We augment discussions about the Good Environmental Status of the North Sea by developing two extreme visions and assessing their societal benefits. One vision (‘Then’) assumes restoration of benthic functioning; we contend that trawling had already degraded the southern North Sea a century ago. Available information is used to speculate about benthic functioning in a relatively undisturbed southern North Sea. The second vision (‘Now’) draws on recent benthic functioning. The supply of five ecosystem services, supported by benthic functioning, is discussed. ‘Then’ offers confidence in the sustainable supply of diverse services but restoration of past function is uncertain and likely to be paired with costs, notably trawling restraints. ‘Now’ delivers known and valued services but sustained delivery is threatened by, for example, climate change. We do not advocate either vision. Our purpose is to stimulate debate about what society wants, and might receive, from the future southern North Sea.