British coastal towns demand answers to mysterious sea life deaths

(ORDO NEWS) — The environmental disaster has left the communities of the North East of England in a difficult position.

Until recently, Rennie’s existence has been largely peaceful. In the mornings he would go to his little blue and white boat, the Sarah Lynn, and spend hours fishing for crabs off Hartlepool Point.

His wife Lynn watched him from the living room window – just in case – as he hauled rope baskets full of the day’s catch out of the water.

But on September 28, 2021, everything changed. For the first time in Rennie’s memory, his traps were nearly empty. The crabs he did catch were unhealthy and died within minutes.

“I didn’t understand what was going on,” says 61-year-old Rennie. “After nearly 50 years of fishing, I told my brother, ‘I’ve never known anything like this.'”

The mystery of why the crab died haunts Rennie and places his small coastal community, along with others in the North East of England, at the center of a national political drama.

Its history of empty traps and dying crabs is far from unique; from shrimp trawlers to lobster fishers, “everybody got nothing,” he says.

On the shore, meanwhile, the number of corpses grew. Photos showing thousands of dead and dying crabs and lobsters piled on the sand along the northeast coast, including at Redcar, Saltburn and South Gar, hit the news in early October.

Then new cases of extinction followed. Hungry seals and dead seabirds have also been reported in increasing numbers, campaigners say, and veterinarians have reported a spike in cases of nausea and vomiting in dogs after walking on beaches from Scarborough to Seaton Carew.

From the beginning, many in the community feared that pollution caused by dredging might be to blame. “There were heaps of crabs and lobsters that were lying on their backs and twitching.

Many of them blew from their gills and staggered,” says Sally Bunce, 53, a former police officer and environmentalist who, along with Rennie, led the investigation.

“It looked like they had a nervous system failure,” adds Rennie. “It looked like they had been poisoned.”

At first it seemed that the government was taking the problem seriously. The EPA, part of Defra, has promised to investigate, promising to send samples of water, sediment and crabs for analysis, which they say will test the theory that pollution is to blame.

Then, in February of this year, an official response came. Concerns that dredging in September disturbed toxic deposits in the River Tees have been dismissed as “there is no evidence of a link” between it and the extinction, Defra’s report said.

Instead, the report said, “natural harmful algal blooms” were the most likely factor.

When he read the findings, Rennie was puzzled. The consequences of extinction were already catastrophic. If left unchecked, the consequences for jobs, tourism and the marine environment could become a “national disaster”.

But Defra seemed to rule out contamination, which he and other fishermen thought was the most likely cause, without being sure of the real cause. The question arises: why?

Even before Defra’s findings were published, local residents were expressing concern about the dredging. They saw a dredging vessel at the mouth of the Tees days before the extinction began.

Data from an automatic identification system that tracks ships later confirmed that a 78-metre, 3,000-tonne dredging dredger has been carrying out scheduled dredging over a period of 10 days since September 25, removing sediment from the river’s mouth and dumping it several miles off the coast of Redcar.

When they suggested there might be a connection between them, they felt rejected.” Joe Redfern, a Whitby marine biologist, recalls the moment he lost faith in the official investigation at a meeting in December.

We basically said, “Everything dies and we’re really concerned.” And they said, “Well, you’re not going to trust any of our work. So you’ll have to go and do your own research,” he says.

They took matters into their own hands. Redfern and other members of the Northeast Fisheries Collective commissioned Tim Dear-Jones, a marine pollution consultant, to conduct a study on fish extinction using money raised in a fundraising appeal.

Deer-Jones’ first findings, published in February, confirmed concerns about the algal bloom theory, which he says “has no empirical evidence.”

He also noted Defra’s own data from freedom of information requests that found extremely high levels of the chemical pyridine in crab carcasses collected in Saltburn.

According to Defra’s analysis, crab carcasses taken from Saltburn – one of the areas of the northeast affected by extinction – contained up to 430 mg per kg of pyridine – 72 times more than a control sample taken from Cornwall.

The fishermen urged Defra to look more closely at the possibility that the dredging led to the release of pyridine, and that the crabs’ extinction was caused by chemical pollution rather than a natural event.

Pyridine, which is used to make pesticides and is a by-product of steel production, was historically produced in Teesside. And while studies on effects on crabs have yet to be published, the World Health Organization describes the chemical as “harmful to aquatic life.”

However, Defra denied the significance of the chemical found, stating that while pyridine was found in crabs, further testing showed that it “was generally not found in water samples.”

“Thus, any levels [of pyridine] found in crabs are likely related to biological processes and not necessarily to the environment,” a spokesman for the Department said.

In March, the department dropped the investigation.

For members of the community, distrust of the official explanation is exacerbated by a lack of transparency and fears that other factors are at work behind the scenes – in addition to simply investigating the causes of the extinction.

If dredging is proven to be a factor in extinction, the political implications would be enormous. The success of the new free port in the Tees valley, which is seen as key to the Conservatives’ post-Brexit economic realignment program, depends on the ability to drench the River Tees, historically one of the UK’s most polluted rivers as a result of heavy industrial waste being dumped there for decades.

The flagship development, the government claims, will create jobs and revitalize the local economy, offering tax breaks and simplified customs procedures for businesses.

While the fall dredging was not directly linked to the creation of a free port, preparations for construction are expected to require dredging of millions of tons of material from areas immediately adjacent to the sediments that campaigners say caused the loss of life.

Documents released as a result of inquiries from PD Ports, which operates Teesport Port, show that authorities were hastily preparing a “rebuttal” of the Deer-Jones report under pressure from ministers who tried to shift the blame to the dredging.

Documents obtained by openDemocracy last month show that investigators have not ruled out man-made activities as the cause of the bloom, and the minutes of a December meeting note: human intervention may have been involved.

Another e-mail between researchers at the UK Health Security Agency states: “Nutrients released, for example from dredging, could theoretically affect algal blooms.” Other documents show that in a November 2021 presentation, EA appeared to have ruled out both “algae toxins” and “natural event”.

PowerPoint said “the behavior and longevity mean it is unlikely that a ‘natural event’ caused the death,” adding that dredging is “the most serious line of inquiry.”

Over the past month, calls for Defra to reopen the investigation have intensified. Blanide Denman, senior conservation officer at the RSPB, said she was “deeply concerned” about the issue and the “potential implications for the wider marine ecosystem.”

She added that dredging at Tees should be suspended “until full scientific analysis rules it out as a developmental factor.”

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