Will thousands of dead crabs sink Rishi's plan for Singapore on Tees?

Will thousands of dead crabs sink Rishi’s plan for Singapore on Tees? A freeport in the North East is at the heart of the Tory levelling up agenda but a report next week may scupper it

  • High levels of a steel manufacturing by-product has been found in British crabs
  • A marine biologist found that the compound pyridine was credibly toxic in crabs
  • A dredging operation was carried out in the Tees estuary just before the die-off
  • In 10 days 148,000 tons of sludge was shifted and dumped clogging the estuary

On grim winter days, the fishermen of Hartlepool shelter in a Portakabin perched beside Victoria Harbour.  

Gazing through its rain-lashed window, Paul Widdowfield, a veteran catcher of lobsters and crabs, points to a battered blue boat, removed from the water to be refitted.

‘She’s called the Georgina Marie,’ he tells me in his lilting Teesside accent. ‘I bought her for £27,000 as an investment for the grandbairns — my eldest son’s three lads, Michael, who’s 12, Charlie, ten, and young Alfie, who’s nine.

‘They’ve been coming out fishing with me since they were wee, and they love it. The idea was that they’d be ready to go by themselves by the time they were 16, passing the family tradition down the generations.

Entire stretches of beach putridly carpeted with the shells of dead crabs; upturned lobsters whose eggs have melted into a ghastly black morass; razor-clams, starfish, sea slugs, krill

‘I didn’t want them sitting at a computer all day. I think that’s wrong. There’s no better job than fishing. 

Once you chuck off those ropes, there’s not another thought in your head. You’re watching the sun come up, and seeing all the wildlife.’

He stops and sighs: ‘That is, when everything is right.’ Up here, on the rugged coastline of North-Eastern England, however, things are far from ‘right’.

Stacked against the wall, behind the Georgina Marie are some 250 barnacle-encrusted lobster pots. By next week, when Mr Widdowfield has finished fetching them in, there will be 500 more.

Ordinarily, the pots would be lying on the rocky seabed, a few miles offshore, each trapping up to half a dozen darkly glistening lobsters for which fishmongers might pay up to £25 a kilo, and a good many edible crabs, too.

‘There’s no point leaving them out now, because there’s nothing out there to catch,’ he says bleakly. 

‘I’ll probably end up re-selling the kids’ boat. There’s no future for them in fishing here any more.’

His lifelong friend, Stan Rennie, is similarly despairing as he shows me the disturbing photos stored in his phone.

A huge swathe of Britain’s second-biggest fishing ground has been virtually wiped out, and with it an industry supporting more than 6,000 jobs (Pictured: Trawlerman Paul Graves pictured with at Hartlepool Marina)

Entire stretches of beach putridly carpeted with the shells of dead crabs; upturned lobsters whose eggs have melted into a ghastly black morass; razor-clams, starfish, sea slugs, krill: all manner of dead creatures that have washed up in their masses, in a 250 sq mile area fanning out from the Tees estuary now known, in these parts, as ‘the die-off zone’.

‘It’s like the Coast of Doom,’ says Mr Rennie, 61. ‘All that’s left are the vultures of the sea — horrible, slimy things like hagfish (ghoulish, eel-like creatures with pin-prick eyes) that feed off the rotting corpses.’

Messages he receives from fellow fishermen tell the same story.

The trail of marine devastation extends more than 30 miles south, through ports such as Redcar and Saltburn, all the way to Whitby. 

A moratorium, jeopardising a coastal regeneration plan, is a prospect that the Prime Minister must be dreading

A huge swathe of Britain’s second-biggest fishing ground has been virtually wiped out, and with it an industry supporting more than 6,000 jobs.

It has been this way since the autumn of 2021, when anglers digging for bait noticed large numbers of dead crabs on the mudflats.

Had this catastrophe happened in the South, Mr Rennie contends, it would have caused a national outcry. 

There would have been marches on Parliament. Yet because it has hit this northern outpost, nobody seems to care.

So, what caused this cataclysmic event? It is a crucial question, the implications of which extend beyond fishing in the North-East and threaten a key plank of the Government’s ‘levelling-up’ policy. 

First, though, some background. In the aftermath of the dramatic die-off, scientists from the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) conducted an inquiry. 

They ruled out several other potential causes, including sewage, animal diseases, seismic activity, wind farms, undersea cabling, temperature fluctuations and severe storms, before announcing that the shellfish were probably poisoned by a naturally occurring ‘algae bloom’.

Work is under way to turn a stretch of the Tees estuary into a vast freeport — one of eight such economic zones to be created around the coast, as announced by Rishi Sunak, then Chancellor

This involves a build-up of plankton — usually caused by an increase in nutrients in the water, warm temperatures and abundant sunlight — which starves sea life of oxygen.

Suspecting, from longstanding experience of North Sea conditions, that this was unlikely, some North-Eastern shellfishermen formed a collective and enlisted an environmental consultant, Tim Deere-Jones, to produce an independent report. 

As he told me this week, when poring over Defra’s own data, Mr Deere-Jones noticed something highly unusual.

Though the Government scientists had tested the tissue of dead crabs for dozens of chemicals that might have been expected to escape into the sea off Teesside, once the heartland of Britain’s steel and shipbuilding industries, there was one reading that seemed, to him, abnormal.

As was discovered from a Freedom of Information request, it came from a colourless compound called pyridine, produced in great quantities, over many decades, in the grimy factories that once flanked the estuary.

It was a by-product of steel manufacturing in the area, but three companies made it as a solvent used, among other things, in the production of pesticides. 

Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced that the shellfish were probably poisoned by a naturally occurring ‘algae bloom’

One of the Teesside crabs had a pyridine reading of 440mg per kilogram of tissue — nearly 75 times higher than the 6mg/kg recorded for a crab taken from Penzance, Cornwall, and tested as a control.

Defra has since played down the significance of this, saying the level of pyridine in dead crustaceans could rise naturally. And this week they dismissed the Cornwall comparison as ‘misleading’.

As Defra stresses, the science in this area is fiendishly complex. In essence, however, they say the pyridine test they used assesses its concentration in water and hasn’t been validated for tissue samples.

They further point out that relatively high pyridine levels were also found in healthy crabs from areas far from the die-off zone, such as the Norfolk Wash (at 195 mg/kg).

One of the Teesside crabs had a pyridine reading of 440mg per kilogram of tissue — nearly 75 times higher than the 6mg/kg recorded for a crab taken from Penzance, Cornwall, and tested as a control

The trail of marine devastation extends more than 30 miles south, through ports such as Redcar and Saltburn, all the way to Whitby

Nonetheless, the fishermen are astounded the highest pyridine reading had not been flagged. Particularly as a major dredging operation was carried out in the Tees estuary just before the die-off.

The river mouth is routinely dredged on a smaller scale. However, as the fishermen found when doing their ‘detective work’, as Stan Rennie calls it, over ten days between September 25 and October 4, 148,000 tons of sludge was shifted and dumped. It had clogged the estuary after a landslip.

Could this exercise have churned up a reservoir of pyridine discharged into the sea by the old industrial plants and locked in the sediment for many years, poisoning shellfish for miles around?

If so, the possible consequences are immense.

For amid this environmental disaster, work is under way to turn a stretch of the Tees estuary into a vast freeport — one of eight such economic zones to be created around the coast, as announced by Rishi Sunak, then Chancellor, in the March 2021 Budget.

The Teesside Freeport will be served by a new, 1km-long dock whose construction requires the removal of a further 1.5 million tons of material from the seabed

Freeports are seen as a ‘levelling up’ policy tool on the grounds that they promote trade and business by lowering duty, tax and paperwork costs and thereby encourage development, create jobs, and attract international investment.

The Teesside Freeport will be served by a new, 1km-long dock whose construction requires the removal of a further 1.5 million tons of material from the seabed — ten times more than the amount unearthed on the eve of the great die-off. 

It will be dumped in two sites, several miles out to sea.

This huge dredging operation is due to begin next month, and South Tees Development Corporation is adamant it will take place. So, too, is Ben Houchen, 36, Tees Valley’s high-profile Conservative mayor, who has pledged to revive the fortunes of his post-industrial parish by re-inventing it as ‘Singapore-on-Tees’. 

Mayor Houchen and the corporation say this dredging is essential to bring ‘thousands of jobs to the region’ and insist that it will meet the ‘highest of standards’.

However, given that a giant question-mark hangs over the cause of the die-off, there must be doubts over it proceeding on schedule.

This surely depends on the findings of an independent panel of marine scientists, belatedly assembled last autumn — on the instruction of Environment Secretary Therese Coffey — to find the definitive explanation. 

Indeed, it may be no coincidence that, as the Daily Mail has learned, that panel is due to deliver its report shortly before dredging commences, possibly next week.

Mayor Houchen and the corporation say this dredging is essential to bring ‘thousands of jobs to the region’ and insist that it will meet the ‘highest of standards’

We can’t second-guess the eminent experts (chosen by the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance). 

Yet if they do pin the blame on pyridine — or perhaps some other chemical dumped into the sea — what then for the future of this, and the other seven new freeports?

There would doubtless be calls for a moratorium on them all, jeopardising a coastal regeneration plan that promises to revitalise huge brownfield sites, generating billions for the economy and tens of thousands of new jobs.

It is a prospect that the Prime Minister must be dreading.

He will hardly have welcomed a highly critical comment article on the Teesside catastrophe published this week in The Times.

‘The short-term goals of politicians are driving the careless poisoning of the only sea we have,’ it declared. 

‘Sunak, Coffey, Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen: this is on you. Are we to be the deliberate vandals of our age?’

Simon Clarke, Tory MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, who briefly served as levelling up secretary in the Truss administration, hit back.

Supporting Defra’s algal bloom theory, he claimed the die-off had now finished, an assertion that caused anger and incredulity among the men I met in Hartlepool.

Mr Clarke also accused Labour and Green Party activists of stirring up claims that dredging was the cause to undermine the Tories’ achievements in revitalising ‘a former red-wall stronghold’.

Since he expressed sympathy for the local fishing industry, his attack was presumably aimed at the assortment of campaigners and academics who have rallied to their cause. 

They are being helped by former police officer Sally Bunce, a seal rescue volunteer who believes seal-pups are starving to death along the North-East coast because the crustaceans they eat have disappeared.

Partly funded by a fishmongers’ charity, experts from four North-Eastern universities, Newcastle, York, Hull, and Durham, are also conducting extensive studies for the shellfish-fishermen.

Former police officer Sally Bunce, a seal rescue volunteer who believes seal-pups are starving to death along the North-East coast because the crustaceans they eat have disappeared

Prominent among them is Dr Gary Caldwell, a marine biologist at Newcastle University. 

He is supplying data to the Government’s independent panel and gave evidence to a Commons select committee hearing on the die-off.

This week, Dr Caldwell admitted to being a member of the Green Party. Yet, like Sally Bunce, he is irked by the suggestion that his work is politically motivated.

‘You couldn’t find a less active activist than me,’ he told me, with a hollow laugh. He said he would welcome the Teesside freeport — if measures were taken to dredge the quay safely.

Since he began investigating the die-off last year, Dr Caldwell has made a series of ground-breaking findings that may prove significant to the investigation.

As he could find no studies on the effects of pyridine on large crustaceans, he caught some crabs off the island of Lindisfarne and conducted the experiments himself, placing the crabs in tanks of seawater infused with tiny drops of the chemical.

Because pyridine isn’t highly toxic in other fish, he didn’t expect much of a reaction, yet what he saw astounded him.

‘I found that it was incredibly toxic in crabs. They were doing what I can only describe as somersaults and throwing themselves around the tank. In 25 years, I’ve never seen anything like it. Within about 20 minutes they were on their backs and began to die.’

The behaviour he describes mirrors that seen by the fishermen, when they open their pots.

With his colleagues, he has since produced a computer model showing how the pyridine — if, indeed, it was dredged up — could have been spread to deadly effect by prevailing North Sea currents.

While algal blooms have caused ‘mass mortality events’ around the world, he says they usually last no more than a fortnight.

He accepts that a bloom occurred 18 months ago on Teesside but describes it as unexceptional: ‘part of the natural heartbeat of these seas’. With the 1.5 million ton dredge imminent, however, Dr Caldwell has a fresh concern.

The area around South Bank Quay could be the most toxic part of the estuary, he says, yet despite repeated requests he has been denied permission to test it for possible hotspots.

‘There will be pyridine there, but there are other things which are of even more concern — heavy metals, PCBs and other hydrocarbons that won’t break down quickly. They could get into the food-chain and potentially you could get human health being impacted.’

A chilling scenario. Of course, science could prove Dr Caldwell wrong. Back in the Portakabin, however, the notion that algae killed their livelihoods, and that the pyridine theory was concocted by lobster-huggers and Lefties has the fishermen spluttering into their tea.

‘I’ve never voted Labour in my life!’ says Stan Rennie. ‘And I voted for Brexit, like most people in this town’. Someone chimes in that he’d ‘have Boris Johnson back tomorrow’, a comment that draws a chorus of ‘ayes’. Claims that their 18-month nightmare is nearing its end bring more derision. If anything, they say, the zone of death is bigger.

It now extends up to ten miles from the shoreline, depleting softer patches of the seabed once teeming with succulent prawns that would grow to a length of eight or nine inches.

On one day in June 2021, prawn fisherman Paul Graves came back with a net-bulging haul that fetched £2,600. On the same day last year, his takings were £92.

In recent months, a dozen shellfish boat owners, half the port’s fleet, have sold up and left the industry. The gnarled seadogs who plied me with tea this week are gamely clinging on.

Given that lobsters take seven years to grow big enough to land, they accept that their time is over. Even if the die-offs stop now, they will be near their seventies by the time numbers fully recover.

However, as Paul Widdowfield said, their campaign for the truth is not motivated by self-interest, and certainly not by politics.

It is about making this stretch of the North Sea clean enough for their grandbairns to fish. Carrying on the tradition.

Before that can even begin to happen, we must be told, unequivocally, what poisoned the waters along the Coast of Doom. 

Additional reporting by Tim Stewart

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