The Dogger Bank was once Doggerland — a land-bridge between modern day U.K. and the European continent, where our forefathers lived among mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses and herds of steppe wisents and reindeer. It was the cradle of our ancestors’ civilization and their last stronghold when the vast Doggerland flooded some 8000 years ago — submerged by rising sea-levels. A tsunami off the coast of Norway and a breakthrough of an ice lake in present day Canada was the final push to its submergence, the last part to go underwater was the area now known as the Dogger Bank.
Today, the Dogger Bank is a battleground between marine conservationists, the government and the fishing and offshore wind and oil industries. It’s also become the test-case for marine protected areas in Europe. Which is where we — being Emilie Reuchlin (Marine Biologist) and Thomas Rammelt (Environmental Lawyer) — come in. We’ve worked to protect the North Sea and its ecological heart, the Dogger Bank, over the last 15 years. In 2022 we founded the newly minted NGO, Doggerland Foundation. It’s our mission to restore the North Sea by taking legal action to ensure compliance with the agreements made by the governments supposed to protect the Dogger Bank.
To understand the Dogger Bank’s importance to the North Sea ecosystem, we must first understand the story of how Doggerland turned into the North Sea, and how our dependence on it throughout time, shows us that the human species is vulnerable and dependent on nature. The Dogger Bank has been fished for centuries. It’s named after the ‘doggers’ — medieval fishing boats that were commonly used to fish for cod with rod and line. The area once supported a great abundance and diversity of fish and predatory species of dolphin, sharks and seals. The early fishermen were even afraid of catching too many fish and oversupplying the market.
In the 19th century, however, trawling — a destructive, overfishing practice that drags and destroys the ocean floor — was introduced and increased all aspects of fishing. In the mid-19th century, fisherman spoke of an invertebrate crust that once covered the seabed being scraped away by the first trawlers and dredgers. These early trawlers purged the sea floor, catching thousands of kilos of fish with one boat and little effort within a few hours. Meanwhile, the environmental impacts of fishing intensified.
From 1840 to 1870, fishermen considered overfishing the major reason for the decrease in abundance yet overfishing escalated with the introduction steam trawling in the 1880s. By then many fishermen considered the Dogger Bank exhausted of fish. In 1900, a bill to restrict fishing failed to materialize and by the 20th century steam trawlers began adding chains and ropes to their fishing gear to stir up fish in front of the trawl. They installed diesel engines that increased power to tow nets and chains through the seabed, killing all marine life in its course and denuding the area from its complex habitats and seabed structures.
The North Sea lies between Great Britain, Denmark, Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and France. It’s the busiest sea in the world and has provided wealth to North Sea societies for centuries, leaving its ecosystem heavily degraded by fisheries, oil and gas exploration, shipping, dredging, and shell and sand extraction. More recently, the development of massive windfarms in the North Sea in general and specifically within the Dogger Bank MPA has put the ecosystem at further risk. As a result, marine life is left without space to live and thrive — leaving the source of our life: biodiversity, oxygen production, food, medicine, heat and CO2 storage, and the resilience of its ecosystem all under great pressure.
The Dogger Bank, despite its severely degraded state, is often referred to as the ecological heart of the North Sea. It still supports endangered, threatened and protected species. It is a spawning ground for sharks, rays, cod, mackerel, herring, whiting, common sole and sprat. The Dogger Bank functions as a nursery and feeding ground for harbour porpoises, minke whales, grey seals, gannets, puffins and other seabirds that come to feed on sandeel and other fish. But the large, long-lived shellfish such as flat oyster, ocean quahog and horse mussels have almost completely disappeared.
Because of its properties as a relatively shallow, submerged sandbank with unique seabed structures, and a potential year-round source of food for fish, birds and marine mammals, it has great restoration potential. It is the center of a network of marine protected areas that is required to protect and restore the North Sea.
Sadly, in view of the UK, Netherlands, Germany and Denmark governments, the Dogger Bank has not been exhausted enough. Oil and gas exploration started in the 1960s and has been a fixed feature for decades, leading to habitat loss, noise pollution, direct and indirect mortality of marine life, and is still causing pollution on the Dogger Bank with chemicals, heavy metals and toxic sludge. North Sea governments state that untapped gas reserves beneath the Dogger Bank await development and are pumping millions in tax money into ensuring these reserves are tapped into. Companies that have been operating in the Dogger Bank include Texaco, Shell, Conoco, BP, Petrogas, Wintershall, encouraged and funded by the same governments that committed to protect the Dogger Bank, and have failed to do so effectively to date.
Nature conservation organisations have put the need for protection of the Dogger Bank on the agenda since the 1990s. Around 2005, the UK, the Netherlands and Germany, recognizing the importance of the Dogger Bank, agreed that the area is in poor biodiversity condition and that it must be protected and restored. Since 2007, the British, Dutch and German governments each designated their parts of the Dogger Bank (a total of 18.765 km2 and almost 75% of the entire Dogger Bank) as a Natura 2000 area under the EU Habitats Directive, with the objective to protect and restore the sandbank ecosystem, harbour porpoises and seals. Only Denmark abstained from designation. Hereby the governments created a complex of adjoining marine protected areas unique in the North Sea.
Under the EU Habitats Directive, legal protection for the Dogger Bank should have started right in 2007 (Germany), 2009 (the Netherlands) and 2012 (UK). Although it was established an MPA, not one actual protective measure was taken. Instead, it took 15 years before the first part of the area was granted any sort of protection against bottom trawling, one of the major causes of degradation of the Dogger Bank. The governments agreed in 2013 to close only 33,8% of the Dogger Bank MPAs to bottom trawling, which in the years after was further watered down to a meager 5% proposed in 2019. The plan to effectively leave open 95% of the Dogger MPAs to destructive mobile bottom-contacting fisheries was not based on science nor supported by any proper impact assessment of fisheries impacts on the Dogger Bank. It was only after Brexit that the UK was willing to take this first important step towards the restoration of biodiversity on the Dogger Bank: In June 2022 the UK finally closed its respective part of the MPA of an area 12.331 km2 (more than 3600 times the size of Central Park in NYC or more than 5 times bigger than Tokyo) to destructive mobile bottom-contacting fishing gears.
Unfortunately, they’re just replacing one destructive activity with another. The area is now being filled with offshore wind developments that increase habitat loss, ocean noise and introduce electro-magnetic fields that affect the behaviors of sea life — continuing the pattern of the government favoring the protection of industries over nature.
The way the offshore wind industry is currently being developed is causing harm to significant parts of marine natural systems. Large scale infrastructure in the UK part of the Dogger Bank MPA is already in construction and the development of hundreds of additional wind turbines is planned, which will significantly modify the habitat and harm threatened marine species and disrupt the natural ecological processes that are supposed to be protected.
So here we are, 11 years after the UK committed to protect its part of the Dogger Bank and just one activity is partially regulated (measures to regulate other types of fisheries are not yet implemented). To date, no measures are proposed to reduce or remove the development of oil and gas, offshore wind energy, cables and pipelines, or shipping from the marine protected area. Recently the German government decided that fishing with gillnets and entangling nets cannot increase in the German part of the Dogger Bank, which will not have added value for harbour porpoise protection. Thus, in the Dutch and German part of the Dogger Bank not one single effective measure has been taken to regulate fisheries or other damaging activity since the Dutch and German government committed to the protection respectively 14 and 16 years ago.
If we don’t get more off the ground here, all the good legislation in place will continue to have standards that allow the status quo of not regulating to be kept. We underestimate and ignore accounting for cumulative and in-combination impacts in the North Sea. We don’t even account for their effects against the weak conservation and restoration objectives that were set. Continuous environmental degradation lowers human accepted thresholds for environmental conditions. Each new generation accepts the situation in which they were raised as normal in the absence of past information or experience with historical conditions. This is known as the ‘shifting baseline syndrome’. Problems of shifted baselines and low conservation ambitions are not unique to the Dogger Bank but are endemic to present conservation practice in the UK and much of Europe.
The shifting baseline syndrome makes marine conservation difficult. Once you get concrete measures in place, and proper enforcement of measures for the habitats, the expectation is that it takes at least 15-20 years for restoration to take place. And we seem to have forgotten what habitats looked like, while at the same time marine conservation has become very policy minded. The cause of ending bottom trawling in MPAs throughout Europe, needs MPA cases which are a living testament to the opportunities offered by restoration, and to demonstrate what level of restoration is possible when measures are in place.
For the international and European promises and agreements to be fulfilled, we need both passive and active restoration of our seas. Passive restoration is removing damaging and destructive activities from areas to give nature the time and space to recover and restore. The minimum of at least 30% protection and 20% restoration targets are no wild guesses, but instead are scientifically based objectives of the minimum that is needed to give the seas and ocean, and therefore us, a future.
We are well into the United Nations’ decade of ecosystem restoration, and if European countries and the United Kingdom want to take it seriously, they will need to start at the very least by protecting 100% of their MPAs effectively from all destructive activities. Continuing business as usual with destructive fisheries activities and oil and gas exploitation does not fit into this picture. Building massive windfarms in MPAs cannot be allowed. We need to start maximizing the benefits of marine protection and marine protected areas to fix the biodiversity and climate crisis. To allow nature itself to mitigate and adapt to climate change by promoting intact, complex ecosystems with high diversity and abundance of species. Wind energy inside a marine protected area is very difficult to justify and it would again mean biodiversity is footing the climate bill. When instead we need to work on solutions to both the climate and biodiversity crises; not fix one by aggravating the other. The North Sea is in ecological debt, and we need to give it time and space to recover and restore.
Then there also is the tool of active restoration. Dogger Bank conservationists are in search of the last remnants of marine life on sandy areas, gravel beds and stones, looking for the last horse mussels which once formed dense shellfish reefs and life on the Dogger Bank shipwrecks where sharks still lay their eggs. At selected locations, where people have caused species and habitats to disappear and where the damage is so great that nature can no longer recover by itself, we help nature through active restoration. Active restoration interventions can help bring back species, habitats and ecological processes and increase chances and potential for restoration. Still, the biggest and best investment in ecosystem health is simply taking away all negative impacts on the ecosystem.
A plan is in development for active and passive restoration of the Dogger Bank, which will push governments to halt degradation, and will push to achieve the maximum benefits of MPAs to combat the biodiversity crisis. The Dogger Bank can become a model to flip paper parks by pushing for real and meaningful protection.
As a place of hope with great potential, conservationists are amid resuscitating the Dogger Bank as the beating heart of a thriving North Sea to combat the biodiversity and climate crisis.
It is the test subject for Europe’s MPAs. We hope it will mark the turning point for governments to take responsibility for the survival and benefit of current and future generations. If it is up to Doggerland Foundation, the Dogger Bank will become the beacon of hope: showcasing the benefits of protecting and restoring a marine protected area for all species, including humankind.
Doggerland Foundation was set up in 2022 by Thomas Rammelt and Emilie Reuchlin with a mission to protect and restore North Sea nature: taking legal action to ensure compliance with minimum obligations and actively restoring the North Sea’s Dogger Bank to unleash nature’s full potential.