Dead Crustaceans (North-East Coast)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:13 pm on 28th June 2022.

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Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 4:13 pm, 28th June 2022

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

I, too, thank Alex Cunningham for securing this important debate. I also thank my hon. Friend 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.