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Crustacean Mortality in North-east England: Independent Expert Assessment

Volume 726: debated on Thursday 26 January 2023

With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will make a statement on the independent expert assessment of crustacean mortality in the north-east of England in 2021 and 2022.

Last Friday, the Environment Secretary published the independent expert assessment of unusual crustacean mortality in the north-east of England in 2021 and 2022 on The report documents the findings of the independent crustacean mortality expert panel convened by the chief scientific adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Professor Gideon Henderson, working with the Government chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance. The expert panel was convened to provide an independent scientific assessment of all the possible causes of the mass mortality incident using all relevant available data. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the members of the panel for their work.

The independent panel concluded that pyridine or another toxic pollutant was very unlikely to be the cause, as was any link to dredging in the Teesside freeport; capital dredging was exceptionally unlikely. The panel considered a novel pathogen to be the most likely cause of mortality because it could explain four key observations: mortality over a sustained period, mortalities spread along about 40 miles of coastline, the unusual twitching of dying crabs, and deaths predominantly of crabs rather than other species. The panel’s assessment followed a multi-agency investigation, co-ordinated by DEFRA, into the cause of dead crabs and lobsters that washed up on the north-east coast between October and December 2021.

Similarly to the independent expert panel, the DEFRA investigation identified no single, consistent causative factor. It could find no evidence of known pathogens and concluded that a harmful algal bloom present in the area coincident with the event was identified as of significance. I am considering carefully whether further analysis by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science can ascertain conclusively the cause of this unusual mortality. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) and for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) for their work on this issue on behalf of fishers and communities in their region—my word, they have needed it. Mass crustacean die-offs are now a regular occurrence on the shorelines of Teesside and North Yorkshire, and have been since October 2021, hitting businesses along the coastline. Fishers have reported a drop of up to 95% in their catches and continue to report high levels of dead shellfish in their catches. Let us not forget that our northern coastlines bask in beauty and history, so not only are they hubs for the fishing industry, but tourism plays an important role in their local economies.

We are 15 months into this issue, and all DEFRA Ministers can tell us is that they do not know what has caused it, that they do not know what has not caused it, and that an unidentified pathogen may or may not be causing it. Why, 15 months on, do they still not know? Is it because we have a Conservative Government and a Conservative Tees Valley Mayor who have been missing in action? Is it because they are not interested in uncovering the reasons behind it, and are more concerned with trying to brush the issue under the carpet? Is it because their priority is protecting a narrow political agenda rather than the interests of the people of Teesside and North Yorkshire? Or is it all the above? What message does that send out to fishers in the region? Dither and delay while hard-working people pay. Why have the Government been stalling on committing to or allowing further investigation? What is stopping them? What are they worried about?

Today, we need answers from the Minister. Does he plan to put in place a support plan for businesses affected by the mass die-offs and the delay in determining the cause? Will he ensure that existing samples are preserved and secured so that further investigation and testing can be carried out? Can he assure the House that his Department will allow independent sampling and testing to take place? Why have all dredging areas not been sampled and tested, as revealed by annex D.4?

The latest investigation poses far more questions than it answers. The Minister has the opportunity to commit at the Dispatch Box to getting to the bottom of this, drawing on independent and expert advice. Will he do so? The problem needs to be identified and rectified, because falling back on probable causes or a possible mystery pathogen is not good enough. All that does is cause further alarm and more uncertainty about the future of the region’s waters, and the jobs and livelihoods of local people.

I can honestly say that, sometimes, I find the response from the Opposition staggering. The hon. Gentleman has just demonstrated a complete and utter misunderstanding of how science works, and from the Member who represents Cambridge, that is absolutely outrageous—he is trying to play politics with this disaster. It is a disaster. There is a shared desire across the House to find out what caused the die-off. It has been catastrophic to the industry.

We have had the best scientists in the world looking at it. We are blessed with some of the best expertise in the world in aqua science. Unfortunately, because of how science works, it is sometimes difficult to identify exactly what is the cause. It is possible to rule out what it is not, and that is what the expert panel has done. The independent panel concluded that pyridine or another toxic pollutant was “very unlikely” as a cause, as was any link to dredging in the freeport. Labour Members may want to play politics with that, but that does not do fishermen in the north-east any good. Rather than trying to score cheap political points, they should support those scientists and the work that they are doing to establish the facts.

The Labour party is perfectly entitled to its own opinions, but it is not entitled to its own facts, particularly scientific facts. Will the Minister thank the expert panel, who have pretty much ruled out dredging, and particularly capital dredging, which had not taken place for nine months before the mortality event occurred? Will he assure me that CEFAS will be the first agency to be mobilised should we see recurrences and that, if it can find crabs—perhaps there are some in the freezer from when it happened—more can be done to try to identify the pathogen, which obviously needs to be tracked down?

I thank my right hon. Friend not only for his question but for the work that his Select Committee has done in trying to get to the bottom of the matter and establish the facts. CEFAS remains on guard and, should the worst happen and there is another event, it will step in. As he identified, there are crabs in freezers in the north-east that are available to be tested. However, we must be clear that it is entirely possible that we still will not be able to identify what that pathogen was or if it existed.

It is a sad day for democracy that it took Mr Speaker to grant my urgent question to get a Minister to the Dispatch Box—albeit with a statement—on a tragedy that may be one of the worst ever to hit our sea and coastal communities. Just as the Government’s original theory was inconclusive, so is their latest theory. Scientists still do not know what has caused this environmental disaster off the north-east coast; a disaster that is ongoing, with more die-offs and no sign of our sea recovering. What will the Minister do now to find out what the mystery pathogen is—if indeed that is what it is—and whether it could spread further? How will our sea be restored to health? Will he accept that as there is still no definitive cause, nothing can be ruled out, and that only a further in-depth, transparent scientific study will give our communities the answers they deserve?

First, the Secretary of State published the report in full as soon as she received it last Friday. She put it into the public domain, so it was available for anyone to read and make conclusions. She put out a written ministerial statement along with that for the world to look at.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman deliberately tries not to understand how science works or just wants to make his political point. That appears to me to be Tinkerbell politics, where we close our eyes and hope that we can find the answer. That is not how it works. We need to have the best scientists in the world investigating the issue, and that is what we have done. We have asked an independent panel to look at it and we have had the best scientists look at it. We have to accept the scientific results: that they cannot identify what it is. Those scientists remain on standby to investigate again if there is another event. Sadly, we must conclude that they have looked at the facts and ruled out many things, but that they cannot identify the pathogen at this stage.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Crustacean die-off is deeply concerning to our north-east communities, and particularly to our fishermen. Will he outline what support the Government are delivering to the fishermen affected?

We have now had two reports that have failed to categorically identify one single cause. Will my right hon. Friend outline what more he considers it reasonable to do before we conclude that we simply do not know what single cause was responsible? Does he agree that conspiracy theories and political mudslinging from the Labour party are not helpful to Teesside?

May I say to my hon. Friend and to Opposition Members that that is how to hold the Government to account? We help the situation by trying to get to the facts in a calm way. He will be aware of the £100-million seafood fund that is available to help fishing communities up and down the country. I know that many businesses in the north-east have been bidding into that pot, and I hope that they will be successful.

It is worth saying that the independent expert panel took a thorough, evidence-based approach, assessing all the evidence on this matter. That included correspondence with the University of Newcastle on a number of occasions. The independent panel concluded its assessment of the incident using all the evidence available at the time. DEFRA and its partner agencies will continue to work with researchers and the scientific community to monitor the situation.

In every other area of fisheries science and management, when facing something for which we do not know the cause, we proceed according to the precautionary principle. The Minister clearly does not know the cause of this incident. Last year and in the year 2020-21, English water companies discharged sewage into waters containing shellfish on no fewer than 59,079 occasions, lasting more than 432,695 hours. According to the precautionary principle, should we not be stopping that, instead of giving it the green light for another 15 years?

That is a slightly different topic. Of course, our scientists consistently monitor water quality throughout the rivers of the UK, and the good news is that water quality is going up in a number of areas. The Food Standards Agency—the most robust standards agency in the world—ensures that food produced in the UK is safe to consume and safe to eat, and it will continue to ensure that that is the case.

The coastline that we are talking about is where I, my family and my constituents all go for holidays and recreation. We play golf, visit the coast and take all the pleasures from it—it really is a fantastic part of the world. On the one hand, we have got the big worry about crustaceans. My understanding is that, although Opposition politicians are suggesting that die-offs have been continuing since October 2021, the Environment Agency has said that no further die-offs have occurred. I do not want people being put off visiting the coastline and enjoying the businesses there if the die-off is no longer going on. Can the Minister give any clarity about what is actually happening in the sea now?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and, along with my hon. Friends the Members for Darlington (Peter Gibson) and for Redcar (Jacob Young), taking a keen interest in this topic over a number of months. He is right to identify that the scientists concluded that there was a single, large die-off and the number of crabs now washing up on beaches is consistent with smaller events such as storms. There is no evidence that there is another large die-off taking place.

The Minister said that the report concluded that

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

We were in the area at the time, but we did not cause it, and neither did the harmful algal bloom. The report says it is “unlikely” that it caused it. So we want to know why DEFRA made such a fundamental mistake.

The panel tells us that while they do not know what the cause is, the most probable is an unknown, unidentified pathogen, but the likelihood of that being the cause is rated as somewhere between 33% and 66%. That level of uncertainty would not satisfy any tribunal, so clearly further investigation is needed. I hope the Minister can give us an assurance that all the resources of the agencies will be deployed if there is a further occurrence.

In terms of assistance for the fishers, they need help with the loss of their livelihoods. The hon. Member for Redcar (Jacob Young) will tell the Minister clearly that the seafood fund will not help them. They need help with the loss of their income. Can the Minister come to the Dispatch Box and say what package he will put together for those fishers?

The hon. Member is right in identifying that the panel came to the conclusion that it was unlikely that an algal bloom, or a loss of oxygen in the water associated with an algal bloom, caused those crab deaths. Its conclusion was clear that the most likely event was a pathogen. The panel also concluded that it cannot be absolutely certain in a scientific form that that is the case. [Interruption.] I hope the hon. Member listened to what I said, and I did answer the question he just asked me. CEFAS is on stand-by. If, God forbid, there is another event of this nature, it will step in. We have those crabs in freezers that are worthy of investigation, but the scientists and I are doubtful that pursuing those will find us any more information. If there is another event, those scientists will jump to it and try to establish the facts as they see them.

My right hon. Friend is right to rebuke Opposition Members for suggesting that there has been any complacency over this issue on the Government Benches. I was the Secretary of State who commissioned the first joint agency investigation into this matter over a year ago in December 2021. It reported in May 2022. The Environment Agency analysed samples for around 1,000 different possible toxins. CEFAS explored crab tissue in multiple different parts of the country, including comparisons with Cornwall and Norfolk, to rule out that possibility. Can he say whether the independent expert panel has looked at the possible impact of electromagnetic forces from cables, which the original investigation was going to explore but did not really report on?

I am not aware of any investigation into magnetic fields by the independent panel. It is certainly something I can feed back to our friends at CEFAS, who are the experts in this. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend, who started this work as Secretary of State. With the progress we have made so far, frustrating as it is, we are more informed than we were.

The Minister will be aware of the devastating effect this issue has had on fishing communities in the north-east. As the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) said, it is also potentially having an effect on tourism, after many years of cleaning up that coast to be an attractive tourist destination. Algal bloom was the first argument as to why this might have occurred. In his statement, the Minister said:

“I am considering carefully whether…the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science can ascertain conclusively the cause of this unusual mortality.”

To echo the hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson), what next, Minister?

It is about taking advice from those scientists and working with them so that they can establish the facts behind what caused this disease. As much as the House and I want to find the actual cause of this die-off, we have to face the scientific fact that if that event does not repeat itself—I sincerely hope it does not—we may never find its cause. If it is repeated, those scientists are ready to jump into action at great speed to try to establish the facts.

This is a classic case of environmental research that is contested. The independent panel’s report has clearly come up with no theoretical explanation of why this has happened. The British Ports Association says that there are not sufficient quantities of pyridine to have caused mass die-off. That is also contested by academics, particularly Dr Gary Caldwell at Newcastle University, who says that there are. As Lord Benyon has said to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee that there should be more testing, can we allow Dr Caldwell to undertake deep sediment samples? We can then rule it out if there is not enough of the pathogen to kill the crabs in these quantities, or determine that he is correct.

It should be clear to my hon. Friend that Dr Caldwell was in correspondence with the expert panel, and they exchanged a number of pieces of correspondence. The evidence that was put forward by that individual scientist was considered by the expert panel in coming to its conclusions.

I am on my feet because I have a crustacean industry in my constituency, and I also represent a constituent, Charles Clover, who is director of the Blue Marine Foundation. I have also read Jenni Russell’s commentary about this in The Times, which I find to be compelling. I am disappointed by many of the exchanges that have taken place, and there has clearly been a huge breakdown of trust. May I just counsel my right hon. Friend that he has to recognise that DEFRA has lost that trust—certainly of local fishermen and local people—and he just has to go back to the beginning and start again? He has to get everybody into a quiet room and see whether there can be agreement about finding a way forward. I know that he has been provoked, but this kind of argy-bargy will inspire no public confidence at all, and that is what is lacking at the moment.

I take at face value the advice of my hon. Friend. I think that DEFRA was and is seeking to have that trust. The way we establish the facts is to ask world-leading experts to look at those facts and come to a conclusion, independent of any interference or guidance from anyone else. That is what the independent panel did. It came to its conclusions and we put them into the public domain. We are as keen as anybody else is to establish what may have caused this disaster. We do not want to see a repeat of it, and we will do all we can to ensure that does not happen and to establish the facts as we can.

The Opposition have accused the panel of not seeking evidence from outside sources. The terms of reference suggest the panel looked at all the available evidence. Can the Minister please clarify?

The expert panel acted entirely independently. It took evidence and advice from all sources to try to establish the facts. That was all considered and is repeated in the report.

This issue is important, and not just in the north-east but across the country as we look at environmental impacts. I do not disagree about challenging and questioning the science where we need to and forging that debate; what I take issue with is when individuals’ integrity is questioned, whether that is the independent expert panel, who were referred to in quotation marks by an Opposition Member as “experts”, or even Sir Patrick Vallance. This is absolutely outrageous. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, as part of this ongoing work, he will ensure that the science is tested but the integrity of those involved is not questioned? When it is, it gives rise to anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists and everything else, and Opposition Members who have done that should be absolutely ashamed of themselves.

My hon. Friend is right to identify that. We are blessed in the United Kingdom with some of the best universities in the world. We have the world’s leading experts in a number of fields, and their independence and professionalism should not be questioned. I should be clear at the Dispatch Box that I did not know who the members of that panel were until the report was published. That is the right way to have proceeded, and I thank those experts for their work and their efforts to try to get to the bottom of this terrible case.