Stan Rennie, age 61, has fished the waters off of Hartlepool, North East England, since his teens. But nothing in that near-50 year-stretch had prepared him for the mass die-offs of marine life which he and his fellow fishermen first began to notice at the end of September 2021.
Dead shrimps on a beach as far as the eye can see. Dead crabs crowding the shoreline. Lobsters twitching on their backs. Seal pups on the brink of starvation. Stan has been watching the death of a marine ecosystem in real time.
“I live right on the seafront about 20 yards back from the sea,” says Stan. “I’ve fished on the rocks right in front of the window all my life, but I’d never seen anything like it. There was no life in the pots [wire baskets used for fishing]. I knew right away there was something wrong.”
Stan lives a quarter of a mile north of the mouth of the River Tees. In the estuary, where fishermen catch shore crabs in tyres to use as bait, there was no life there either, save the odd crab lying on its back twitching before it died. Dead lobsters were found on the beach at Redcar to the south. Local reports kept coming in with no obvious cause, as the weather was calm with no big storms or extremely cold temperatures.
“The fishing communities have been living here for generations and they’re so in tune with nature and the environment. But there was no logical explanation for what we were seeing,” says Joe Redfern, a marine biologist, and lobster fisherman, who runs the Whitby Lobster Hatchery to the south of the river Tees. “It was a mystery.”
“When the swell did pick up, everything got brought ashore,” says Refern. “The scale of mortalities and the range it was covering was huge.” It continued for months, with wash ups of different species – from razor clams to flat fish and mussels – happening once a week or more; it even killed the moss and blanket weed on some of the beaches, leaving them looking like they’d been power-washed.
The government agency Defra suggested the cause was a toxic algal bloom, but the fishermen were not convinced. Instead, rumours began to swirl that an unusual dredger had been spotted in the area shifting sediment shortly before the die-offs started and, while they had no concrete evidence at the time of a link, it seemed too much of a coincidence to ignore.
Joe set up the North East Fishing Collective with Stan and others to voice the fishing communities’ concerns, and he began to research the sediment in the Tees. “The history of heavy industry and disregard for chemicals that have gone into the river here is well documented,” he says. Joe enlisted the help of academics and other independent experts to look into the situation using crowdfunded money.
The first piece of research, produced by pollution consultant Tim Deere-Jones in February 2022, found no evidence for the algal bloom theory but did note, using freedom of information requests from Defra’s own research, that dead crabs tested in Saltburn had been found to have high levels of pyridine – a by-product of steel making.
The government agencies warned the collective not to go public with the research as they’d kill the industry, especially after the challenges of Brexit. (“95% of the crabs and lobsters go to France and they said the French would want any excuse to not take them,” explains Joe.) But instead of working with the fishermen to investigate the research further, the agencies doubled down on the algal bloom theory.
Despite this, the collective continued to commission more research including a ground-breaking study by Dr Gary Caldwell from Newcastle University, which linked the behaviour of the crustaceans seen in the pots and on the beaches, most notably the twitching and convulsive behaviours, with exposure to pyridine.
Why might the government agencies have been so wedded to the algal bloom theory? The Tees valley is the site of the UK government’s first flagship Freeport initiative, the centrepiece of its ‘levelling up’ agenda, which it plans to roll out to seven other sites around the UK. The Freeport is being built on a former steelworks beside the Tees and will require hundreds of thousands of tonnes of sediment to be removed through dredging and dumped at sea. When speaking to Channel 4 news, Dr Jacqui Reed, a former government scientist with a PhD in handling toxic river sediment, described the Freeport location as “the most toxic site in the UK”.
As it turns out, 150,000 tonnes of sediment was displaced from the Tees estuary in autumn 2021 to widen and deepen the channel, just before the die-offs began. Thanks to continued lobbying, Joe, Stan and Dr Gary Caldwell, amongst other academics and activists, have all given evidence in parliament before Efra committees. In November, the government finally announced an independent review into the sea life mortality, though it said it would be using its own experts which contradicted its claim of independence, as Labour MP Ian Bryne for Liverpool West Derby, which is due to get its own Freeport, pointed out.
Today we've called on @GovUK to conduct the review in a more open, transparent & collaborative way
— EFRA Committee (@CommonsEFRA) December 13, 2022
On 13 December, the parliamentary committee accused Defra of a lack of transparency in setting up the independent review, saying it was “unlikely to build trust with scientists who have been critical of the previous Defra report and the local community, which feels its concerns have not been listened to”.
Huck contacted Defra for comment and a spokesperson said: “We recognise fishing communities in the North East want as thorough an assessment as possible into the crab and lobster deaths last year. Whilst an investigation concluded a naturally occurring algal bloom was the most likely cause, all the evidence is now also being assessed by an independent expert panel. We have received the letter from the Efra committee requesting further information on the independent panel and will be responding in due course.”
Yet, the government still has no plans to halt the first phase of dredging for the Freeport, which began in September 2022. Through several phases, it will see hundreds of thousands more tonnes of likely toxic sediment disturbed from the banks of the River Tees and then dumped in the sea.
It’s a cold night on Saltburn Pier in November, and a glow in the dark octopus is dancing with a seahorse, while a luminescent crab looks on. The decorative crustaceans are being carried aloft by people in fancy dress as a part of a public protest organised by the local action group, Reclaim our Sea. Sally Bunce, co-founder of Reclaim our Sea, who also works full-time as a carer and cleans holiday lets, is standing on a bin congratulating a crowd of hundreds – including sea swimmers, surfers, and other locals of all ages – on how far they’ve come in their fight to halt dredging in the Tees.
“When we started it felt like David and Goliath, but talking to an agency officer today, he said you’ve got them seriously on the back foot. We’ve been heard in parliament and forced the government to appoint an independent committee to look at all of the data,” she says. “That’s massive.”
Sally had been “blissfully unaware” of the die-off until the start of 2022, when she and her team started to pick up grey seal pups who were incredibly underweight, in some cases under their birth weight. “They were skin and bone. It was clear there was no food for them to eat on the bottom of the sea, where they usually trawl once they’re weaned at 16 days old,” she says.
She spoke to some fishermen to see if their catches were down and when she heard about the die-offs, she started attending meetings and has been campaigning to raise funds for research and spread awareness about the die-offs ever since. Sally explains that it’s become like citizen science as campaigners and members of the public share die-off photos online and collect species samples for testing, in some cases even paying for vets to perform toxicology samples on seals. “The seal is an indicator species as it eats everything down the food chain, so it lets us know what is going on in our marine environment,” she says.
A year on, Joe Redfern says it’s clear that everything the fishermen have noticed, from dead crustaceans and empty rock pools that used to be teeming with life, has been worsening the closer to the River Tees you get. “It’s changed where people are fishing,” says Joe, “As people have travelled further afield to get out of the dead zone, or put more pots in, it skews the reporting on overall catch rates but even then, the IFCA stock assessment reported crab catches as 95% down in South Gare and Redcar just south of the Tees.”
Stan Rennie, whose boat is too small to travel too far out of the dead zone, says his lobster catch is 80% down from last year. He calls it an “extinction episode” and says that new lesser marine creatures, such as whelks and brittle stars, have taken over the marine environment. “We’ve had 250 square miles of seabed affected, the fishing fleet has gone to the wall, the seals have moved out of the area, and if it were anywhere else in the country it, they would have thrown the kitchen sink at it, it would be a national disaster,” he says.
“The fight has taken over a lot of our lives,” continues Stan. On the day we speak, he’s just been interviewed by some academics looking into the mental health impacts of the die-offs on the local fishing community. When I ask how he’s doing, he tells me he’s worried about his friends. “People are very upset. I’m putting out emails to keep everyone in the loop and give them hope but some of the phone calls I’m getting are hard to handle. Grown men with their mental health shot, people are very down,” he says.
As a collective, they can’t understand why the dredging can’t be paused until the independent report comes out in January. “That’s backed by all the academics and experts we’ve been speaking to. No one can understand how you could allow it to continue,” he says. So, they keep on keeping on. Stan checks in a few days later to let me know they had a good showing at a protest in front of Teesworks (the Freeport site) despite the sub-zero weather.
I ask Joe Redfern if he thinks the die-off might inspire the local community to become more engaged on environmental issues generally. He coaches a local youth basketball team and one of his players has said he’s going to study conservation instead of engineering because of what has happened, which gives him hope, as does the politicisation of local fishermen and their unlikely alliance with environmentalists like seal rescuer Sally Bunce.
“The fishing community was thrust into this position, and they’re now being called ‘politically-motivated activists’ as a derogatory term but they’re owning it, which is good,” he says. “It’s just whether it’s too late for this.”
Sam Haddad is a freelance writer who edits the newsletter Climate & Board Sports.