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Dead Crustaceans (North-East Coast)

Volume 717: debated on Tuesday 28 June 2022

We are going to move straight on to the next debate. Will Members who are leaving please do so quickly and quietly? We are going to discuss the important issue of dead crustaceans on the north-east coast.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered dead crustaceans on the North East coast.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship yet again, Mr Hollobone. I seem to get you in the Chair quite a lot when I have debates. It is good to see you there.

Our fishing industry in north-east England has been dealt a huge blow in recent months, with catches decimated and businesses on the edge of ruin. The mass die-offs and the reason behind them have been causing serious concern along the north-east coast since the first dead sea creatures were discovered in the early morning of 6 October last year.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has held several calls with local MPs and I recognise its efforts to engage with us. However, there is still a huge amount of concern among our constituents, many of whom feel that the Government have not gone far enough in their investigations and that it is high time Ministers stepped up and provided some financial support to the industries that have been so severely impacted.

DEFRA has not updated its conclusions since last November, when it settled on the hypothesis that a rare algal bloom had caused the deaths. Even then, it was reported that DEFRA had not found one single causative factor, but rather that:

“A harmful algal bloom present in the area coincident with the event was identified as of significance.”

I am aware that the investigation by the Environment Agency, the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science and the Marine Management Organisation did examine other possibilities, such as licensed dredging, chemical contamination, activities related to offshore wind farms and aquatic animal disease. The investigation was closed after live and healthy crabs and other crustaceans were found in more recent catches.

However, the die-offs are still ongoing. We had one last December, another this February and a big one in April, with the most recent one occurring just two weeks ago. There is a real sense among the communities affected that the Department has not addressed the later die-offs, especially as the algal bloom was not definitively identified as the cause even back in the autumn.

It was for that reason that I wrote last month to the Minister for Farming, Fisheries and Food, the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), who is here today, requesting that the inquiry be reopened. To my deep disappointment, my request was refused by her colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow). I have therefore brought the issue to this Chamber in the hope that the voices of the affected communities will now be listened to.

The local fishing industry are still reporting higher than average amounts of dead crustaceans in its catches. I am told that fishermen from Hartlepool, Redcar and Whitby are still returning negligible catches from our inshore waters. Just last week, a crew set off from Hartlepool with 50 pots to catch lobsters. When they retrieved the pots, there were only four lobsters; of those four, only one was alive. I heard of another crew whose total catch was one crab and seven lobsters. Again, three lobsters were dead and two of the living lobsters were on their backs, already dying.

Considering those numbers, it seems that the decision to close the investigation was premature, and that it is possible that there is more to this issue than the hypothesised algal bloom—something the North East Fishing Collective also believes to be the case.

This is a very interesting debate that applies not only to the north-east but the whole UK coastline. I am not convinced that an algal bloom is responsible for the deaths of thousands of these creatures. Contamination by a chemical such as pyridine is a likely cause; it is not a chemical that is routinely examined or inspected for by the Environment Agency, but it could be the cause of the problem. Does the hon. Gentleman concur?

I am grateful for the hon. Member’s intervention, and will mention that very chemical later in my speech.

Our local fishing industry, which was already in a perilous state as a result of Brexit and the pandemic, deserves more robust answers from the Government. Will the Minister explain to our fishing communities why DEFRA will not reopen the investigation? As she knows, many in the fishing community believe that the cause of the die-offs may be linked to the dredging of the Tees in connection with the establishment of the Tees freeport, which is potentially stirring up historical pollutants. With a further 2 million tonnes of sediment licensed to be dredged from the Tees this summer and dumped at sea, can the Minister explain why the decontamination and repurposing of that sediment is not being considered, when no definitive cause of the die-offs has been established and dredging has remained a constant over the past nine months?

Indeed, some have suggested a direct link between the location and timings of the dredging by the UKD Orca and the die-offs. To that end, can the Minister confirm whether the spoil site where 250,000 tonnes of dredged sediment was dumped by the UKD Orca between 26 September 2021 and 5 October 2021 has been sampled and tested? I am aware of the Department’s response, which says that dredged material

“must meet the highest international standards protecting marine life”

before it can be disposed of at sea, but there are concerns that those standards are not robust enough, and that they allow the companies that want to dispose of that material too much latitude in the collection of samples. My understanding is that such sampling happens every few years, and there is no specific sampling at the sites people believe may be connected with the die-offs. I recognise that the Department has far greater expertise in this area than I do, but the fact is that the local community is still grasping for answers.

The hon. Gentleman is making some important points regarding this issue, which is of significant concern for the whole of the Tees valley community, not least myself and my constituents. Could he illustrate for us what efforts he has made to discuss this issue with the port authority, PD Ports?

I am grateful to the hon. Member for that intervention. I have not personally discussed the issue with PD Ports—perhaps its representatives would like to contact me so that we can have that discussion—but the important thing is that the Government take the lead and sort out the issues in the Tees valley. Perhaps the hon. Member will join me in calling for compensation, or at least some assistance, for the fisherpeople who are losing their businesses as a result of what is happening in that area.

It may well be that the hypothesised algal bloom is the primary factor causing the marine deaths, but it strikes me that too much un-investigated evidence is being peddled about. Another theory is the potential leakage of weed killer from the MV Stora Korsnäs Link 1, which sank off the coast of Saltburn in 1991 just before the by-election that saw Ashok Kumar elected to this House.

While I am not suggesting that any one thing is the definitive causative factor, there is enough evidence to warrant further inquiries, and our local fishing community agrees. The Government must engage further with our communities’ concerns, and if they are sure that dredging is not the issue, provide evidence definitively proving that to be the case. Instead, fishermen have been left to crowdfund independent reports because they cannot get the Government to answer their questions. When that is put in the context of our fishing communities’ reduced income as a result of Brexit, covid and the die-offs, it is appalling that the Government have left them having to pay out of their own pockets for the answers their industry needs to survive.

I would be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on the work of Tim Deere-Jones, an independent marine pollution consultant with 30 years’ experience, who has suggested that the cause is linked to the chemical pyridine, quantities of which were more than 70 times higher in crab samples taken from Saltburn and Seaton than a control sample from Penzance. In the words of Mr Deere-Jones,

“How Defra has not seen that and felt it requires further investigation, I don’t know”.

It is vital that further action is taken soon. The reports of last year’s impact on the marine landscape of the Tees estuary and the coasts of the north-east of England are horrifying. We are blessed with a beautiful and diverse marine landscape off our coast, but it is being decimated. Just last month, piles of crabs, lobsters, razor clams and dried seaweed formed on the beaches at South Gare and along the coast to Saltburn, an area popular with my constituents, as well as others further afield. As local marine rescuer, Sally Bunce, put it,

“It’s a dead zone. Fishermen in Saltburn have also reported pulling pots that are full of black silt.”

Sally first got involved in this cause because she rescues seals. She told me that most seal pups have starved to death this year. In their first months, they feed off sea life on the seabed but, because of these mass die-offs, there was nothing there. She rescued seal pups that, at four months old, should have been 35 kilograms, but were 15 kilograms. Sadly, some of them were too far gone to be rescued and rehabilitated. This year, 14 porpoises have washed up dead in a period of 10 weeks, which is a huge increase on normal numbers.

I understand that the Department did not provide funding for toxicology tests to be carried out on the porpoises. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain, given the circumstances, why it was not thought such a report would be needed. I am also interested to hear from the Minister of any investigation her Department has carried out on the effects of this prolonged mass mortality on the full range of regional marine wildlife. If what has been done so far has been insufficient, will she commit to a full investigation of the range of issues affecting our marine environment?

Scuba divers who dive off the coast from Marske have reported that areas that used to be full of wildlife are now desolate, and even the seaweed bleached white at the ends. Although the destruction of marine life is already devastating from an environmental perspective, the impact it is having on the fishing industry in the north-east could be terminal.

I have already shared cases of diminishing shellfish catches, and those where the lobsters are already dead. In the first die-off in October, the local fishing industry reported a 95% decline in the lobster and crab catch. The picture is truly catastrophic. There have also been reports from fishermen that they have caught flounder that have been covered in blisters. It is not good enough for the Government to sit back and let this fishing industry die. It will be yet another Tees industry that the Tories have seen over the edge, just like they did with our steel industry. The Government cannot level up our country if they turn a blind eye, and simply allow the industries and communities such as ours to die away.

I have been calling for a support package for the fishermen since February. Back then, the Department said it was not considering compensation. I wonder whether now, as issues remain ongoing, the Minister will reconsider her Department’s position and provide vital support for the north-east’s decimated fishing industry. The hon. Member for Redcar (Jacob Young) raised the matter at Prime Minister’s questions earlier this month. I want to ensure that it is clearly on the record that the £100 million that the Prime Minister referred to in his reply is not new money to support the fishermen in response to this crisis, but the existing £100 million of the UK seafood fund that was announced in early 2021, before the die-offs had even begun.

That sum was to support the industry because of the financial losses it has suffered as a result of the Government’s bungled Brexit. We need additional funds to be identified to support the industry given this new challenge. I hope the Minister can commit today to consider such a support package. If the Department is unable to provide such a package, I wonder whether the Tees Valley Mayor has the powers, if he is willing to provide some form of support, to ensure that we do not lose the few remaining fishing boats from Teesside and Hartlepool.

Our industries desperately need support and they deserve more definitive answers. The Government need to pay more attention to this ongoing crisis. They cannot continue to stick their heads in the sand and hope that the situation will resolve itself. We want our seas back and we want our fishing industry back. I hope that the Minister gives our local communities’ concerns the attention and respect that they deserve.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) for securing this debate on an issue that has been at the forefront of all our minds since October last year.

I should start by drawing attention to the fact that, as the MP for Redcar, I sit on the boards of both Teesworks and the Teesside freeport. I do not get paid to perform those roles; I sit on the boards to advocate for my constituents. However, I will first tackle the myth that has been spread online that somehow Teesworks, the freeport and, by implication, the Tees Valley Mayor are linked to dredging in the River Tees.

The Tees Valley Mayor has no control, legislative remit or authority over any of the Tees mouth. PD Ports is the statutory harbour authority and organises dredging activities. No dredging has taken place as part of the Teesside freeport, Teesworks or the South Bank Quay project, and any and all dredging must be done in accordance with the requirements and related regulations of the Marine Management Organisation, as has always been the case with all the dredging on the River Tees that has happened since the year dot.

I think it is a misconception to get lost in a conversation about dredging, because we know that contaminates exist in the riverbed. That is why sampling is undertaken before any dredging takes place; it is also why dredging that does not meet the requirements of disposal at sea is dealt with separately and handled onshore. While, as the hon. Member for Stockton North said, the joint investigation into the mass death of crabs has not been able to come to an absolute conclusion—no such investigation would ever be able to do that—it has been able to rule out chemical pollution and dredging as the likely cause of the crustacean die-off.

I am not a scientist. I am not trained in marine biology; nor is the hon. Member for Stockton North, and nor, indeed, is the Minister. We are here as politicians, to ask the pressing questions that need to be asked, to challenge ideas that are presented to us, and to accept the evidence when it is provided in an independent way, as is being done by the Environment Agency, the Marine Management Organisation, the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, and every other organisation involved in this case. If someone thinks that all those organisations would somehow conspire to hide the real cause of these crustacean deaths, they must be having a laugh. That would not happen. Why would all these leading scientists come together to try to cover this up in some way? That does not make sense.

Instead of going down that route and accepting the evidence for it, my plea to the Minister is that she continues to ask challenging questions of those organisations but that the real message that she should take away—this is something that was mentioned by the hon. Member for Stockton North—is the huge impact that this mass-mortality event has had on towns and communities such as Redcar, Whitby and Hartlepool. If we are to have a fishing industry in towns such as mine, it is vital that the Government extend support when we are faced with these freak acts of nature.

As the hon. Member said, when I raised this issue at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister highlighted the UK seafood fund, but we need to know how the Government will help the fishermen in Redcar today. Redcar originated as a fishing village in the 14th century; people have fished in Redcar for more than 700 years. Will the Minister please go away and consider what further help could be available for a community such as mine, to ensure that the thousands of crab deaths off our coast do not lead to the death of a 700-year-old industry?

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.

I, too, thank the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) for securing this important debate. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Jacob Young); together with my hon. Friends the Members for Hartlepool (Jill Mortimer) and for Darlington (Peter Gibson), he asks me almost daily whether I have an update on this issue, which is very important for their constituents. It is fair to say that the mass wash-up of dead crabs and lobsters in the Tees area last winter had a really significant effect, both on the local community as a whole and on the fishing industry.

The Environment Agency led the initial emergency response with the support of others, with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs then co-ordinating a multi-agency response involving the EA, the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, the Marine Management Organisation, the Food Standards Agency and the UK Health Security Agency.

It must be remembered that we really did not know what was causing the mass mortality. Extensive testing, research and analysis followed, which included testing for chemicals and other pollutants such as pyridine, dredging activity, disease, and seismic activity. In summary, no chemicals tested were identified at levels that would explain the cause of the mortality. A harmful algal bloom that was present in the area at the time was shown in the satellite imagery and confirmed by the consistent detection of algal toxins in the washed-up dead crabs and lobsters.

The Government experts’ joint report on those findings was published last month, and I hope that the hon. Member for Stockton North received it. It was published only on 31 May, not at the end of last year. Although we concluded that the most likely cause was the harmful algal bloom, we may never know for sure what caused the event. I will go on to detail the continuing testing, and I undertake to keep the hon. Gentleman informed as that process is gone through.

Our focus now is to understand the impact that the event has had on shellfish stocks in the region, and to try to monitor the recovery. We are also doing a very wide-ranging piece of work to better understand the impact of algal bloom on crustaceans. In a really important step forward, Government technical leads met industry-commissioned researchers last week to share knowledge gained from the work completed so far. There should be no suggestion that two different bodies of science are being created out of this industry, because it is really important that we pool resources, work together and are completely transparent in what we find. We also met to discuss planned university and DEFRA-commissioned research, and I am pleased that we are able to do that together. We will continue to share our findings and work collectively with all the experts wherever we can.

The EA is carrying out monthly sampling and testing of the water quality, and it continues to monitor water in the Tees as part of its normal programme. CEFAS is contributing to work on algal blooms and parasites in crustaceans, and it is also undertaking work to further understand the science, including that of pyridine. That is due to be completed in March 2023. It is a really large body of work, which will help us to interpret the scientific findings of the incident in 2021. I hope that it will also increase the suite of analytical tools that we have across DEFRA to respond should any such incident occur again.

I appreciate the Minister’s response and I know of the terrible constraints, but this situation has now lasted nine months. Just two weeks ago, we had another incident. A few weeks before that, we had a major incident. I do not know whether the same cause is to blame every time, but what is happening to identify whether there is an ongoing cause? What is going to happen to the fishermen?

I reassure the hon. Gentleman that I am being kept informed weekly by my hon. Friends the Members for Hartlepool and for Redcar, and by my own officials, who are monitoring the situation very closely. If I may, I will continue to set out the work that we are doing on testing, because it shows how seriously we are taking the issue.

We are waiting for a report associated with some of the parasite findings in the lobster samples that we took recently. CEFAS is actively investigating the intelligence that some of the lobsters have been found to be heavily parasitised, and it is examining them very carefully. The EA continues to monitor the water, including by conducting chlorophyll and phytoplankton sampling, as well as chemical sampling. The North Eastern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Association continues to monitor the health of shellfish stocks by following trends in catch and effort reporting, actively working on survey pots, conducting observer trips onboard fishing vessels and on the quayside, and supporting any additional biological sampling and testing work that is undertaken by other lead organisations. For the sake of completeness, I will say that the MMO is satisfied that the disposal of dredge material has been carried out in accordance with sampling guidelines set out under OSPAR.

I am just moving on to dredging on the Tees.

Dredging has been taking place for many years. It is essential to maintain navigational safety and access to ports and other facilities, and it plays a fundamental part in the operation of local businesses. It has been ruled out as a likely cause of the wash-up.

Before a marine licence is granted, samples of dredge materials must be tested. The MMO has looked at the test results before and after the dredging. The sampling of sediment licensed by the MMO for disposal to the designated sites of the Tees confirmed that no chemical determinants exceeded levels of concentrations that would be harmful to marine life. A further review found no evidence of a link between the disposal of dredged sediment and the mass crustacean deaths. The Environment Agency could not find anything of note in its testing, either. Sediment that is going to be dredged in the Tees is tested and sampled at least every three years prior to the dredging, and the MMO found nothing in the dredging sphere that would explain the deaths.

The Minister referred to the three-yearly testing. I want to understand whether there has been any specific testing of that dredge material in the last nine months—since we have had this problem.

I would be delighted to share with the hon. Gentleman the information that we have already shared with the scientists not related to the Government who are involved in the work. We have shared with them absolutely everything that we feel could be relevant, because it is very important, as my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar said, that no conspiracy theories abound.

To help the Minister out slightly, the joint agency report from May states clearly:

“Testing of sediment at the Inner Tees disposal site has already taken place in April 2021 and there was no evidence of significantly elevated contaminants in sediment”.

Yes. The point I was making is that we have shared all these findings; they are not in any way being kept secret. I completely accept why the local community is very distressed; it was an extremely distressing event. I understand that there are further crustacean deaths taking place from time to time. People locally are extremely worried by that, and that is understandable. However, it is important that we look at this with an open mind, and that scientists are able to share the evidence and work together to try to establish why on earth it has occurred.

I also understand that the local fishing industry has been put under enormous pressure during the last eight or nine months. It is not our normal practice to pay compensation when natural events occur, as they do annually all around the country. For example, very sadly, we have to close fisheries from time to time when stocks become unavailable. We are not currently considering compensation, but I am very willing to work with colleagues—I have extended this offer to my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar already—to see whether there are items or infrastructure bids in the UK seafood fund that would be suitable for the local communities. Members may wish to work together, as a group, to see whether there is something that we can do through that considerable fund to help the local community.

If I might slightly correct the hon. Member for Stockton North, the UK seafood fund was not in any way meant to compensate for the trade and co-operation agreement; instead, it was to get the industry ready for the fishing opportunities of the future and for the increased quota that has come our way following Brexit. It is very much a fund that looks to the future, and I would be very keen to meet any of the hon. Members present to discuss how best we can look into how that works for their area.

Last month, I visited Hartlepool and met my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool, the MMO, the inshore fisheries and conservation authority and a very helpful representative from the local fishing industry. Together, we looked at some dead crustaceans and spoke about the recent reports and the future of the investigation. My officials have been meeting the various agencies weekly to share intelligence and assess the situation, and the officials with me today would be delighted to speak to any hon. Member after the debate, to allay fears wherever possible.

Clearly, this situation has not yet been put to bed; we need to continue to monitor and assess. The report was a substantial and serious piece of work but I know that concerns remain locally—I hear and understand colleagues when they say that that is very much the case. I will therefore convene a meeting to update MPs when more of the evidence that I described earlier is available to us. I reassure all colleagues present that we keep this issue very much at the top of our agenda.

Question put and agreed to.