Last reviewed 20 May 2022

On 7 February 2020, the Marine Management Organisation withdrew its prosecution of Greenpeace for depositing granite boulders on the sea floor.

The Facts

The Marine Management Organisation (MMO), which acts for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, brought a prosecution under section 85 of the Marine Coastal Access Act 2009 against Greenpeace and John Sauven, its CEO (the defendants). The defendants argued that the MMO did not have jurisdiction to bring the prosecution because the allegation happened beyond territorial waters.

In February 2020, 20 granite boulders were deposited on the seabed at Offshore Brighton from a Greenpeace vessel flagged to the Netherlands. The Offshore Brighton area, 28 miles off the coast, was designated as a marine conservation area in 2016. Its sand and gravel contains a diverse range of species. The action by Greenpeace was intended as a protest against the British Government’s lack of action in preventing certain types of fishing methods which damage the marine environment. The placing of the boulders was designed to deter the undesirable fishing methods. The Government was warned in advance of the proposed action.

The prosecution was based on sections 65, 66 and 85 of the Marine Coastal Access Act 2009. Section 65 states that no person may carry on a licensable activity except in accordance with a marine licence granted by the appropriate licensing authority. The MMO argued that the depositing of boulders was a licensable activity and no licence had been issued.

On behalf of Greenpeace, it was argued that there was no basis in international law for the UK to impose or enforce a licensing requirement. The boulders were not being deposited or dumped. They were natural granite and were neither harmful nor polluting to the natural environment. The vessel was flagged to the Netherlands and therefore that state retained jurisdiction to enforce its legal regime.

Decision

At Newcastle Crown Court, on 12 January 2022, His Honour Judge Bindloss made the following points.

  • There was jurisdiction in the courts of England and Wales to bring enforcement proceedings against the defendants.

  • Both the MMO and Greenpeace were committed to improving the marine environment. Greenpeace argued that its protest was in the public interest, and the MMO argued that it was in the public interest to prosecute them. The parties in the case should be allies and not antagonists. They should be acting in harmony given that their stated purpose and objectives are the same. It touched on the absurd that the litigation was happening at all.

  • The MMO should reconsider whether or not it is in the public interest to continue with the prosecution.

On 7 February 2020, the MMO withdrew the prosecution. It stated that, very exceptionally, in all the circumstances and taking particular note of the depth and extent of the judge’s comments, it had decided to propose no evidence to all charges in the prosecution.

Comment

Greenpeace has commented as follows.

  • The aim of depositing the boulders was to close parts of the area to destructive bottom trawling. This destroys marine habitats and endangers the long-term health of fish populations. It also endangers local fishing communities whose sustainable fishing methods cannot compete with such heavy extraction.

  • The role of the MMO is to protect marine ecosystems. The action by Greenpeace was designed to protect nature from destructive fishing in an area designated as protected but where the MMO was failing miserably to do the job. For them to waste court time and public money prosecuting was absurd.

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

A spokesperson for the New Under 10s Fishermen’s Association is reported to have made the following comments.

  • The small-scale coastal fleet which the Government has sworn to protect was now forced to watch their present and future livelihoods being destroyed by massive EU midwater trawlers, which reduced the resilience of stocks to the impact of climate change, while threatening dolphin and porpoise populations. It appeared to be only Greenpeace which had been willing to lend its political and practical weight in defence of coastal fishermen and communities.

A spokesperson for the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (NFFO) commented as follows.

  • The MMO’s decision to suspend its prosecution of Greenpeace was a desperate betrayal of the fishing industry. It represented a massive breach of trust and confidence which would take a lot to repair.

  • The decision would have consequences which would undermine the authority of the MMO. It would confirm the fishing industry’s view that the rule of law was applied unevenly.

  • It fitted the current theme in high politics that there were rules for some which didn’t have to be followed if you had friends in high places.

  • Instead of sending a signal that we are all equal under the law, it would send a green light for further vigilante actions.

  • Rebuilding trust between the regulator and those whose activities it sought to regulate should have been an absolute priority. For those of us who have worked for a collaborative relationship between fisheries regulators, fisheries scientists and regulators, this is a massive reverse.