Greenpeace has built a new underwater ‘boulder barrier’ about 30 miles off the coast of Sussex.
This barrier will stop destructive fishing in what’s supposed to be a protected part of the ocean. But we’re also here to expose the government’s failure to look after its so-called Marine Protected Areas all around the UK.
Working from the Greenpeace ship Esperanza, activists placed granite boulders across 55 square miles of seabed in the Offshore Brighton Marine Protected Area. Work started in secret earlier this week, and the barrier was completed on Thursday.
These boulders will deter destructive industrial ‘bottom trawlers’ from fishing in that area, because they risk damaging their fishing gear if it comes into contact with the boulders.
We immediately notified the relevant marine authorities (Marine and Coastguard Agency) as to the precise location of the boulders bordering the protected area. This will ensure their positions are accurately recorded on marine charts so other ships can safely navigate the area.
Why is this area important?
The new boulder barrier is in the Offshore Brighton Marine Protected Area (MPA). It’s about 45 kilometres off the coast of Sussex, right on the border between UK and French waters.
The protected area was set up by the government in 2016, supposedly to safeguard 862 square kilometres of seabed habitat. Hermit crabs, scallops, starfish, sponges, sea worms and anemones live on the seabed there, and the area is a vital feeding ground for predators like porpoises and dolphins.
Lots of other creatures frequent this part of the English Channel too, including, seals, cod, pollock, haddock, dogfish and all kinds of seabirds. There’s even an occasional whale sighting, although these are rare.
The government has failed to protect this place
Other than our new boulder barrier, there are no restrictions on industrial fishing in Offshore Brighton. If you think that makes no sense in an area which is supposed to be protected, you’re right. But sadly, this is the case for many of the UK’s so-called Marine Protected Areas.
This lack of real protection means all sorts of destructive industrial fishing boats can operate in Offshore Brighton. In 2019, bottom trawlers spent 3099 hours fishing in Offshore Brighton, making it one of the UK’s most heavily bottom trawled protected areas.
Bottom trawling involves dragging heavy fishing gear along the seabed. Enormous fishing nets and the beams used to hold them in place disturb the seabed and indiscriminately catch any marine life that is unfortunate enough to be in their way.
Scallop dredging – which takes place in the Offshore Brighton MPA where Greenpeace is taking action – is a particularly destructive form of bottom trawling. It involves dragging heavy metal dredges along the seafloor, ripping up the seabed and the scallops along with it. Unbelievably, this is all perfectly legal under the government’s rules, and it’s the same story in most other Marine Protected areas in the UK.
Letting a bottom trawler fish in an area set up to protect the seabed is like letting a bulldozer plough through a protected forest. It must stop.
What do we mean by ‘industrial fishing’?
Greenpeace isn’t opposed to all fishing. We campaign against industrial fishing, but we actually support sustainable small-scale fishing. So what’s the difference?
Industrial fishing and small-scale fishing are completely different. Industrial fishing involves fishing with enormous ships, such as supertrawlers and large bottom trawlers.
Industrial fishing ships aim to get as many of the same few species as fish as possible out of the ocean in one go. This drastically reduces fish stocks – and leaves utter devastation in its wake. Industrial trawlers can catch hundreds of tonnes of fish every day.
Small scale fishing can be more sustainable when it uses low-impact fishing practices, which don’t indiscriminately harm ocean life. Local fishers can catch smaller numbers of a wider variety of species, allowing fish stocks to remain healthy. This boosts local fishing communities’ economies.
But sustainable fishing is difficult when industrial fishing ships remove most of the fish, or completely destroy their habitats by dredging.
Adrian Noble 53, a lobster fisherman based in Whitby says: ‘Over the last 10 years scallop bottom trawling boats have been decimating the crab and lobster grounds off Whitby and taking our crab pots with no regards for our living.’ @DefraGovUK – ban destructive fishing in MPAs! pic.twitter.com/WxCCjR6twT
Most of UK’s other ‘protected areas’ of ocean aren’t really protected either
MPAs were established to protect important habitats like reefs and sandbanks, and the species that live in them. But the reality is very different. Destructive fishing practices such as bottom trawling are still allowed in these so-called protected areas.
There are 76 Offshore Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are in place all around the UK. An offshore MPA is one that’s more than 12 miles from land.
The government has said they’ll ban bottom trawling in two MPAs – the Dogger Bank and South Dorset. This came about following our first boulder barrier, placed in the North Sea in September last year.
But promising to protect just two of the country’s 76 MPAs is a massive cop-out.
What should the government do?
The government has repeatedly said that Brexit would give us a better chance to create world-leading marine protection standards – such as banning destructive fishing from these zones. Now that the UK has left the EU, this would be very simple – as the government doesn’t need all EU member countries to agree to the proposals, But they haven’t done nearly enough.
Bottom trawlers (and supertrawlers) should be immediately banned from all MPAs, using the powers the government now has after Brexit to restrict fishing licences.
Building a Boulder Barrier
To stop destructive bottom trawlers from operating in the Offshore Brighton Marine Protected Area we needed to create a physical barrier, for this we turned to natural materials in the form of granite boulders. We chose granite because it’s an inert material and won’t react with the water at the seabed.
We commissioned an independent scientific agency, BioLaGu, to assess the potential impact of the activity on the Offshore Brighton MPA. This concluded that placing the boulders wouldn’t have a significant impact on the protected features of the MPA, i.e. the seabed.
These boulders are the same kind of granite that was deposited across the North Sea during the last ice age, although these ones come from the other side of the sea in Northern Germany where they were sourced from a quarry.
Each boulder weighs two to three tonnes, and they were loaded onto the Greenpeace ship Esperanza in Germany before it set off on its voyage to UK waters.
The boulders have been painted using non-toxic paint with the names of Greenpeace supporters, including donors and even some high profile supporters such as Thandie Newton, Paloma Faith and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
The crew of the Esperanza then placed each boulder as part of a pattern designed to maximise the area that’s off limits for bottom trawlers, protecting the seabed so it can recover and thrive.
A word on safety
Immediately upon placing each boulder, we notified the relevant maritime authorities of their location, so all mariners operating in the area at that time and in the future are aware of their location, so they will pose no danger to marine traffic.
Maritime maps are regularly updated, in the same way that road maps update to show road closures and diversions, and they are frequently consulted by mariners. Fishers commonly use charts and maps to avoid submerged objects like shipwrecks and pipelines when fishing, so they will not have any difficulty avoiding the area of the Offshore Brighton MPA where our boulders have been placed.
These boulders pose no threat to passing marine traffic because they are on the seabed, they will only impact bottom trawlers using their fishing gear who disregard maritime maps and safety warnings.
Greenpeace has done this before – and it works
This isn’t Greenpeace’s first boulder barrier – and we know they can make a big difference. Greenpeace Germany has been doing this since 2008, and the areas they protected have seen significant benefits.
A boulder is loaded onto the Greenpeace ship, the Esperanza at the docks in Hamburg, Germany. The boulders were placed into the North Sea as part of a new bottom trawler exclusion zone in the Dogger Bank Marine Protected Area. Suzanne Plunkett
A few months later, the government proposed a full ban on bottom trawling in the Dogger Bank and South Dorset MPA’s, and partial bans in two others. That’s a good step forward, but it still leaves 97% of the UK’s supposedly protected waters at least partially open to destructive fishing.
Can you help?
To help ensure we can continue to investigate, expose and take action against the plunder of the UK’s most valuable marine ecosystems you can make a donation today.
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