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Toxic Algae

Volume 175: debated on Thursday 28 June 1990

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To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether his Department has carried out research into links between the recent toxic algae outbreak on the east coast and pollution.

The evidence is that blooms of toxic algae are naturally occurring and are triggered primarily by combinations of calm water and good sunlight.

I accept the Minister's answer, but does he agree that the emergence of a 300-mile toxic algal scum slick shows that using the North sea as an international flush lavatory is not doing the quality of the water any good? Does he further agree that we need an international agreement to stop these long sea outfalls? In the light of the comments made yesterday by the Minister of Sport about the effluent tendency, does he agree that the main body of people in this country with a tendency towards effluent are Ministers?

The hon. Gentleman is getting his science mixed up. There is no link between the production of these blooms and pollution. They were first noticed in 1814, which was mainly a pre-industrial society. The most recent manifestation was on the west coast of Scotland. It is difficult to get further than that from population centres or intensive agriculture. That supports the evidence that it is naturally occurring. In only five years since 1968 has some warning not had to be posted, so the relationship between that phenomenon and what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting is impossible to prove.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Ministry must accept that there is a nexus between nutrients and growth? Does he agree that nitrates and phosphates are fed on greedily by algae? Although they must have benign warm conditions in which to flourish, if their source of food were reduced or cut off they would not grow to the extent that they are growing at present.

My hon. Friend is perfectly correct, but nitrates and phosphates occur naturally in the water, as they did at the beginning of the 19th century when the phenomenon was first noticed. There is no link between the discharge of sewage into the North sea, which we have undertaken to stop, and these blooms.

The House cannot accept that at all. We know very well that phosphates increase algal bloom. I urge the Minister to listen carefully to the comments of the Chairman of the Select Committee on the Environment. Will he confirm that the Ministry's scientists have said that one of the reasons why the outbreak was so long and intense was that there was a constant source of nutrients in the sea off the east coast, the main source of which is raw sewage dumping and raw sewage outfalls?

That is simply not the case. The blooms appeared because currents brought the seeds to the surface, where they were in warm water and sunlight. That has occurred around Britain's coast, most recently in the west of Scotland, where there are no population centres or major intensive farming which would supplement the water with nutrients, so the link simply has not been established.