Greenpeace has been cleared of environmental harm after dropping boulders on the seabed in a celebrity-backed operation to protect sea life, a judge saying prosecution was not in the offing public interest.
The Marine Management Organization (MMO) has taken legal action against the campaign group – and its chief executive John Sauven – after it implemented anti-trawling measures in the English Channel.
Brighton’s offshore area, 28 miles off the coast, has been designated a Marine Conservation Area, with its coarse sands and gravel supporting a wide variety of species.
Greenpeace dropped 20 granite boulders in the area, despite warnings from the MMO that it was not allowed to do so, in February 2021 because it believed the area needed protection from trawlers.
Celebrities such as Thandie Newton, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Paloma Faith, Bella Ramsey, Mark Rylance, Jarvis Cocker and Ranulph Fiennes supported the campaign and had their names on rocks.
The MMO announced it was taking legal action against Greenpeace and began proceedings at Newcastle Crown Court – near its headquarters in the city – with a five-day jury trial scheduled for June.
But at a hearing last month, Judge Edward Bindloss urged the MMO to reconsider, saying the prosecution was not in the public interest.
He said: “One of the ironies of this litigation is that the MMO and Greenpeace are committed to improving the marine environment.”
He added: “The parties in this case should be allies, not antagonists. They should act in harmony given that their stated purpose and objectives are the same.
“Greenpeace should be a supporter of licensing and the MMO should support the prevention of any harmful deep sea fishing methods on significant sea beds.
“It borders on the absurd that this litigation is happening at all.”
Judge Bindloss said the decision not to prosecute Greenpeace was not “MMO favoritism towards a well-known organization” and that the decision would not set a precedent.
He said the rocks were not harmful to the marine environment and that Greenpeace’s actions were not dangerous.
The judge said Greenpeace gave advance warnings of the operation and marked the coordinates of each rock, which had holes in it so they could be pulled from the seabed later.
The MMO considered its position and presented no evidence after Greenpeace and Mr Sauven pleaded not guilty to undertaking unlicensed maritime activities.
Kirsty Brimelow QC, for Greenpeace, told a hearing at Newcastle Crown Court on Monday: “On behalf of Greenpeace there is an acknowledgment that common sense has prevailed by the MMO and a welcome of that common sense so that all can work to protect the marine environment”.
Outside court, Mr Sauven, who has now resigned as executive director of Greenpeace UK, said: ‘Our action has been designed to safely protect nature from destructive fishing in an area designated as protected but where the MMO fails miserably to do its job.
“For them to waste court time and public money suing us for doing exactly that is, as the judge said, absurd.
“This is a clear signal for the Minister for the Environment to take the urgent action needed to actively protect our oceans from industrial fishing and stop allowing destructive vessels and fishing methods into all marine protected areas in the Kingdom. -United.”
Each party will pay its own costs.