Last October a plague of biblical status was visited upon the North East coast of the UK, particularly in and around the vicinity of the Teesside estuary. Firstly in their hundreds, and ultimately in their tens of thousands, dead crabs started to wash up on the beaches, until it became nigh on impossible to walk amongst the mounds of rotting carcasses. Worse still, live crabs and lobsters were no longer being caught in the pots deployed by the local fishermen, and an economic disaster was looming. Now, over four months later, the impact is still being felt; lobsters are in very short supply in the finest London restaurants and the North East fishing community is reduced to dining on tinned tuna from foodbanks. An investigation into the root cause of this ecological disaster was commissioned by Defra and its results were published last week. Defra is quite pleased with its efforts and has declared the mystery solved. The fishermen are livid.
At the outset, speculation was rife and nobody seemed to be short of suggestions. Everything from offshore windfarms and underwater cables, through to recent dredging, came under suspicion. Obviously, there had been a most unusual ‘event’, but what was it? It was going to need a thorough scientific investigation to get to the bottom of things, and Defra had the qualifications and authority to perform it. In particular, the public needed to be reassured that some form of man-made pollution was not the cause and, in this, Defra were happy to oblige. As a Defra spokesperson put it when speaking to the BBC:
“Significant testing and modelling has ruled out a number of potential causes including chemical pollution, sewage, animal disease or dredging. The most likely cause of the deaths seems to be a naturally occurring, harmful algal bloom.”
And that should be that – we must follow the science. Except, that is not that, because that is not what all the scientists are saying. Prudently, the Whitby Fishermen’s Association employed their own independent expert to appraise Defra’s report – a gentleman with over 30 years of experience in investigating marine pollution disasters. Mr Tim Deere-Jones1 started by issuing a Freedom of Information request so that he could examine the data that Defra had collected before drawing its conclusions. In particular, he was interested to see what Defra had discovered regarding the presence of pyridine, an industrial pollutant with an unfortunate track record when it comes to marine ecological disasters. This is what Defra said:
“Our sampling established that no pyridine was present in the water or sediment samples we collected but was detected in crab tissue from both impacted areas and non-impacted areas elsewhere in the country. As such, any levels detected in crab tissue are likely to be linked to biological processes and not necessarily from the environment.”
However, this is what the data said:
“439mg/kg of pyridine in one [crab] from Saltburn, and 203mg/kg in Seaton, compared with 5.9mg/kg in a control sample from Cornwall. Other North East samples were lower though.”
The devil, as always, is in the detail. Yes, pyridine was also found in crabs remote from the scene of the disaster, but only at the levels one had come to expect under normal circumstances. The Teesside crabs, however, were glowing in the dark. Some levels were 70 times greater than could have been reasonably expected.
But there is another side to this mystery. Not only did Defra appear to be playing down the smoking gun of pyridine, it also seemed to be basing its conclusions upon the principle that ‘when the impossible has been ruled out, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth’. There was no direct evidence offered that an algal bloom had occurred, only a desperate leap of conjecture. In fact, when it came to the mythic algal bloom, it is not just a case of absence of evidence, there may be evidence of absence.
First, and foremost, marine algal blooms are a very prominent phenomenon. Actually, they are so prominent that they are visible from outer space. They are not uncommon in the North Sea but they always get caught on camera, as the satellite picture used to illustrate this article ably demonstrates. So it simply wouldn’t be sufficient for Defra to say ‘so we suppose it must have been’. Defra states that satellite imagery was examined as part of their investigation, so they should be able to show us the photographs of the bloom. In fact, show us any direct evidence of the occurrence of a bloom – and when doing so try not to mention models again.
Defra was quick enough to dismiss pyridine based upon the supposed absence of the chemical within the waters, so the algal bloom theory could be similarly dismissed with equal confidence based upon the absence of – well, to put it bluntly – a bloom? Sure, algae were detected in their tests, but so what? As our independent expert pointed out, a bit of algae a bloom doth not make.
“There was marine algae out there but it wasn’t really what you’d call a bloom, and nobody took any samples to prove it was a lethal algal bloom.”
Quite apart from Defra’s strange coyness in not releasing the satellite imagery, there is another reason to remain sceptical regarding the algal bloom theory: the timing is all wrong. As a North Sea phenomenon, algal blooms always occur in spring and last into early summer at the most. But this bloom is supposed to have started in October and, based upon its impact, lasted well into winter. As anyone who has spent the whole of their working days earning a living off the North East coast can tell you, this would be unprecedented and quite bizarre, given that the sea temperatures at that time of year are nowhere near high enough to generate the nutrients required for an algal bloom. Except, we are forgetting the elephant in the room here. It fell to Newcastle University marine biologist and Green Party member, Dr Gary Caldwell, to point this out on the local BBC news last night:
“Climate change is increasing the risk of algal blooms”.
So there you have it. Because someone has noted that the posited 4 degree centigrade warming of the oceans by 2100 is bound to have an impact on marine algal blooms, Gary thought he would just chuck it in there to give added credence to the Defra report’s findings. The dead crabs washed up on the beaches are just another victim of climate change, so it seems.
But what do the fishermen who have fished these waters for years think about this conclusion?
And I am inclined to agree with the experts.
 Tim’s no fan of nuclear power, by the way. But that need not concern us here.