Dead and dying marine life has washed up on beaches around Teesside for nearly a year after a “mass mortality event” of crabs and lobsters there in autumn 2021, according to official documents and eyewitness reports seen by Sky News.
Scientists and local activists said the reports are evidence of an ongoing environmental catastrophe affecting more than 30 miles of coastline – from Hartlepool to Whitby and beyond.
“There have been ongoing deaths,” said Dr. Gary Caldwell, a marine biologist at Newcastle University who has been studying the causes of the initial event in October 2021.
Dr Caldwell added that the incident had led to a “virtual extinction” of crabs and lobsters in the area immediately around the mouth of the River Tees.
There are concerns that it could be linked to a free port there. Freeports are regions where specific tax and customs rules may apply. The government says it is designed to “create thousands of quality jobs in some of our most disadvantaged communities”.
According to the local authority, the Teesside Free Port is the largest in the UK, covering 4,500 acres, and is expected to create over 18,000 jobs over the next five years.
Nearly 50 reports of dead fish, shellfish and marine mammals, as well as fishermen’s reports of dead and dying catches, have been recorded by the Northeast Fisheries Conservation Agency since December 2021.
Local activists have also photographed dead oysters and seabirds found on beaches in numbers they say are not typical for the area. Fishermen reported that catches in inshore waters were much lower and included dead and dying lobsters.
Sharon Bell, who lives in the village of Marske-by-the-Sea, has been spotting dead marine life since 2021.
“It’s been over a year now, and it was only two weeks ago when I was photographing hundreds of mussels here — they haven’t gone,” she said as we walked along the beach.
Hartlepool fisherman Paul Widowfield commented: “We may put our pots in the desert now because there is none there”.
In May, a report by the Department of Environment, DEFRA, and other government agencies concluded that toxic algal blooms were the most likely cause of the mass mortality event.
However, research by Dr. Caldwell and others, commissioned by a group 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 in the Tees estuary after decades of industrial activity in the area.
Studies of sediment sampling in the Tees estuary, and laboratory tests of the chemical, suggest a potentially strong link between disturbed sediment and damage to marine life, according to Dr. Caldwell.
“We are seeing a legacy of Teesside’s industrial heritage long buried in sediment being brought back up and released back into the environment,” he said.
The initial death of marine life occurred shortly after approximately 150,000 tons of sediment was dredged from the mouth of the Tees River estuary and dumped a few miles from shore.
A dredging operation of this magnitude is unusual. Daily “maintenance” dredging to keep Tees’ charge channel clear tends to be on a smaller scale.
The possible connection to the contaminated sediment has caused activists to raise concerns about the dredging work underway to build the free port.
In addition, a dredging campaign at a nearby downstream site is currently hauling 145,000 tons of sediment out of the estuary and dumping it into the sea.
After pressure from activists and MPs, Defra set up an independent expert panel to review the possible causes of the accident. It is due to publish its findings later this month.
For now, DEFRA rejects the proposed association between dredging, pyridines, and dead marine life.
“A thorough investigation was conducted as government scientists vigorously considered the evidence and concluded that a naturally occurring algal bloom was the most likely cause,” the ministry said in a statement.
According to DEFRA, 10 “wash-outs” of marine life on beaches in the area were investigated by the Environment Agency in 2022. It concluded that one was caused by avalanches from a nearby power plant, while another was due to above-average elevation. Sea temperatures summer 2022 followed by cooler temperatures in December.
“Any post-event washouts between October and December 2021 were on a much smaller scale and in line with what can be expected during the stormy winter months,” it added.
Activists insist they are not trying to put an end to the ongoing development of the Teese Free Port.
“This didn’t have to happen,” said Stan Rennie, the fisherman from Hartlepool.
“Of course we want jobs,” he added, but if the free zone is related to recent events, it should not involve “the sacrifice of the fishing industry and the ecosystem.”