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?

“Utter rubbish!”

And I am inclined to agree with the experts.

Notes:

[1] Tim’s no fan of nuclear power, by the way. But that need not concern us here.

26 Comments

  1. John, thank you for that. I would be fascinated to learn the basis on which DEFRA thinks modelling can rule anything out. I am not saying that there is no role for models, but we do seem to have reached the absurd situation where models are described as science, we are told we have to follow “the science”, and so we cannot allow the evidence of our own eyes to question modelling.

    Secondly, I regret deeply that an obsession in many quarters with climate change means that real environmental concerns are ignored, because the “climate crisis” trumps everything.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. IMPORTANT ADDENDUM:

    I have to concede that I have now noticed that the official Defra press release does actually mention examination of satellite imagery. The problem, therefore, is that no such imagery appears to have been made public to back up the theory. Since such a bloom in October would run counter to all previous experience, it is very surprising that Defra has not released their evidence. Until such a time as they do, I think it is wise to remain open-minded. In the meantime, I have corrected my article accordingly, and I apologise for having initially jumped to an unwarranted conclusion.

    Like

  3. Those levels of pyridine seem extraordinarily high so begs the question, where did those levels of pyridine come from? I’m going back a few years but I seem to remember that pyridine is readily degraded by microbial action to ammonia and (our old favourite) CO2. Seems worthy of more investigation surely?
    According to Wikipedia 20,000 tonnes of the stuff were synthesised in 2016.

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  4. MikeP,

    Indeed, further research would seem to be in order. This, according to the Guardian, is what Deere-Jones had to say on the subject:

    “So far, the available evidence points clearly to pyridine as a potential cause of the mortality,” he said. His analyses point to several potential sources of pyridine discharge to the estuary, which could date back decades, but has embedded deep into the seabed. “On the basis of the established fact that pyridine preferentially deposits out into estuarine sediments, rather than remains in the water column, it seems likely that the new deeper dredging being constructed has uncovered and redistributed pyridine-laced sediments to the regional marine environment,” he added.

    I’m guessing he had the steel industry in mind as one of the potential sources (i.e. Redcar steel works). This is a known user of pyridine.

    Like

  5. If I ever knew how chlorophyll maps can be a useful measure of algal blooms, I’ve forgotten, but here are chlorophyll maps of the relevant area starting on 1st Sept 2021:

    https://worldview.earthdata.nasa.gov/?v=-1.7712959354826023,54.02715880801995,0.4407600064100503,55.07558115547948&l=MODIS_Aqua_Chlorophyll_A,MODIS_Aqua_L2_Chlorophyll_A,Reference_Labels_15m,Coastlines_15m,VIIRS_SNPP_CorrectedReflectance_TrueColor,MODIS_Aqua_CorrectedReflectance_TrueColor(hidden),MODIS_Terra_CorrectedReflectance_TrueColor(hidden)&lg=false&t=2021-09-01-T18%3A40%3A12Z

    DEFRA says that there was an algal bloom in September 2021. If you scroll through the pix from 1st Sept until now, various seemingly dramatic (red) things happen, but they are all transient. This probably doesn’t mean that they can’t have been cataclysmic, but…

    Hopefully somebody here who knows what they’re talking about can find some sense in these satpix.

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  6. I note, having read through the letters to the TeessideLive page that John linked to, that one correspondent points out that pyridine was commonly found in the tars produced by coking ovens and that two such have recently been demolished on Teeside. He also questions the conscientiousness of the contractors in removing the likely toxic waste that tend to accumulate at such sites.

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  7. Bill,

    Yes, there is a major decommissioning and brown site recovery currently underway near the banks of the Tees estuary (i.e. the former Redcar steel works) that certainly should be taken into account.

    Vinny,

    Yes, I note that such a claim appeared in the Guardian article I referred to earlier. I just wish that Defra would just point to the relevant photographic evidence and demonstrate how it led to their conclusion. Instead, they gave the impression that algal bloom was decided upon by a process of elimination; which wasn’t very convincing given how suspect that process seems to be.

    Like

  8. In fact, show us any direct evidence of the occurrence of a bloom – and when doing so try not to mention models again.

    Ouch. That first mention of models (that I read anyway) stuck out like a sore thumb.

    Why did I read ‘liars’ instead of ‘models’ right away?

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  9. Richard,

    Liars instead of models? Well, I don’t think I would put it that strongly, but a picture paints a thousand words. Given the controversy surrounding the disaster, I would have thought that a press release that included a picture akin to this article’s feature image would have been more useful than bragging about models. A sign of the times perhaps.

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  10. Mark,

    I hadn’t read the Guardian article before writing my piece. I wish I had, because it meant that I needed to take my article down a notch or two. I was mostly informed by the BBC and Teesside Gazette articles, but I had also read Defra’s own press release:

    https://www.gov.uk/government/news/update-on-investigation-into-the-deaths-of-crabs-and-lobster-in-the-north-east

    This sets the tone by spending most of its time dismissing causes, leading to the impression that the algal bloom theory floated to the top through a process of elimination. A careful read, however, does reveal that satellite imagery was consulted (it is last on their list of measures taken) but no statements are made regarding the results. Also, Tim Deere-Jones obtained the data that had been used by Defra to arrive at their results and yet he still dismisses the algal bloom theory. It is all very mysterious. A little more clarity from Defra would not go amiss.

    Incidentally, Deer-Jones sees himself as something of a people’s champion, particularly when opposing Cumbrian coal mines and nuclear power in general.

    Like

  11. John: I was describing a visceral reaction that doesn’t always occur when models or modelling are mentioned (though the latter is often preferable, as it seems to suggest continuous correction or improvement. There again, apparent model ‘improvement’ can just be overfitting. Tricky.)

    It’s a bloomin’ brilliant article, can I say. (I obviously could because I just did.) By the end you have brought to our attention:

    1. the lack of a picture of algae in the North Sea during the period in question
    2. the very unseasonal aspect of this purported algae attack
    3. the lack of samples showing a ‘bloom’
    4. the irrelevant mention of how climate change might affect such algae by 2100
    5. the local experts and Tim Deere-Jones thinking the conclusion is “utter rubbish”.

    My conclusion: the people in Defra who did this were being economical with the truth. Plausible motive: say something apparently sciencey which leads to all of them escaping any blame.

    But I didn’t need to read the rest of the article to reach this conclusion. I just needed your first quote:

    Significant testing and modelling has ruled out…

    Rather like Kent Beck’s ‘code smells’ this smelt fishy right away. The bureaucratic excuse machine rots from the head.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Another thing I liked

    [1] Tim’s no fan of nuclear power, by the way. But that need not concern us here.

    Exactly. Back to Geoff’s 80/20 rule, where, like a three-year-old, we can all be furious on Twitter because someone who should agree with us 100% of the time only gets to 80%. But you scotched such fury here.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Richard,

    >”My conclusion: the people in Defra who did this were being economical with the truth.”

    Yes, I think I would go along with that. A single photo would blow all other theories out of the water (so to speak). So let’s see it. I’m open minded and would be the first to back off. And yet they lead with ‘testing and modelling’.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. This from the site Vinny linked to (if anyone hasn’t played with https://worldview.earthdata.nasa.gov/, I cannot recommend it highly enough, although you do have to take the layers with a pinch of salt).

    Chlorophyll a on 1st October 2021:

    The red patch looks rather frightening, until you realise that it is actually a cloud:

    The upper limit of the scale, at 20mg/m^3 is probably within the definition of a bloom, but we can’t trust the image. The levels of phytoplankton wax and wane by the day, which seems extraordinary except when you realise that (generally) it is just displaying the areas of sea where there is no cloud. (The product is just reporting how green the sea is. Dunno how the cloud scored highly on that: it might be the ratio between intensities in two wavelengths or sommat.)

    “Hot” areas on the shore could be due to a wind from the SW pushing surface water away, thus pulling up water with more nutrients. The sea is usually stratified in the summer but then becomes well mixed again in the autumn. This leads to a second spike in phytoplankton: the light is still bright enough for energy requirements, and the re-mixed water means that there is enough nutrients.

    I suppose we immediately think of blue-green algae when we think of an algal bloom. Has the type been mentioned anywhere? If there was indeed a bloom, there is still a question as to how that could affect crabs, which are benthic animals. A vague possibility might be sinking dead algae being consumed by bacteria and sucking out all the oxygen from the water.

    More questions than answers from me.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Jit,

    Thanks for that. If that is their best direct evidence, I can see now why they didn’t lead with it. We should keep in mind that the scale of crab mortality is unprecedented for the North East coast, so we shouldn’t be needing to speculate about a bit of autumnal afters. A major incident implies a very obvious bloom.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Bill,

    That takes me back to my working days when Key Performance Indicators and Service Level Agreements were all the rage. Also, metrics collection was a big deal in supporting the software development process. I worked with a chief software engineer who advocated that anything that could be measured should be measured. My counter was to develop a company procedure for metrics collection that was based upon the Goal Questions Metrics approach. The idea was that all metrics collection should exist to answer questions that were necessary to determine whether particular goals were being met. The details were to be documented in a plan that was subject to approval. In this way, it was to be hoped, McNamara’s Fallacy would be avoided.

    However, getting back to the matter in hand. As far as the crab death phenomenon is concerned, we are supposed to be following the science. Even so, I am prepared to set my sights low. It would be good to be dealing with stuff that is measurable but, as far as algal blooms are concerned, I would make do with something that was observable.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. IMPORTANT UPDATE:

    Despite Defra’s confidence that the mystery has been solved, it looks like they are going to have to revisit the question:

    “Probe into more dead crabs and lobsters along North East coast.”

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tees-60438811

    This latest challenge to Defra’s winter algal bloom theory is doing nothing to engender confidence from within the fishing community:

    “Adrian Noble, a Whitby fisherman of more than 40 years, said he believed there was ‘not a chance in the world’ the deaths were caused by a naturally-occurring algae, adding the industry has been ‘decimated’.”

    Others, however, are far more tolerant of authoritative viewpoints. Take local MP, Alex Cunningham, for example:

    “Mr Cunningham said he believed the Environment Agency had ‘got it right’, but continuous testing was vital in case it had ‘got it a little wrong’.”

    It makes one wonder how wrong the authorities would have to be before it went beyond being a little bit.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. I was wondering today why I still hadn’t heard anything about the results of DEFRA’s re-investigation into the crustacean deaths on the North East coast. The answer, it turns out, is because it never actually took place. DEFRA are just sticking to their guns, despite the crisis getting ever deeper and the cause ever more mysterious. Now it is affecting seal pups:

    “From dead crabs, lobsters and shellfish to malnourished seal pups and porpoises, the issue of sea life washing up on the shores has been ongoing since October and is an every day concern for locals.”

    According to seal rescue volunteer Sally Bunce”

    “It’s tragic that we have been left and ignored. This is the collapse of an entire eco system. I don’t see how they cannot open the investigation again.”

    Even our friend George Monbiot is on the case now:

    “It has also gained the attention of environmental campaigner George Monboit [sic], who said: ‘Given that it has happened again, at a different time of year, government attempts to ascribe the disaster to natural causes look even less credible. We urgently need an open and unbiased investigation’.”

    But still nothing is changing:

    “However, there are no plans to re-open the investigation, and DEFRA remains committed to its ruling that a naturally occurring harmful algal bloom is the most likely cause.”

    Oh, I almost forgot: Saltburn, one of the beaches at the centre of the outbreak, and upon which one still cannot walk one’s dog, has just received its Blue Flag status! You couldn’t make it up.

    https://www.thenorthernecho.co.uk/news/20137883.concern-devastating-death-crustaceans-north-east/

    Liked by 2 people

  19. The natives are restless in the North East:

    “Fishermen and conservationists across Teesside are planning to stage a protest near a dredging spoil site they believe is killing marine life and causing dead crustaceans to wash up on the region’s beaches.”

    https://www.gazettelive.co.uk/news/teesside-news/fishermen-plan-mass-protest-tees-23981300

    I also note that the Teesside Gazette articles on this subject continue to attract thoughtful and seemingly well-informed comments. For example:

    “No samples were taken of algae, so the “oh it was probably algae line really doesn’t wash. Algal blooms form at >30ug/l (and can easily get to 100ug/l in the right conditions). Conditions were not right for an algae bloom and CEFAS satellite data shows algae concentrations to be 6.8ug/l at the time. Samples were taken showing highly elevated (nearing 100x) levels of Pyridine in the dead lobsters. the Defra line of there was a pyridine in the control group really doesn’t wash when the levels in the control group were so much less.”

    “Absolutely right. Defra’s finding were basically “the only other thing we can think of that it might have been is an algal bloom”. Not only did they not discover the real cause of the deaths, they also couldn’t supply any evidence to support the spurious event they tried to blame. It needs taking out of their hands: independent testing with independent sampling.”

    And then there is this:

    “I’ve had dealings with the Environment Agency and they really are a mixed bag. They have some good staff but they also have staff in key positions of responsibility that really lack knowledge and experience of the industries and work areas to which they are assigned and a “don’t you dare question us” management culture. I really hope someone gets to the bottom of this and those in positions of authority are held to account.”

    “…And I totally agree with you about the Environment Agency, I also know people who work and used to work for defra and other organisations linked directly with the environment agencies, and stepping out of line, daring to say anything that is not the company line and it’s goodbye, by hook or by crook, people get booted out.”

    Does any of that last bit sound familiar?

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  20. But if it wasn’t an algal bloom, what else could it have been? Mention has been made of restoration work at the former Redcar Steel Works but what could have been distributed sufficiently to contaminate a wide stretch of coastline and persist for months? And at this late date still be present in amounts to spread up the food chain? I would have thought that any top monitoring agency would be worried by what they may have missed. But perhaps they just want it to fade away.

    Who monitors DEFRA?

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  21. All good questions, Alan. I don’t know, is the answer. But I should point out that I don’t think anyone is saying that contamination is spreading up the food chain. I think it is just a case of higher animals now dying of starvation. I am not qualified to speak on matters of persistence and dispersion.

    Like

  22. John, when you referred to your inability to answer my questions about persistence and dispersion were you referring to DEFRA or the “poisoning”? If the problem wasn’t persistent, why can’t you walk with a dog?

    Like

  23. No, I’m just saying that if it were a case of dredging dispersing a toxin, I wouldn’t know enough to comment upon the reasons behind its extent and persistence.

    Like

  24. It’s made the BBC just now:

    “Fishing fleet protest over dead North East coast crustacean wash-ups”

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tees-61505399

    “A fishing fleet has protested against a dumping site which it blames for thousands of crustacean deaths.

    About 30 boats from Whitby, Redcar, Scarborough and Hartlepool sailed two miles from the River Tees, with workers saying their livelihoods are being hit.

    Large-scale wash-ups have been reported on the Tees coast since October.

    The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said it was monitoring the situation but had “ruled out” dredging as the cause.

    The Environment Agency has previously dismissed sewage, seismic activity and the laying of underwater cables as causing the deaths…”.

    No reference to algal blooms in this report.

    Liked by 1 person

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