Taken to court for protecting the seabed – by those meant to protect our seas

At Greenpeace, we’re used to being challenged in court. But being taken to task by an agency meant to protect the seas, for doing exactly that? That’s a new one!


In the North Sea in 2020 and in the English Channel in 2021, our oceans team dropped inert granite boulders from the Greenpeace ship Esperanza into offshore UK marine protected areas to stop destructive fishing vessels called bottom trawlers from damaging them.

Bottom trawling effectively ploughs the sea bed destroying everything in its wake. You wouldn’t generally expect the government to allow ‘protected’ ecosystems to be ploughed. A chunk of carefully placed granite, with its location publicised on admiralty charts, can make the seabed a lot less attractive to plough.

Giving the government a hand

We use a broad range of tactics at Greenpeace but carefully planned, peaceful direct action that actually stops environmental abuse from occurring is often the most effective work we do. This particular action happened because the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) – the government body set up to “protect and enhance our precious marine environment” – didn’t seem capable of protecting the protected areas.

This is both vitally important and urgent, and we thought perhaps they’d like a hand. As it turned out they took umbrage. Instead of thanking us they took Greenpeace, and me, to court, in a private prosecution for unlicensed dumping at sea.

We’re not entirely inexperienced when it comes to defending our direct actions in court, but this case had the novelty of being brought not by the people whose destructive fishing we stopped, but by the people who are supposed to stop destructive fishing.

I’ll spare you the details of the legal process – they’re fascinating to me, but trials, like poker games, can be a lot less interesting when it isn’t your shirt at stake. The bit I’m hoping might interest you is a statement from the judge, delivered in a hearing held in January 2022 in response to a motion by Greenpeace’s lawyers to have the case dismissed.

On the technical points of law raised, the judge ruled in favour of the MMO – they had jurisdiction, the prosecution could proceed to a criminal trial by jury if they so wished. But the judge also asked the MMO to review whether their decision to do so was in the public interest, and that’s where things started to look up for us.

In response to the judge’s comments, the MMO submitted a review of their position, stating that:

“Accordingly, and very exceptionally, the MMO has… decided that the appropriate course of action is to propose to offer no evidence to all charges on the indictments against both defendants.”

The judge formally accepted the MMO’s decision not to continue with the prosecution. Neither John Sauven (that’s me) nor Greenpeace UK would have to pay fines or costs to the MMO. And those costs might be quite significant.

Using the law to protect the oceans

We don’t always agree with judges but I must say I rather liked this one, and not only for reasons related to my personal financial circumstances. He made a very important point in his statement. Which I’d like to draw attention to:

“The licensing regime could be better used as a source of protection against those who actively seek to harm the marine environment.”
Judge Edward Bindloss Tweet this

This resonates far beyond the now-abandoned court case. The UK’s small scale fishers, coastal communities and the marine wildlife that surrounds our coasts are under severe threat from industrial fishing. Indiscriminate fishing methods like bottom trawling and fly-shooting are emptying our seas of both fish and anything that was unfortunate enough to be hanging around in their vicinity.

The UK government says it wants to address this problem but is acting as if we have all the time in the world to protect what little remains of our biodiversity.

The solution is simple. Each bottom trawler already needs a licence to fish in UK waters, issued by the MMO according to instructions from the government. Those licences can exclude specific fishing methods from specific areas, or even exclude boats entirely. No EU involvement is required, and no new laws.

The MMO and the government already have all the tools they need to defend marine protected areas. It’s time they took notice.

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