Activists dropped giant rocks from the Greenpeace ship Esperanza in the Offshore Brighton marine-protected area to close off nearly 55 square nautical miles of the seabed from “bottom trawling” in February.
In 2020 Greenpeace dropped boulders on Dogger Bank, 80 miles off Yorkshire, as part of the same campaign.
Greenpeace UK and its executive director John Sauven appeared for a preliminary hearing at Newcastle Crown Court on Monday.
They are accused by a government organisation, the Marine Management Organisation, of depositing boulders without a licence.
Campaigners say bottom trawling, which involves dragging heavy weighted nets over the seabed, is ploughing up a sensitive habitat for which the area is protected.
The gravel and rock seabed of the conservation zone 28 miles south of Selsey Bill, West Sussex, is home to wildlife including starfish, hermit crabs and anemones and is a rich hunting
ground for skates, rays and other fish.
However their action drew angry criticism from the York-based National Federation of Fisherman’s Organisations, who wrote to politicians including Boris Johnson condemning “vigilante action that is illegal, and recklessly endangers crews and fishing vessels”.
The Government has not yet taken legal action over the boulder campaign on Dogger Bank and Greenpeace says it is confident the area will be closed completely to bottom trawling following a recent consultation.
Celebrities including Stephen Fry and Ranulph Fiennes, who signed their names on boulders, have penned an open letter to Mr Eustice, urging him to cease prosecution.
Mr Sauven said the boulder barriers were “absolutely necessary” and said it was absurd that the MMO were wasting public money by taking them to court for “protecting our oceans and doing their job for them”.
He said: “While we live through a climate and nature emergency, the MMO chooses to move at a snail’s pace and propose half measures to improve the UK’s failing network of protected areas at sea.”
The Maritime and Coastguard Agency were notified of the coordinates of each boulder, which Greenpeace said scientists assessed as having a “negligible” impact on the seabed.
Mr Sauven and Greenpeace UK are expected to plead not guilty. Mr Sauven faces up to two years in jail if found guilty.
The celebrities who put their names to the rocks have not been charged.
The case was adjourned yesterday until December 2 for legal argument and a trial is listed for next June. No pleas were entered.