Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Greenpeace eco-sabotage of North Sea fishing

Greenpeace dropped 3 ton granite slabs in the North Sea yesterday, in an effort to block fishing boats from dragging nets on the ocean bottom.

Greenpeace has crossed a line in my view, going too far in their zeal to protect ocean fish. Greenpeace should not have decided on their own to disturb ocean bottom habitats by dumping rocks, based on a misguided notion that the end (stopping fishing) justifies the means.

The Greenpeace action is reminiscent of the tree spiking wars from the Pacific northwest a few years back, when activists placed spikes in trees in an attempt to stop logging. Ultimately, almost everyone denounced tree spiking, even manhy early proponents of this so-called "natural defense" strategy for trees.

This is ecosabotage, a deliberate action aimed at weakening activities thought to be ecologically harmful, through subversion, obstruction, disruption, and/or destruction.

Why did Greenpeace dump granite blocks on the ocean? According to Greenpeace:
The Sylt Outer Reef is home to an abundance of sea life and is a popular fishing ground. Although the reef is designated as a ‘Special Area of Conservation’ by the EU, highly destructive fishing practices such as bottom trawling and sand and gravel extraction are permitted. This is decimating the marine life that inhabits the area, including well known fish species such as plaice and sole, and destroying the reef. By strategically placing granite rocks, Greenpeace intends to protect this ecologically diverse area from destructive practices including bottom trawling.
Is ecosabotage justifiable, or did Greenpeace forfeit any moral high ground that may have been held by conservationists?

One response is that German fishermen condemned Greenpeace, saying the rocks could damage fishing boats and even endanger human life. "We believe what they've done is illegal and risks the lives of fishermen," Peter Breckling, general secretary of the German Fishing Association, told Reuters. He denied German fishermen used nets in the area and insisted the reef was not in danger.

I don't like ecosabotage, it tends to polarize issues and turn off people who might otherwise support conservation. I doubt this action will be effective in stopping fishing, and if it does work it's equivalent to taking the law into one's own hands, which is a very slippery slope leading towards very bad things.

Did Greenpeace actually harm ocean ecosystems by placing non-natural materials in a Marine Protected Area, home to rich marine life? Greenpeace says no harm was done, but this action created outlaw artificial reefs with unknown impacts to natural ecosystems in the area.

Greenpeace denied suggestions it might be damaging marine life by dropping the rocks on the seabed. "We have a very clear knowledge of this and are placing the stones next to the old reef, effectively extending it. There is no damage," Greenpeace oceans campaigner Iris Menn told Reuters.

I've done a lot of ocean bottom research, and I don't believe that Greenpeace can be sure no harm was done. It's impossible to map the ocean bottom so precisely and dump huge blocks so carefully as to avoid all damage. Even if nothing was crushed, this action replaces natural habitas with artificial habitats. Greenpeace is doing disruptive habitat alteration with inadequate attention paid to likely biological impacts since there was no chance for the public to comment prior to the action. This is a surprising thing for a conservation group to do, since we often complain when such things are done by governments.

Ironically, if the boulders were placed on sand (a common habitat in the area), the ultimate result may be that the blocks end up buried or sunken into the sediment, and turn into an expensive nothingburger.

How about the claim by some that ecosabotage is terrorism? This is going too far, and is about as credible as the 2005 film Severed, in which tree spiking turns loggers and activists into scary zombies that go on a rampage and attack people.

I contacted some Greenpeace staff to get their comments on this action and my views, but I didn't get a response within a couple of hours. I've offered Greenpeace a chance to respond in a future post.

How about you readers? This is a subject that deserves a rousing discussion.


Anthony Judd said...

A couple of thoughts:
1- I assume that Greenpeace didn't have an environmental approval or conduct an environmental effects assessment before they undertook this action. Seems a little hypocritical to me.

2- Having done a lot of habitat mapping and remote underwater surveys I would be amazed if Greenpeace managed to successfully place those blocks where they wanted using nothing more sophisticated than a crane on a barge. I'd be very surprised if they hadn't dropped at least a couple of 3 tonne boulders onto the very reef that they are trying to protect. Do they have a plan in place to do follow up monitoring to examine whether the boulders damaged the reef or are changing the marine environment?

3- That said, this doesn't really make sense either:
German fishermen condemned Greenpeace, saying the rocks could damage fishing boats and even endanger human life. "We believe what they've done is illegal and risks the lives of fishermen," Peter Breckling, general secretary of the German Fishing Association, told Reuters. He denied German fishermen used nets in the area and insisted the reef was not in danger.
If they aren't using nets in the area, how could it possibly damage fishing boats or put lives at risk?

Anonymous said...

Somebody has to protect nature from the humanoid madness disease!
What the business world needs is a little more Greenpeace and a little less Greedsense.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes actions speak louder than endless words.

Too many ocean/marine ENGOs are overly concerned with pandering to fundraisers & politicians, forever placing priority on middle-ground compromises rather than getting results.

Sow what you reap...

Miriam Goldstein said...

Or Greenpeace is just farming invasive species. There's a really nasty invasive ascidian wreaking havoc on Georges Bank, and it would be very bad if all that uninhabited artificial substrate gave it a foot hold in the region.

Phil Kline said...

There is a critical need to implement a network of fully-protected marine reserves and sustainable fisheries management in order to help reverse the dramatic decline in the ecosystems of the North Sea. The Sylt Outer Reef provides a perfect example of how we are failing to give our oceans the protection they require. The area has been officially recognized as being an important site for a variety of marine life and warranting protection under European environmental law and yet destructive activities are still allowed in the area ensuring that the environmental and conservation objectives can never been achieved. Our action was intended to give real protection to the site that is currently a 'paper park.'

The principle of non-violence is core to Greenpeace’s ethos and is borne out by our long history of successful non-violent direct action to protect the environment. This principle of non-violence is shepherded within Greenpeace by sound science and judgment. The fisherman were alerted to our presence and it was determined that the boulders would not be unsafe to vessels operating in the area. The boulders, however, were big enough to serve as an effective obstacle to the beam trawlers that strip mine the ocean floor in the area. This action is on par with the placing of similar obstacles to protect vital seagrass meadows as practiced in the Mediterranean.

By protecting this area, we have the opportunity to protect an ecosystem at its heart and publicly defend the need for an integrated marine management system that will allow sustainable fishing so that generations to come can enjoy the bounty of the seas.

Sadly there appears to be a general denial by government and the fishing industry about the highly damaged state of the North Sea and our oceans globally despite the mass of scientific evidence. The fishing industry is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the marine environment and urgent action is required if we are to prevent further collapses in stocks of commercially valuable fish and major ecosystem shifts. Please join us in protecting this area:

Phil Kline, Senior Oceans Campaigner, Greenpeace and former commercial fisherman

FoulHooked said...

Damaging to the eco-system? Doubtful.

Unsafe to ships? Doubtful.

Effective deterrent? Maybe.

Attention-grabbing? Definately.

Therefore, successful.

I'm not a huge greenpeace fan, but I don't see what the big deal is...they dumped some rocks in the ocean. Granted, there could be unforseen results.

I agree with everything anthony said.

Kevin Zelnio said...

Just "dumped some rocks in the ocean"? LOL they destroyed some very diverse habitat! Sediment communities have very high diversity, but little abundance. Which is why whale-hugging environmentalists view them as essentially barren. But far from the fact! A biologist knows that the featureless bottom is home to a wealth of nematodes, kinorhynchs, burrowing clams and urchins, polychaetes, the list goes on.

Greenpeace is essentially saying that this highly diverse community of which little is known about, is not as important. I find this preposterous, short-sided and ignorant of basic principles of marine ecology.

Not only that, but Miriam's concern is a real problem. They just provided structure in the habitat. Depending on depth this is will quickly get overgrown and colonized with various algae and fast-growing invertebrates. Many of which are invasives. Thus they are greatly potentially threatening nearby ecosystems, including the one they intended to protect.

Anthony also has a good point about environmental impact assessments. This again highlights the short-sided, reactive nature of this organization.

Oh and Phil Kline is full of shit and absolutely skirted all of your criticisms Mark. Typical.

Mark Powell said...

Thanks all, this is a helluva good debate. Greenpeace has stirred the pot, no question about it.

Is it feel-good actions that actually do more harm than good? Or a courageous action of standing up for a cause, when others are too wimpy?

Knowledgeable opinion says damage, passionate activists say courageous.

Keep the comments coming...

Peter Etnoyer said...

Deep-Sea News writers are split on this issue. Snags may NOT be a bad thing if the action stops bottom trawling. These blocks are analogous to glacial erractics, a natural phenomenon that creates habitat and foils bottom trawlers. But, endangering life and limb is unacceptable. Could the snags really capsize a boat? I doubt it.

Let's face it guys, chances are good that these blocks create more habitat than they destroy. Large blocks penetrate the benthic boundary layer, and create stepping stones for naturally (and not so naturally) dispersing species.

Mark Powell said...

Aha, knowledgeable opinion is now split. Thanks Peter.

Analagous to glacial erratics, yes. But completely naked and subject to gleeful invasion is not analogous to glacial erratics. The dynamics are completely foreign, naked boulders are not natural.

Kevin Zelnio said...

Peter, thats the point. Creating habitat is the problem. And don't ignore or blow off the issue of disturbing sediment habitat. We blog about dumping a lot of DSN and it negatively affects sediment fauna. This is dumping. Greenpeace is too focused on a single issue to think about how its actions affect the ecology of the area.

I agree with you that it likely won't harm fisherman. But come on, this is stepping way over the line.

Did Greenpeace think about the fish and mobile invertebrates that feed on sediment fauna or fauna at the benthic boundary layer? If previous studies are to show anything they just depressed local diversity. And diversity is another factor in the resilience of communities to invasion or trophic collapse. Either Greenpeace failed to look at the issue broadly and in depth to understand what this action entails to the local ecology OR they do know and don't care which is equally irresponsible. What happened to the science in this mix? Or the policy for that matter?

Badger3k said...

Greenpeace is more concerned about publicity and feeling good. If it stops humans, it's good, no matter what may come of it, since whatever happens will be better than if humans interfered, even if humans interfere.

I used to like Greenpeace and supported them, but some of their actions are more in line with PETA then any rational measured response.

Terrorists? No. Publicity-Seeking Idiots? Yes.

Anonymous said...

I'm hardly convinced that it is a good idea; but the german fishing spokesweasel describing the blocks as a terrible and irresponsible danger(to the fishermen that definitely aren't fishing there) needs a hit with the cluebat.

Mark Powell said...

The fishermen are smartly trying to occupy the moral high ground so deftly vacated by Greenpeace. Right or not about the danger, they will succeed in taking that territory, thanks to Greenpeace's lack of foresight.

Let's can we make fishermen more sympathetic to a general audience? How can we do something that will piss off the people whose support we need to pass laws against bottom trawling? I know, let's do ocean dumping and say it's OK because Greenpeace is a conservation group.

Cees said...

I wonder what geologists will name these huge blocks when they find them on their seismic profiles a few million years from now. I would propose GRD, Greenpeace Rafted Debris.
That said, credit to Greenpeace for fuelling a debate and pointing out most protected reef area’s are just protected in paper and not in real-life. But they could have achieved this by -proposing- to protect reefs by placing blocks around them. This would lead to a discussion about whether this would be the right thing to do.
Instead, they simply do it and have no discussion, claiming it’s OK since they’re Greenpeace.

AndrewD said...

I'm not a scientist. That said, this seems pretty clear cut.

Here's some video of bottom trawling:

I'm guessing most people commenting have already seen this, but some people might be unfamiliar with the practice.

If the stone blocks discourage this kind of wanton destruction, then great. Net benefit by far. (Pun unintended.)

Also, I don't buy the fishing industry's response. They say (above) that the stone blocks somehow endanger fishermen AND that they don't use nets in the area.

Even if they do trawl there, I don't see how the stone blocks are in any way dangerous. Are they saying that their bottom trawling nets never get snagged on anything?

Alex said...

Andrew, thanks for that video. I hadn't seen it. It's horrifying.

I'm really torn on this one, but I think I'm (sortof surprisingly) tending to Greenpeace's side. I understand that they don't really know what the effects may be, and the point that invasive species may use the blocks to gain a toehold is very smart. But we know for sure that bottom trawling is a catastrophe, right?

Greenpeace could have done this smarter, but it does seem like they've replaced a certain evil with a maybe evil, which...well, that might be a little bit better.

Mike Haubrich, FCD said...

Sea-trawling, yes, is an indiscriminate way to fish; but I don't think that just jumping in with a sudden solution is the proper way to handle it. I have a hard time trusting Greenpeace as an ogranization considering the way they handle GMO's (as in "I hate Monsanto, so al GMO is bad,") to weigh the options thoroughly before doing something like this.

andrewd, you totally ignored what Kevin and Miriam pointed out. There are negative effects to dropping these blocks and the unintended negative consequences could far outweigh the temporary dispruption to bottom trawling.

John Hocevar, Greenpeace said...

While a couple people just seem to be happy to have found what they think is a convenient tool to bash Greenpeace with, there are some interesting threads in this discussion. To add a little more perspective, this is an area that has been prioritized for protection but policy makers have not followed through despite considerable effort. Bottom trawling and gravel mining are occurring here, on a very large scale.

Here's an excerpt from Callum Roberts' blog on this subject:

The German government has not protected the Sylt Outer Reef SAC from bottom trawling. Greenpeace’s boulders are intended to help achieve what they have not. In the Mediterranean, many seagrass meadows have been damaged or destroyed by bottom trawlers. France and Spain have both seeded important areas of seagrass with anti-trawling reefs that snag and tear trawl nets, keeping fishers out. Hopefully, the Sylt Outer Reef will at last get the protection it deserves.

To read more:

Anonymous said...

It would have been preferable for Greenpeace to research effectve anti trawling devices such as those found at These are usually laid after a side scanning sonar map of target area and diver controlled deployment.

Anonymous said...

Can I just point something out for all the people here who know nothing about fishing. There are several types of bottom trawling. Beam trawling which involves dragging a net held open by a heavy metal bar across the sea bed is extremely destructive and should be banned immediately. Other types of bottom trawling drag a net with a footrope (the bit in contact with the seabed) which has hundreds of rubber rings threaded along it helping it to bounce over obstacles on the seabed, not obstacles the size of these rocks though. This is much less destructive but if Greenpeace want to reduce their use they should campaign for effort based management and a ban on discards which would enable fishermen to fish half as much, kill half as many fish and earn the same money. This kind of activity only hurts fishermen, and what are they supposed to do? They have been led on by politicians for years with big subsidies, big quotas, big grants to build big boats and now they are left with big boats, big debts and families to feed and the government has done nothing to invest in alternative employment opportunities in the coastal areas in which they live.

This is a disgusting act of violence by Greenpeace which like many of their other actions hurts ordinary people and serves only to fill their bulging pockets with money donated by people who have no understanding of the complexity of the situation Greenpeace like to portray as a black and white battle between good and evil...sorry for the rant

Leon (

gamefan12 said...

I think greenpeace is doing a good job doing this. We have to save the ocean from these boats. They are taking too much fish.
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