Dead Crustaceans (North-East Coast)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:55 pm on 28th June 2022.

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Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice) 3:55 pm, 28th June 2022

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. 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.