a day has caused huge damage to the ecosystem.

A short-snouted seahorse with its tail wrapped around a rubbery frond of yellow-green seaweed.

The Short-snouted Seahorse is typically found on the bottoms of rocks, in seaweed or in the edge of seagrass beds in shallow muddy water. It can only be found in waters that are up to 77 metres deep. Hans Hillewaert (CC BY-SA 4.0)

It’s protected in theory, but not in practice

Dogger Bank is officially designated as a ‘Marine Protected Area’, but sadly that doesn’t mean much in practice. Industrial fishing is perfectly legal inside the so-called protected area, and the government’s own reports don’t have any information on whether it’s achieving its conservation goals.

Guillemots swim through a dark-green underwater world, lit by shafts of sunlight from the surface

Like the puffin, the guillemot is a master diver, reaching up to 100 metres underwater to catch fish. Each of its eggs is unique, helping the parents to recognize them. © Will Rose / Greenpeace

Ocean campaigners call supposedly protected areas like this ‘paper parks’, because their protection only exists on paper. 

Right now, most of the UK’s offshore Marine Protected Areas are ‘paper parks’. But that might be about to change.

This sea slug's flat white body is rimmed in yellow, with short red spikes and spiralling smell receptors that look like unicorn horns.

The fried egg sea slug, more properly known as diaphorodoris luteocincta is a tiny nudibranch (it grows up to 11mm long) that loves the silty rock and shallow waters of Dogger Bank. Its colouring is unique among the sea slugs found around the British Isles. The scent receptors on its unicorn-like tentacles allow it to smell food. Bernard Picton (CC BY-SA 4.0)

After decades of campaigning, there’s new hope for Dogger Bank

Greenpeace and other organisations have been working to protect Dogger Bank for decades, but recently we’ve stepped things up. In 2020, Greenpeace activists placed dozens of large boulders on the sea floor around part of Dogger Bank, creating a 47 square mile ‘boulder barrier’ where industrial fishing ships can’t drag their nets along the seabed – a technique known as bottom trawling.

A thornback ray shot from below, showing its pale, translucent underside and strangely human-like eyes and mouth.

The thornback ray likes to bury itself in Dogger Bank’s seabed sediment during the day and comes out at dusk to hunt. The powerful jaws allow him to crush the shell of crustaceans with ease. Despite its ghostly appearance, the thornback is a serious beast. It can weigh up to 18 kg and live for 15 years.

At the same time, over 350,000 people joined the campaign for better ocean protection, putting pressure on MPs and ministers to stop destructive fishing in places like Dogger Bank.

A few months later, the government proposed a total ban on bottom trawling in the Dogger Bank Marine Protected Area, plus new restrictions in three similar areas around the country. If they follow through on this proposal it’d be great news for Dogger Bank, but will still leave 94% of the UK’s so-called protected areas offshore as a destructive fishing free-for-all.

A grey seal's head emerges from a breaking wave

The grey seal, the biggest land breeding mammal in the UK, hunts alone and can hold its breath underwater for up to 16 minutes. It has highly sensitive ears and recognizes its pup by its call and scent. © Robert Marc Lehmann / Greenpeace

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