Dead and dying marine life has been washing up on beaches around Teesside for nearly a year after a “mass die-off” of crabs and lobsters occurred there in autumn 2021, according to government documents and eyewitness reports seen by Sky News.
Scientists and local campaigners said the reports were evidence of an ongoing environmental disaster affecting more than 30 miles of coastline – from Hartlepool to Whitby and beyond.
“There has been an ongoing die-off,” said Dr Gary Caldwell, a marine biologist at Newcastle University researching the cause of the initial incident in October 2021.
The incident led to the “virtual extinction” of crabs and lobsters in the immediate area around the Tees Estuary, Dr Caldwell added.
There are concerns that it may be connected to a Freeport. Freeports are areas where certain tax and duty rules may apply. The government says they are designed to “create thousands of high-quality jobs in some of our most disadvantaged communities”.
According to the local authority, Teesside Freeport is the UK’s largest, covering 4,500 acres and is predicted to create more than 18,000 jobs over the next five years.
Around 50 reports of dead fish, shellfish and marine mammal entrapment, as well as reports of dead and dying fishermen, have been logged by the North East Fisheries Conservation Agency since December 2021.
Local campaigners have also photographed dead shellfish and seabirds found on beaches in numbers they say are not typical for the area. Fishermen report that catches in inland waters are much lower and include dead and dying lobsters.
Sharon Bell, who lives in the village of Marske-by-the-Sea, has been seeing dead sea life since 2021.
“We’ve been here for over a year now and it was literally just two weeks ago when I was here filming hundreds of oysters – it hasn’t gone away,” he said as we walked along the shore.
Hartlepool fisherman Paul Widdofield commented: “We’re putting our pots in the Sahara desert now because there’s nothing there.”
In May, a report by the Environment Agency, DEFRA and other government agencies concluded that a toxic algal bloom was 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 campaigners, concluded that an industrial chemical called pyridine was a more plausible explanation.
Pyridine is known to be present in the sediments of the Tees Estuary following decades of industrial activity in the area.
A study of sediment samples in the Tees Estuary, and a laboratory of chemicals, suggests a strong potential link between disturbed sediment and the loss of marine life, according to Dr Caldwell.
“We can see that the legacy of Teesside’s industrial heritage has long been buried in silt and being released back into the environment,” he said.
The initial die-off of marine life occurred after about 150,000 tonnes of sediment was dredged from the mouth of the Tees Estuary and dumped a few miles offshore.
A dredging operation of this size is unusual. Daily “maintenance” dredging takes place on a small scale to keep the Tees shipping channel clear.
The potential link to contaminated sediments has campaigners concerned about ongoing dredging work to build Freeport.
In addition, a dredging operation near the estuary is currently removing 145,000 tonnes of sediment from the estuary and dumping it into the sea.
After pressure from activists and MPs, Defra convened an independent panel of experts to review the possible causes of the incident. It is due to publish its conclusions later this month.
For now, DEFRA is dismissing the proposed link between dredging, pyridine and dead marine life.
“A comprehensive investigation was conducted in which government scientists weighed the evidence and concluded that a naturally occurring algal bloom was the likely cause,” the department said in a statement.
According to DEFRA, 10 “wash-ups” of marine life on beaches in the area were investigated by the Environment Agency in 2022. One, it concluded, was caused by spillage from a nearby power station, the other by higher than average. Ocean temperature in summer 2022 and cold temperature in December.
“Any washout that occurred between October and December 2021 was much smaller in scale and consistent with what would be expected during the stormy winter months,” it said.
Campaigners insist they are not trying to stop the continued development of the Tees Estuary Freeport.
“It didn’t need to happen,” Hartlepool jailer Stan Rennie said.
He added that “of course we want jobs”, but if Freeport is connected to recent events, it should not involve “sacrificing the fishing industry and the ecosystem”.