It’s set to be come a Special Area of Conservation, but just what, asks Sarah Freeman is so special about Dogger Bank?
Dogger Bank doesn’t look much like a conservation area.
For a start, unless you happen to own a trawler, the massive sandbank the size of North Yorkshire is more than 60 miles off the East Coast and tricky to get to. Then there’s the lack of helpful information boards pointing out the areas of special interest and unlike the balmy waters of Australia’s Barrier Reef, scuba diving is positively discouraged.
However, despite its lack of visitor amenities, this week the area which listeners to the shipping forecast will recognise as the one which comes just after Tyne and directly before Fisher, took another step closer to becoming a Special Area of Conservation.
Those who have been monitoring activity on Dogger Bank for the last few years, say it is more than deserving of the status. While it is home to a reasonable population of harbour porpoises and grey and common seals, it’s the little species which really put the area of the map.
The largest marine area to be submitted to the European Union for inclusion on its list of protected areas, the sandbank is alive with crabs, a type of starfish know as brittlestars and clams and is also an important site for plaice, sole and sand eels. It’s the EU which will ultimately decide its fate, but the calls for Dogger to be made an SAC are growing louder as concern for the future of Britain’s coastal environment, for years at risk of pollution, over fishing and climate change, intensifies.
“England has some of the finest marine wildlife in Europe and the geology of the seabed is rich and varied, ranging from rocky granite reefs to mobile sandbanks,” says a spokesman for Natural England, which is backing the Dogger Bank bid. “It is this variety, coupled with the influence of colder Arctic and warmer Mediterranean waters wound our shores that has led to the creation of such diverse habitats, of which Dogger Bank is one.
“As an island nation, where we are never more than 70 miles from the sea, the marine environment occupies a special place in our national psyche. However, although our seas are vital to our wellbeing, they are actually given little protection and there is a growing body of evidence which suggest that there has already been a significant decline in the quality of this very special environment.”
For the researchers studying Dogger Bank, the need for greater protection in an area which is not only a busy fishing route, but also the site of a number of gas and oil installations, is clear.
“It’s the largest single continuous expanse of shallow sandbank in UK waters and its population of sand eels supports a variety of fish and seabird,” says Charlotte Johnston, marine site manager for the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, which wrote the report which will be review by the EU.
“The area has already been affected by nearby oil and gas installations. At the moment there is not enough information to accurately assess how severe that impact has been, but we also have to take into account the effect of trawling over many years which may have reduced the number animals living on the seabed.”
The report contains a lot of ifs, buts and maybe, but many marine ecologists believe that if moves to protect areas like Dogger Bank are not taken now, by the time the full picture is known, it could be too late to reverse any damage.
Conservationists cite the fact the oceans provide food for hundreds of millions of people worldwide, acts as one of the largest stores of carbon on the planet and as a potential resource of renewable energy it is unrivalled.
Forewind, which has already put forward proposals to build a massive off-shore wind farm at Dogger Bank, is currently carrying out its own environmental survey to determine the best location for its development and has insisted its plans for 2,600 giants turbines, each up to 400ft tall, could happily co-exist with the area’s marine life.
If the bid for SAC status is successful, and many believe it will be, Dogger Bank will join the likes of Lizard Point and Land’s End which have already been given protected status and supporters believe the area’s geography and marine populations can be protected, while at the same time accommodating the needs of both traditional and modern industry. Unsurprisingly, not everyone is convinced.
“I can absolutely see the need to protect areas of marine biodiversity, but can I see the need to protect a giant sandbank? If I’m perfectly honest, the answer would be no, but we are where we are,” says Barrie Deas, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations based in York. “It’s highly likely that Dogger Bank will become a conservation area, but what it means for fishing very much depends on what happens in the coming weeks and months.
“If it results in light monitoring of fishing then the industry should be fine, if it results in a complete closure of the area to trawlers then that will have far reaching consequences, not just for the UK fleet, but also for the Dutch and Danish fishing industry.”
Mr Deas doesn’t have the exact figures to hand, but says fishing in Dogger Bank is worth millions of pounds to Britain and Europe’s economy and adds that if boats are prevented from entering its waters the knock on effects won’t simply be financial.
“At the moment the beam trawlers, which catch fish like sole and plaice, operate in areas where there is a low discard. If they are forced to move they could well end up operating in areas of high discard and if they end up having to dump large quantities of fish back into the sea that would clearly have a massive impact on the marine environment.
“The key to making this work is having a detailed discussion about how the conservation status is going to work.
“A similar project off the North West of Scotland saw the waters zoned, which meant fishing could continue in certain areas. That would seem to be the commonsense approach, but there have been other conservation areas which haven’t worked so well.”
Mr Deas is referring to the exclusion zone which was introduced in Dorset’s Lyme Bay and Torbay three years ago. The zone, which equates to about 10 per cent of the waters off the Dorset coast, is now protected from scallop dredging and trawling which damaged the seabed, but many in the industry believe the regulations went too far.
“The whole thing was rushed through by Government ministers who were worried if they took their time they would somehow be seen as anti the environment and that’s part of the problem,” says Mr Deas. “When anyone mentions the phrase Special Area of Conservation, it sounds like it must be a wonderful thing and anyone who questions it is accused of putting self-interest over the greater good.”
Proposals for a series of marine conservation zones, including the one at Dogger Bank will be presented for review shortly, but the final decision could take some months.
“The one thing we musn’t do is rush through any decision about Dogger Bank,” warns Mr Deas. “If we get it wrong we could all end up paying a very high price.”
For the past 300 years, Dogger Bank has been the scene of hard fought naval battles, but it seems this is one fight neither the conservationists or Britain’s already hard pressed fishing industry is prepared to lose.
Ancient legacy of the ice age
Dogger Bank is 160 miles long and up to 60 miles wide. It was formed during the Ice Age, 1.6m years ago and originally connected Britain to the rest of mainland Europe.
While the waters around Dogger Bank are often rough, in 1931 the area was truly shaken when it was hit by an earthquake measuring 6.1 on the Richter scale.
The bank has witnessed several naval battles over the centuries, including the sinking of a German ship and most of its crew during the First World War by squadrons of the British Grand Fleet.
In 1966, a German submarine sank during a gale on Dogger Bank. All but one of the 20 crew on board were killed, making it one of the worst peacetime disasters in the country’s naval history.