It was a good news story on the otherwise sombre day of the Queen’s death. On 8 September, the ITV website headline proclaimed: “Record Number of Seal Pups Born on Teesside.”
On the same day came the headline from Teesside Live: “Numbers of seal pups born on Teesside hits record high as animals thrive.”
Ten days later, The Yorkshire Post took a step further, headlining: “Cleaner river hailed as seal pup numbers surge to a record high.”
The articles reported that the number of harbour (or common) seal pups born on the Seal Sands flats at Teesmouth that had survived to weaning had grown from 28 to 38 in the last year.
What excellent news after the mass sea life die-offs over the last year, the readers must have enthused.
Seal rescuers seeing something different
Local seal rescuers however were baffled at the reports. At South Gare, just across the Tees river mouth from the birth site Seal Sands, and further south, the rescuers have not seen any increase in seal pups. Instead, they are witnessing most of the weaned pups emaciated and diseased, dead or dying, beyond the help of rehabilitation.
An increase of 10 on 28 newborns is not a great number and the total represents not a resounding success but a dismal failure, the seal rescuers claim.
So what are the facts behind the headlines?
The reports started out as a Teesside University article that had grown from a press release issued by Industry Nature Conservation Association (INCA). INCA conducts a daily seal pup census for two months in the pupping season which takes place every summer. The census is a head count by volunteers viewing from Greatham Creek Bridge Road and a hide on land owned by Venator, a titanium trioxide plant adjacent to Seal Sands.
Since the Industrial Revolution, the harbour seals birthing on Seal Sands have struggled, poisoned by Victorian pollution and exterminated by fishermen who blamed them and not pollution for the loss of fish.
But ever the creatures of habit, the harbour seals would return faithfully to the exact spot where they were born to give birth to their young, no matter how lethal that location was.
The larger grey seals prefer rocky outcrops to mudflats and usually give birth further down the coast.
The harbour seal pup census began life in 1989 as a project of David Bellamy Associates following a mass outbreak of seal distemper. It was funded then by the Teesside Development Corporation. Three years later INCA took over the role and they have been doing it ever since.
Sick and dying weaned seal pups
Sally Bunce, a local medic volunteer at British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR), rescues weaned pups that have left the Seal Sands birthing site and travelled south along the coast. For years BDMLR has reported the sick and dying weaned seal pups to INCA on a weekly basis.
The pups that are stranded along the shoreline are desperately underweight, BDMLR has found. At under 15kg they are considered incapable of survival in the wild. The rescuers regularly see weaned pups that are less than their birth weight of 12kg.
The youngsters ought to weigh some 30kg after 20 days of feeding on their mother’s milk. Then when their mothers abandon them, a few days’ starvation forces them into the water where they at first seek out food on the seabed before progressing to the more elusive fish. But with less blubber on them the pups can’t take the cold of the grim North Sea and return to land to warm up – and go hungry. So they are caught in a vicious cycle of cold and weight loss, and soon die.
In the past two weeks, Sally knows of nine dead or dying harbour seal pups. Last year only two pups survived it seemed – or their bodies weren’t found.
Why the deaths?
The weaned pup deaths aren’t new, and the volunteer rescuers think the mortalities are growing. One theory is that the pups are now also starving as they scavenge for crustaceans on a sea bed that is barren after the mass sea life die-offs of the last year.
Another killer of the past five years is Mouth Rot. This eats away at the seal’s hard pallet and then attacks the bone, at which point the disease becomes terminal. Little is known about Mouth Rot. Although it is thought to be a virus, it can be halted in its early stages by antibiotics. Mouth Rot is currently under investigation at Teesside University. BDMLR send them samples of dead seals for analysis.
Many of the pups have parasites- worms that cause them to vomit blood and eventually die.
The weakened youngsters seem incapable of fighting off infection or parasites, as if their immune systems have been compromised.
And why a success story?
So with the seal pups struggling for survival, why does INCA consider them to be a success story? The answer, it appears, lies in the head count of pups before weaning.
How accurate is this methodology? The hide and the creek are 300-700 metres distant from the pups. Harbour seals are born without the fluffy white fur of grey seals and can easily resemble their cousins that have just lost their infant coats. As harbour seals pop in and out of the water with their mothers it’s easy to double count, Alison Pake, a rescuer at Seaham tells me.
Ian Bond, ecologist, stands by their census results. They use telescopes from two locations and need only tell the difference between harbour and grey seals. In an email to us he argued:
“I definitely think the increase in seal numbers is a good news story, as has been the case for some years now. I don’t think anybody would claim the river was clean, but there is objective evidence that it is “cleaner”, which is the word I used in the press release.”
“We are starting to get in the figures for the seal counts which we do over August/September which give the peak counts of all seals, not just pups. The highest count we have had so far from that is 162. This is 20 higher than the previous highest, so like the pups represents a big jump.”
Bond’s claims however don’t mention the fact that nearly all those successful pups die soon after they are weaned, according to rescuer observations.
Teesside University, as reported by the local press, is conducting research into why the seals are so “successful”. But the research, a PhD project, focuses on collecting seal faeces for DNA data, to establish how the seals are related.
Another study conducted by the PhD supervisor, Teesside University lecturer Dr Jamie Bojko is, “Seal mortality investigation in England and Wales (2021-2022)”, funded by the government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). It has been running from 1 April this year and will conclude on 31 March next year.
Research on seal mortalities by the London Zoo-based Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP), began last year with government funding after a study gap of some 20 years. So it looks like government interest is now there to seek answers for the seal deaths.
Older research has already shown that Teesmouth’s pollution has affected seal health.
A study of the Seal Sands harbour seals published in 2001 showed that seven of the 12 pups born live between1989 and 1997, were stranded and dying. They presented a common pattern: although they had normal maternal care, the pups gradually weakened until they could no longer follow their mother.
The blubber of the first three pups had raised levels of polychlorinated biphenyl compounds – known as PCBs – which were also found in local fish and invertebrates.
Outlawed two decades ago, PCBs are a legacy of older pollution. They were used in pesticides, paints and wood protection.
A national study of PCBs also published in 2001 reported that levels of the chemicals were higher in the sediment at some off-shore dredging disposal sites. The concentrations of PCBs had increased at the Tyne and Tees, and North East England was declared an “area of concern” for PCBs in marine sediments.
PCB concentrations have been found in one third of all the dredged material samples nationally that were analysed in the 1990s.
The recent permit for dredging the Tees included contaminant test data. PCBs made an appearance.
The test data for the upriver, deeper South Bank Quay dredging showed elevated levels of practically everything, from toxic metals like zinc and lead to contaminants like PCBs and carcinogenic Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs). The latter also showed elevated levels at the Hartlepool dredging locations.
Much of the Tees river sediment pollution is from age-old industry. But what of today’s contaminants? Studies of harbour seals in New England showed they are intolerant to a cocktail of toxins that can accumulate in the body. The mother unwittingly transfers -“offloads” – toxins in her own system to her pup during gestation and later in her milk. As the pup drinks the milk, it becomes progressively weaker.
Cheek by jowl with Seal Sands is Teesside’s chemical industry. Straddling both banks of the Tees, the chemical complex is the largest in the UK, and the second largest in Europe.
Three chemical processing sites are located around the mouth of the Tees, at Wilton, Billingham and even Seal Sands, the latter adjoining the nature reserve. The plants here are commodity chemical manufacturers with products like petrochemicals, fertilizers and polymers.
Then there’s the untreated sewage outflows from the Northumbrian Water plant at Bran Sands on the opposite bank from Seal Sands. According to the Rivers Trust, in 2021 Northumbrian Water sewers spilled 120 times for a total of 626 hours, discharging into Dabholme Gut, a beck that feeds into the Tees almost opposite Seal Sands. Northumbrian Water is not alone: there are discharges all along the river. Northumbrian Water also treated liquid trade waste from Vertellus Specialties UK Ltd, which closed its Seal Sands plant in September last year. The water company’s EIR response confirms that waste treatment from the Vertellus decommissioning continued until May this year. Vertellus formerly used pyridine in its production. Defra have yet to explain why pyridine levels in the mass die-off crabs were up to 74 times higher than in Cornwall controls.
But toxicology testing is missing from the Teesside University research and CSIP have confirmed to us that they don’t test for toxins either. In fact, no routine toxicology tests are done in the UK for seal post mortems.
Yet the need for toxicology testing has become all the more urgent with the waves of local mass sea life die-offs over the past year. While dead crabs and other crustaceans washed up in piles on the beaches, dead and dying seals appeared too. Even this week the beaches around Redcar are covered with dead mussels, razor clams, starfish and other sea-floor feeders.
So where does this leave INCA and its success story? With six employees in 2020, INCA is a non-profit limited company that operates on a limited membership basis. According to its last public accounts (year to December 2020) it had nearly £166,000 in the bank.
In its filing the company describes its business as “environmental consultancy activities”.
INCA claims to have “over 50 members including most of the major chemical, waste, and power generation businesses in the Tees Valley.” Its directors have included chemical and other industry executives.
One member is PD Ports which overseees routine dredging of the Tees. Then there’s Teesworks Ltd, a joint venture in Tory Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen’s stable which is tasked with renovating derelict industrial land in preparation for the new Teesside Freeport.
INCA regards itself as a bridge between industry and the environment. Could emphasizing the “good news” of pup births while overlooking the weaned pup deaths, be INCA’s PR for its industrial clients? Whether or not that’s the case, INCA has torpedoed its reputation with environmentalists.