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The mystery behind the dying crabs and lobsters on the North East Coast

The North-East coast (between Hartlepool and Bridlington) has Europe's largest crab and lobster fishery.

At least, it used to... Since October, hundreds of thousands of crustaceans have mysteriously been washing up dead on our shores. This mass die-off could be considered one of the greatest British environmental disasters of our time. Fishermen have reported a 95% decrease in crab catches, showing the devastation to the marine environment as well as local fishermen’s livelihoods.

Source: Paul Grainger, the Guardian

An initial Defra investigation concluded that the deaths were caused by large algae blooms, a naturally occurring but unfortunate event. However, this theory has since been debunked.

Further independent research carried out by researchers from York, Newcastle and Durham Universities found that intensive dredging of the Tees riverbed was a more likely cause.

For over a century, a toxic substance called pyridine was poured into the Tees from chemical factories, settling in concentrated reservoirs. Researchers believe that the capital dredging undertaken to create Teesside Freeport had disturbed this sediment, as dredging began two days before crustaceans started washing up dead. Furthermore, dead crabs were found with 40x more pyridine in their system than controlled crabs (pyridine is extremely toxic to crabs, even in minuscule amounts).

Given this evidence, Defra’s silence and complacency on the issue is mystifying. Had an ecological disaster of this scale occurred on land, there would be public outcry and demands to find the cause.

Photograph above: Capital dredging of the River Tees (Source: Joe Redfern)

Photographs from a recent visit to Whitby. Left: John (Scientist from Durham University), James (Fisherman and owner of Good Intent) and Stan (Fisherman from Hartlepool).

One can’t help but question whether the government are allowing political motives to blur the scientific facts. The creation of Teesside Freeport is a key priority for the UK’s Levelling Up agenda. Confirming the pyridine theory would have implications for the seven other freeports around the UK. Southampton and Liverpool, for example, also have lethal chemicals hidden under the seabed, and once these enter the sea, the damage cannot be reversed.

The latest results from a DEFRA investigation last week were inconclusive, stating that “it was not possible to identify a clear and convincing single cause for the unusual crustacean mortality”. Rather than waiting to find a cause, the government have given the green light to start dredging again this week.

This calls into question the government’s commitment to environmental protection, as well as the competency of the regulators responsible for the health of our waters. With investment increasing for marine development projects, such as offshore wind farms, it is vital to understand the true cause of these disasters to avoid irreversible ecological damage. We can only hope the Government have not lost their moral compass to be guided only by political motives and not by the threat facing our seas.

Photograph: Joe, Manager of Whitby Lobster Hatchery and a spokesperson for the North Sea crustacean collapse

Written by Laura @theecostories

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