GREENPEACE activists have set up a blockade in the North Sea to stop harmful fishing techniques.

Activists on the Greenpeace ship Esperanza have begun the closure of almost 50 square miles of the Dogger Bank protected area in the North Sea to what it called "destructive bottom trawling".

The activists have placed a first set of inert granite boulders at precise intervals inside the protected area to ensure that bottom trawlers can no longer operate in the new bottom trawler exclusion zone. Another set of boulders will be placed in the coming days.

And the pressure group says it will remove the boulders only if the UK Government properly protects the Dogger Bank protected area.

Greenpeace activists have informed the relevant marine authorities to ensure navigational safety for mariners in the area.

Greenpeace says its investigation found that industrial bottom trawlers are "systematically breaking the law" while fishing in the Dogger Bank.

Some 11 out of 19 bottom trawlers observed fishing in the Dogger Bank in June 2020 were 'AIS dark' [untracked]  which Greenpeace says is a "serious breach of UK and international maritime law".

"These bottom trawlers are directly destroying the Dogger Bank’s protected feature, the seabed, which is in 'unfavourable' condition," Greenpeace said.

The environmental pressure group has challenged the Government to use Brexit to take the steps necessary to protect the waters around the UK once the nation is no longer restricted by the European Union's Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).

HeraldScotland:

The Dogger Bank’s seabed is one of the North Sea’s most important habitats. It is home to sandeels, crabs, flatfish and more. These species are a vital food source for porpoises and seabirds like puffins.

Greenpeace say there are no permanent restrictions on fishing activity in the Dogger Bank protected area, making it protected in name only.

It says bottom trawling activity has increased in the Dogger Bank in recent years.

And the activists say they will continue to place boulders in the new bottom trawler exclusion zone until it is "fully protected" from all bottom trawling.

Chris Thorne, a Greenpeace UK oceans campaigner, said from on board the Esperanza: “Our Government has utterly failed to protect the Dogger Bank, and all our marine protected areas, from destructive industrial fishing. How can you continue to allow bottom trawlers to plough the seabed in a protected area designed specifically to protect the seabed?

"It beggars belief that this Government continues to call itself a ‘global ocean champion’ when it leaves its own seas at the mercy of destructive industrial fishing.

“Allowing bottom trawling in a protected area established to protect the seabed is equivalent to allowing bulldozers to plough through a protected forest. This must stop. Our Government won’t act, and we can’t sit idly by while they allow supposedly protected parts of our oceans to be destroyed.

HeraldScotland:

“We have carefully and precisely placed these inert natural boulders in this new properly protected area, which when complete will be permanently off limits to all bottom trawling. We will remove them only when our Government takes the necessary action to properly protect the Dogger Bank.”

Greenpeace commissioned an independent scientific agency, BioLaGu, to conduct a Natura 2000 Environmental Impact Assessment on the potential impact of the blockade. The group said the assessment concluded the activity would not have a significant impact on the protected feature of the Dogger Bank.

"Despite the Dogger Bank being formally designated as a Special Area of Conservation in 2017, the UK Government has failed to implement effective management measures to properly protect the area. There is a brief temporary closure of the scallop fishery to allow scallops to spawn, but this will be lifted after scallops finish spawning in early October. This is not intended to protect the seabed," Greenpeace said.

WWF, Client Earth and other NGOs lodged an official legal complaint against the UK, Dutch and German Governments in 2019 over their failure to properly protect the Dogger Bank from bottom trawling.

Greenpeace has been campaigning for the UK Government to ban destructive industrial fishing vessels, like supertrawlers and bottom trawlers, from operating in UK protected areas.

"This ban will be easier to enact after Britain leaves the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy," Greenpeace said.

HeraldScotland:

A Defra spokesperson said: "We are putting sustainable fishing and protection of our seas at the heart of our future fishing strategy. We have already set up a ‘Blue Belt’ of protected waters nearly twice the size of England and the Fisheries Bill proposes new powers to better manage and control our Marine Protected Areas and English waters.

"The Common Fisheries Policy currently restricts our ability to implement tougher protections, but leaving the EU and taking back control of our waters as an independent coastal state means we can introduce stronger measures."

Barrie Deas, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations (NFFO), told Express.co.uk: "First and foremost we fear for the crews of our vessels should their gear become entangled in what Greenpeace are describing as 'massive granite boulders'.

"Secondly, AIS is not a fisheries enforcement tool - that is provided by the VMS (vessel monitoring system) - a satellite system that is mandatory for fishing vessels over 12 metres. So vessel monitoring for enforcement purposes is not an issue.

"Thirdly, bottom trawling is not illegal on the Dogger Bank.

"We do not condone vessels switching off their AIS, even if it is to keep positions secret from competitors."