Dead and dying marine life has washed up on beaches around Teesside for almost a year following a crab and lobster “mass die-off” in autumn 2021, according to official documents and eyewitness reports seen by Sky News .
Scientists and local campaigners say the reports are evidence of an ongoing ecological disaster affecting more than 30 miles of coastline – from Hartlepool to Whitby and beyond.
“The deaths have continued,” said Newcastle University marine biologist Dr Gary Caldwell, who has been studying the causes of the first event in October 2021.
Dr Caldwell added that the incident had resulted in “virtually extinct” crabs and lobsters in the area around the mouth of the Tees River.
There are concerns it might connect to the Freeport there. Freeports are areas where specific tax and customs rules apply. The government said they aimed to “create thousands of high-quality jobs in some of our most disadvantaged communities”.
According to the local government, Teesside Freeport is the largest free port in the UK, covering an area of 4,500 acres and is expected to create more than 18,000 jobs in the next five years.
Since December 2021, the Northeast Fisheries Conservation Service has documented nearly 50 reports of strandings of dead fish, shellfish and marine mammals, as well as reports from fishermen of dead and dying catches.
Local activists also took pictures of dead shellfish and seabirds found on the beach in numbers they said were uncommon in the area. Fishermen reported much lower catches in inshore waters, including dead and dying lobsters.
Sharon Bell, who lives in the village of Marsk-by-the-Sea, has been finding dead marine life since 2021.
“We’ve had it for over a year now, actually just two weeks ago, when I was here photographing hundreds of mussels – it didn’t go away,” she said as we walked along the coast.
Hartlepool fisherman Paul Widdowfield commented: “We might as well put our tanks in the Sahara right now because there’s nothing there.”
In May, a report by the Department of the Environment, DEFRA and other government agencies concluded that toxic algal blooms were the most likely cause of the mass die-off.
However, research by Dr Caldwell and others, commissioned by groups representing the local fishing industry and activists, concluded that an industrial chemical called pyridine was a more plausible explanation.
Pyridine is known to be present in sediments from the Tees Estuary following decades of industrial activity in the area.
According to Dr Caldwell, sampling studies of sediment in the Tees Estuary and laboratory tests of chemicals have shown a strong potential link between disturbed sediment and harm to marine life.
“We’re seeing Teesside’s industrial heritage, long buried in sediment, being brought back and released back into the environment,” he said.
Soon after nearly 150,000 tons of sediment were dredged from the Tees estuary and dumped miles offshore, marine life began to die.
A dredging operation of this scale is unusual. Routine “maintenance” dredging to keep the Tees Channel clear tends to be on a smaller scale.
The potential link to the contaminated sediment has led activists to raise concerns about the ongoing dredging project to build Freeport.
In addition, current dredging activities at sites near the mouth of the river are removing 145,000 tons of sediment from the mouth and dumping it at sea.
Under pressure from activists and MPs, Defra convened an independent panel of experts to examine potential causes of the incident. It will publish its conclusions later this month.
For now, DEFRA dismisses the proposed link between dredging, pyridine, and dead marine life.
“A full investigation was conducted and government scientists robustly considered the evidence and concluded that a naturally occurring algal bloom was the most likely cause,” the department said in a statement.
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According to DEFRA, the Environment Agency has investigated 10 marine life “wash-off events” on the region’s beaches in 2022. It concluded that one was caused by an outfall at a nearby power station, while the other was caused by above-average sea temperatures in the summer of 2022, followed by low temperatures in December.
“Any cleanup following the event between October 2021 and December 2021 will be on a much smaller scale and in line with expectations for the stormy winter months,” it said.
Activists insist they are not trying to stop the continued development of the freeport at the mouth of the Tees River.
“It didn’t need to happen,” Hartlepool fisherman Stan Rainey said.
He added that “of course we want jobs” but that if Freeport had anything to do with recent events, it shouldn’t involve “fisheries and ecosystem sacrifices”.