The grim response of the Environment Agency (EA) to the mass crustacean die-off in Tees Bay moved up a gear last week. Where once they only patronised the inshore fishermen about the probable cause, they have now shown themselves prepared to do it on national TV. Friday 30 September Channel 4 News featured the ongoing tragedy and, in the process, interviewed Hartlepool fisher, Stan Rennie.
To view the segment of Channel 4 News, click here.
It has since been announced that the die-off will be considered by a parliamentary committee. What we now present here is a taste of some of the evidence that inquiry might hear.
Stan’s tale, on the surface of it, is one of remarkable incompetence by Defra’s partner agencies, of which the EA is one. When we quizzed Stan about his account, it turns out that there’s a bit more to it than Channel 4 had time to broadcast.
On 6 September 2021, about a month before the die-off was first reported, Stan went down to his boat to find that the water in the harbour was strangely discoloured – now a reddish, ginger colour. He therefore followed recognised procedure and informed the EA Pollution Hotline and submitted photos and footage. He got no reply, so he contacted them again. Still no reply. So, he raised a complaint.
Long before he got a response, the first die-off, in October 2021, had happened, and Defra’s agencies were investigating. In mid-December they held a meeting with stakeholders, including Stan to discuss possible causes. In early January, they presented these stakeholders with a written report. Imagine Stan’s surprise when he found his photo, taken in early September, on a page discussing the possibility that a red algal bloom, Karenia Mikimotoi, might be responsible for the die-off.
What Stan didn’t get round to mentioning in the Channel 4 programme was that, when he saw the discoloration in the water, he knew exactly what it was. He had sent the EA pictures of it before, as had lots of other people. It was the debris from ships delivering metal to a nearby scrapyard. So, when the EA eventually responded with
“I would like to reassure you that we take all reports of pollution seriously and the two reports …were logged and subsequently investigated. The findings of that investigation confirmed that the pollution/staining you witnessed was from a release of rust coming from the nearby scrapyard”
Stan had at least partial vindication (as this was a hazard that the EA had never taken any action to mitigate). But the point is this: given the history of this issue, the EA knew exactly what the photo showed as soon as they got it. Nonetheless, not only did they then use it next to a text about harmful algal bloom (HAB), but they also passed it on to another Defra partner, the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas).
A myth is born
Cefas, then took things a step further and incorporated Stan’s photo in a document circulated to fishers in January 2022:
So, Cefas is explicit that it was this photo that led them to hypothesise that the cause of the die-off was the red HAB, Karenia mikimotoi.
But there’s more. Notice that under the satellite image of the HAB is the statement that it shows algal bloom at South Shields as well as Teesside. The EA, in its January 2022 report, states:
“Medium/high values of K.mikimotoi were detected in samples off the Beadnell Bay in early September.”
Now, Beadnell Bay, just south of Lindisfarne, is a considerable distance from Teesside. We travelled to that area recently and chatted to some inshore fisherman there about the die-off. They were cynical about the algal bloom theory, pointing out that throughout the time dead crabs were being washed ashore in Tees Bay, the fishermen in and around Beadnell were finding only healthy crabs, in abundance, with no sign of die-off. We note that there have also been no reports of die-off in the vicinity of South Shields.
Same type of HAB, same time, no die-off. And no explanation by the EA or Cefas as to why this might be the case.
Within a month a report was published by Defra that gave Harmful Algal Bloom as the most likely cause and dismissed all other possible explanations. Shortly afterwards the investigation was closed. Never to be reopened. A final report, published in June, restated this conclusion.
At least by this time they’d stopped using Stan’s rust photo to illustrate their reports.
The Channel 4 report states that when they approached the EA/Defra, they denied that they had used Stan’s photo to bolster their case. By showing the EA’s document seems to contradict this claim. What is undeniable, however, is that Cefas connects the photo with algal bloom quite explicitly.
We wrote to the EA this week to ask for their response to the allegation made against them in the Channel 4 programme. Their response:
“On the metal dust photo claim:
- The photograph shown on the Channel 4 report of scrap metal dust in Hartlepool did not contribute to the conclusion that crustacean deaths were likely to be caused by an algal bloom. It was not used in, nor did it influence, the technical findings of the investigation.
- The EA received the photograph from a member of the public reporting discolouration in the water in September 2021. This had already been investigated and found to be metal dust.
- The hypothesis that the red colouration of the water in the photograph was due to an algal bloom was briefly considered but quickly discounted upon investigation.”
This raises another question, however. Why, given that they were considering algal bloom from the outset as a possible cause, did they not go and take their own photos of it in the bay? Because there definitely was one. No one is denying that, even though the only evidence of it that Defra’s agencies have are some satellite images taken by Plymouth Marine Laboratory.
Let down by the weather
If the idea that algal bloom was the cause seemed unlikely to many when Defra published its first report in February, subsequent die-off events made Defra’s insistence on it appear completely ludicrous. At least it did to most people. Defra continued to have its cheerleaders – Tees Valley mayor, Ben Houchen, and local MPs, Jacob Young and Simon Clarke. In addition to these, PD Ports have also claimed to accept the algal bloom explanation.
When further die-off occurred, Defra dismissed these as being ‘low numbers’, as if people would fail to observe that stocks had not recovered, so subsequent die-off could inevitably only involve low numbers. As for reports that the kelp was also either dead or in very poor health, these elicited no comment at all.
Then came the wash-up of mussels and razor clams at Saltburn on 21 September, and Defra finally released a statement. They made a statement saying the wash up was caused by the weather:
“Environment Agency officers are attending reports of seaweed and deceased marine life being washed up on beaches on the North East coast. This is a regular occurrence at this time of year and follows stormy conditions over the weekend which can often have a significant impact on the marine environment.
“We are mindful of the high number of shellfish washed up last winter, and continue to monitor stocks closely. A comprehensive investigation was conducted earlier this year, concluding a naturally occurring algal bloom was the most likely cause.”
It went on to explain that high waves were predicted on Friday 16 September.
So, we sent their statement to Stan to see what he thought of it.
Not much, as it turns out. In addition to pointing out that it hardly amounted to a storm,h e had this to say:
“Storms rip the weed and roots off. These 5ft deep piles washed up on Hartlepool north sands were stalks and leaves. They are weak and dying.
“There [were] … only stalks left on some kelp beds weeks ago”
The 5ft deep piles of seaweed at Hartlepool were photographed by another local fisher, Jamie Wid, on 22 September:
Jamie commented, “The shocking amount of dead sea kelp washed up on Hartlepool north sands today is the sign of a struggling ecosystem.”
When Jamie posted that comment on Facebook, another local fisher had this to say in response:
“I have walked and fished this beach for over 50 years I have worked as a fisherman making a living from it. I have had boats all my life and have never ever seen anything like this before, there’s obviously something wrong going on for the sea to spew this amount of weed out”.
Secretary of Whitby Fishermen’s Association, Joe Redfern, had slightly different concerns about Defra’s explanation of the events at Saltburn:
“How about the razor clams (which live buried in the sand) and large amount of mussels attached to rocks?
“There were hundreds of them. The storm wasn’t large enough to cause all that to wash up”.
In simple terms, it is not in dispute that storms result in shellfish being washed up on beaches, but, given that mussels and razor clams are well stuck down, it would take a particularly violent storm for them to be dislodged.
So, Defra and its partner agencies now have an image problem. The environmental catastrophe has received considerable coverage in the local press in recent months, and some reports have also appeared in national media. And at least locally, the conviction that these episodes are pollution-related is widespread, despite the loud declarations of support for Defra by some local political figures.
So, how are the agencies dealing with this credibility gap? Not very well, it would appear.
After the die-off at Saltburn, we wrote to the EA to ask if they had carried out any toxicology on the shellfish washed up on the beach. (We also approached Cefas, whose responsibility it would have been to undertake toxicology, but they just directed us back to the EA). The EA response:
“… following recent stormy conditions, wash up of marine life is a natural occurrence at this time of year. We did send an officer to the site last week to investigate and believe that high wave action in shallow waters has caused large amounts of seaweed and other marine life to wash up.”
So, that’s a no then.
Despite successive die-off events, all the government agencies can do is to blame it on the weather, and make no effort whatsoever to investigate alternative possibilities.
But they are at least monitoring stocks. Or rather, this is being done for them by yet another agency – the North Eastern Association of Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities (NEIFCA).
Die-off? What die-off?
NEIFCA produced the Tees and North Yorkshire Stock Monitoring Report in September. Its content might be summarised as ‘reports of die-off have been greatly exaggerate’. The executive summary states
“Significant reductions in landings for both lobsters and edible crabs in late 2021 were not evident …
“Shellfish health monitoring undertaken during surveys encountered very low numbers of dead or symptomatic shellfish, suggesting that no persistent health concerns remain.”
While its conclusion adds the following caveat:
“This does not preclude the possibility that some highly localised fishing grounds suffered significant mortalities, but at a regional scale, landings in late 2021 were broadly in line with historic data and a significant reduction in landings in October and November were not observed.”
In short, last year’s mass mortality has ceased to be a fact and is now a ‘possibility’. Which must be music to Defra’s ears.
Stan, on the other hand, is less than impressed by what he sees. Here is egregious manipulation of data where large commercial boats that do not fish in inshore waters have their catch included to artificially inflate the numbers and fails to acknowledge that local fishers now routinely have to sail much further afield to obtain any catch at all. He characterises the contents of the report as:
“Using landing data when fishers are going further afield, to get out of the die-off areas, putting more gear in the water to try to make up for catches, Then adding catches from visiting nomadic large scale crabbers’ landing info, working many thousands of pots each, not only fishing outside the inside die offs affected areas, not only fishing outside NEIFCA control areas, but outside the 12 mile, to 50 miles Bayman’s and beyond.”
We wrote to NEIFCA to ask for their response to this criticism. Their response?
No response. No surprise there.
This is no legitimate appraisal of current stocks. It is toadying on speed. We hope that even the powers that be at Defra will be cringing over this one.
Algal bloom, an excuse not a theory
It seems that no matter how often Defra and its partner agencies are exposed as inept over their handling of this crisis, their response is simply to deny the truth and carry on. Where once there were scientists, now there are box tickers. And there is no shortage of agencies ready and willing to produce convenient data to order.
It is abundantly clear that pointing to algal bloom as the cause of the first die-off event is not a theory, it is an excuse. And this bogus explanation benefits whoever or whatever really lies behind that event. A vested interest is being shielded.
Deregulation in action.