Why are crabs washing up dead on beaches in the North East?

Thousands of dead crabs and lobsters have been seen washed up on the beaches of North East England. Credit: ITV News

Investigations have been taking place into why thousands of dead crabs and lobsters have been washing up on beaches in the North East.

What do we know so far?

The phenomenon was first reported in early October in Seaton Carew, Redcar and further north in Seaham.

Crustacean deaths have been reported from Hartlepool down to Robin Hood's Bay.

October 15th 2021 - Concerns mount over thousands of dead crabs washed up on North East beaches

What is being done?

Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) has taken over the investigation from the Environment Agency, who were initially looking into the issue.

So far, chemical pollution, sewage, undersea cabling, seismic survey activity and dredging have been ruled out as likely causes. Scientists are now focusing on whether disease or a natural event could have been responsible for the deaths.

A spokesperson for Defra told ITV News Tyne Tees: "The Environment Agency and our science advisers Cefas have undertaken extensive tests to try to determine the cause and are reviewing the evidence gathered since the start of this incident, as well as considering any additional work needed.

"The Environment Agency have not identified any chemical contamination in the area that is likely to have caused the crab and lobster mortalities."

What are the wider impacts?

Marine disease PhD student Amy Burgess explains why understanding and remedying the crabs' decline is so important, given the role they play in our ecosystem.

Fishermen up and down the coast say their livelihoods are being affected because their catches are down. They are frustrated authorities do not know what is causing it and cannot plan for how long it will last or how far it will spread.

January 24, 2022 - Teesside marine biologist calls for more testing as Defra rules out dredging as cause of crab deaths

An expert on Teesside thinks he's cracked the case and has called for the country's top testing lab to get involved.

David McCready, who is now retired after a 40-year career as a marine biologist and oceanographer, has asked for samples to be sent to the government science lab, Porton Down.

He thinks that recent dredging, the process of excavating river or sea beds of debris, is to blame.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said it had ruled out dredging as the cause, telling ITV News Tyne Tees that samples of dredge material must meet the highest standards to protect marine life. DEFRA also said that testing across the Inner Tees and the Tees estuary took place last April and found no evidence of contaminants.

January 26, 2022 - Fishing industry leader says 'algal bloom' likely to be the cause of mysterious dead sealife

An investigation was launched by The Environment Agency and a government statement that was released said: "Defra and partner agencies consider that the deaths of the crabs and lobsters potentially resulted from a naturally occurring harmful algal bloom.

"No traces of chemical contaminants have been found that could have caused an event of this scale.

"Follow up survey work carried out by the Environment Agency on the 18th and 19th of January 2022 has also shown live healthy crabs present in the area, albeit in reduced numbers."

The statement added: "Evidence gathered by Government scientists and multiple agencies throughout the investigation will continue to be collated and studied.

"While this is no longer an active investigation, the agencies will continue to work with local fishers and remain on standby to respond if further events occur."

7th February, 2022 - Call for more evidence for cause of shellfish deaths on region's coastline

According to fishermen in Whitby, shellfish trade is down 90 per cent in the region with some now being forced to use food banks

James Cole, chair of Whitby Fishermen's Association, said: "In all my experience as a fishermen over 35 years I've never known an algal bloom of this magnitude doing this much devastation.

"We need more evidence of what's happened, we need more testing, we need more people to come. We've had nobody with any guidance come and see us and help us out of this situation."

DEFRA repeated today (February 7th) that their investigation points to algal bloom as the most likely cause.

What should we do if we find dead crabs or lobsters?

Although the risk to human life is believed to be low, people are advised not to go near the dead crustaceans.

The UK Health Security Agency advises:   

  • Avoid affected areas of beach and coastline where possible     

  • Make sure you wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after coming into contact with any affected crustaceans   

  • Do not touch or consume any sick or dead crustaceans that have been washed ashore 

  • Follow general hand hygiene practices – do not just rely on hand gels but wash hands thoroughly with soap and warm water    

  • Do not touch your face without washing hands first or whilst washing hands    

  • If you visit the beach take extra care when returning home when removing outer garments such as shoes and wash hands thoroughly afterwards    

  • Keep pets away from any sick or dead crustaceans   

There is currently no evidence of any risk to human health relating to consuming crabs and lobsters caught off the North East coast, so the Food Standards Agency is urging consumers to follow usual good hygiene practice when handling and preparing crabs and lobsters to eat. Further guidance on food hygiene can be found on the FSA website.