MPs call for urgent inquiry into Teesside dredging and mass crab deaths

Environment committee chair says crab die-offs in north-east having ‘profound impact on fishing communities’

The chair of the House of Commons environment select committee has called for an urgent investigation into whether dredging around a freeport development in Teesside has caused mass die-offs of crabs on the north-east coast.

In a letter sent on Tuesday, Sir Robert Goodwill told Thérèse Coffey, the environment secretary, his committee had heard evidence that the repeated mass deaths were having a “profound and long-lasting impact … on fishing communities”.

He called for the urgent appointment of an independent expert panel to investigate the cause of the deaths. Until the impact of the dredging can be ascertained, large-scale dredging in the area should be avoided, said Goodwill, and “maintenance dredging should be kept to the minimum level needed to keep the port operational until the expert panel’s investigation is completed”.

Residents of coastal communities close to the mouth of the River Tees have been raising the alarm over the deaths of crustaceans since autumn last year. In February crab and lobster fishers from Hartlepool to Scarborough were reporting that their catches were a 10th of what they would normally expect at that time of year.

The effects of the die-offs were cascading up the food chain, with seal rescue volunteers reporting emaciated seal pups, which would normally scavenge seabeds for crustaceans and other bottom-dwellers, washing ashore.

An initial report by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) blamed a naturally occurring algal bloom. But independent researchers blamed chemicals released by dredging operations linked to the development of the government’s flagship freeport at the mouth of the Tees.

The development on Europe’s largest brownfield site is expected to bring as many as 18,000 new jobs to the area, which has suffered significantly from deindustrialisation since the 1980s, alongside benefits to the economy worth £3.2bn. But some fear the extensive demolition, rebuilding and dredging work has disturbed pollutants that have lain dormant in the area and the surrounding seabed for decades.

Goodwill’s letter came after the Defra select committee heard evidence from Dr Gary Caldwell, a marine biologist from Newcastle University, warned that pyridine detected in high concentrations in dead crabs could have been released by dredging. “There is clearly a need for further data and research on the causes of the mass die-off,” Goodwill’s letter said.

“This must include urgent investigation of the potential sources of pyridine that [Caldwell] identified in his oral evidence, including more extensive sampling of the sediments in the bed of the Tees estuary to create a map of potential sources of pyridine in proximity to maintenance dredging and the wider area.”

A spokesperson for Defra said: “A comprehensive investigation last year concluded a naturally occurring algal bloom was the most likely cause [of the die-offs]. We recognise the concerns in regards to dredging, but we found no evidence to suggest this was a cause.

“This is a complex scientific issue, which is why we took a thorough, evidence-based approach. We welcome research carried out by universities and will continue to work with them.”


Damien Gayle Environment correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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