DEFRA committee calls for 'urgent investigations' to be carried out following crab die-off

The chairman of a Parliamentary committee which heard evidence about the mass deaths of crustaceans off the North East coast has said further urgent investigations should be carried out. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees/EFRA

The chairman of a Parliamentary committee which heard evidence about the mass deaths of crustaceans off the North East coast has said further urgent investigations should be carried out.

The letter, signed by the MP Sir Robert Goodwill, chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, was written following a hearing on Tuesday 25 October to Secretary of State Thérèse Coffey.

The committee heard evidence about the potential causes of the mass death of crabs and lobsters off the coast of the North East and North Yorkshire, and the impact it is having on fishing communities.

It heard evidence about two theories of potential causes of the die-off, including a naturally occurring algal bloom or the impact of chemicals from maintenance dredging of shipping channels.

Following the hearing, the committee recommended dredging in the Tees should be reviewed, said maintenance dredging should be kept at a “minimal level” to keep the port operational and said until the cause was known, there should be testing for the chemical pyridine as part of the approval process for any dredging projects.

In the letter sent to Ms Coffey, the Secretary of State for the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), Mr Goodwill listed the committee's interim findings:

  • There is a need for further data and research on the causes of the mass die-off. This should include “urgent investigation” of the potential sources of pyridine identified by Newcastle University academic Dr Gary Caldwell, including more extensive sampling of the sediments in the bed of the Tees Estuary.

  • Research must be done in an “open and collaborative” between Government agencies and the wider scientific community, including independent verification of testing.

  • The Government Chief Scientific Adviser should urgently appoint an expert independent panel to review evidence for both theories and report on its findings as soon as possible

  • The Marine Management Organisation (MMO) must urgently review the dredging activity in the Tees.

  • The MMO should explore what steps could be taken to reduce the risk associated with capital and maintenance dredging

  • The MMO must also ensure all the current conditions on its licence are met and should include pyridine in the testing as part of any future licence approval process. Dredged material should be tested for pyridine and any that is found to have dangerous levels of pyridine should not be disposed of at sea.

  • Maintenance dredging should be kept to the minimum level needed to keep the port operational until the expert panel’s investigation is completed.

  • Until the cause of the mass die-off is known, the MMO should routinely check for pyridine as part of the testing and approval process for any new capital dredging works.

  • The Government should reconsider its position on providing financial support to affected communities. A dedicated, separate fund should be set up to support affected fishers and potters and the regeneration of crab and lobster stocks.

A letter was sent by MP Robert Goodwill. Credit: EFRA

PD Ports, which carries out maintenance dredging of the Tees, has been contacted for comment.

Responding to the letter, a spokesperson for the South Tees Development Corporation, which started dredging the river this year - after the die-off occurred - as part of work to create the Tees Freeport, said: “Our transformative work at the South Bank Quay is of national significance and will help to unlock thousands of jobs in Redcar. As would be expected of a nationally significant project, we have complied with the highest legal standards and requirements laid down in licences and guidance right from the very start.

“We welcome the comments of the Select Committee. The cross-party committee has concluded dredging can continue. Information on the extensive testing carried out on our behalf is available on the MMO website.

“Environmental standards are important to us and, as we have throughout, we will always adhere to the rules and laws set by Government agencies. We continue to follow all the standards set out by DEFRA and the MMO, who continue to rule out dredging as a likely cause of the crustacean deaths. The Tees Valley Mayor is also continuing to push the Government for financial support to those fishermen whose livelihoods have been affected by this issue.

“Our only dredging to date, which began on September 1 - almost a year after the die off in October 2021 - has had no issues and is due to be completed in the next few days.”