Many of you may recall that I recently reported here concerning a major ecological disaster that had befallen the North East of England, in which mass die-offs of crustaceans had been swept up onto the beaches between Teesside and Whitby. The devastation has virtually destroyed crab and lobster fishing within the area and there is no sign of a let up. DEFRA investigated the deaths and astonishingly declared that a natural algal bloom was the most likely cause. Local fishermen dismissed the findings as rubbish, pointing the finger instead at a chemical called pyridine, which may have been re-released into the water column following dredging related to the Tees Port development. DEFRA has stuck to its guns and refuses to re-open the enquiry. Consequently, the local fisherman crowd-funded an independent study to be performed by a consortium of local universities. This is what has been announced today:

“Crab deaths may have been caused by poisoning by industrial toxins and not algal bloom.

Fresh research has suggested that the mass crab deaths seen on Teesside shores are “more consistent with poisoning by industrial toxins”.

Commissioned by the North East Fishing Collective, the investigation saw academics come together to determine whether pyridine is toxic to edible crabs following the mass crustacean die-offs seen across Teesside over the last year. Durham University, one of the academic institutions taking part in the study, found that satellite imagery “does show a marine algal bloom off Teesside at around the time of the Oct 2021 mass mortality event.” However, it said that not all blooms are harmful and that this one was “not unusually large,” with several larger blooms in 2021 and 2022 occurring without causing the mass die-offs.

The research described how harmful algal blooms “usually kill a broad range of organisms” but that the Teesside events disproportionately affected crabs and lobsters, which showed “an unusual twitching behaviour.” It found that pyridine “can induce exactly the same twitching behaviour as seen in affected Teesside crabs.”

The report’s conclusions outlined that “pyridine in seawater is highly toxic to crabs even at low levels, showing indications of attacking the nervous system as evidenced by the twitching and convulsing behaviours.” It described the death as “rapid” at the upper tested concentration, with lower concentrations causing “partial paralysis.”

Other findings noted that pyridine was found “in both near-shore and offshore sediments,” and that Teesside industrial plant Vertellus is known to have handled large amounts of the chemical before 2019. Computer simulations also predicted elevated quantities of pyridine could be transported to as far as Whitby, using current and tide data.

Conservationist Sally Bunce said she was “absolutely ecstatic” about the findings, explaining: “For the last six or seven months I’ve been accused of being a conspiracy theorist, talking utter rubbish, by various people. This proves that actually, not only are we not conspiracy theorists, but we have gone above and beyond to prove scientifically what the cause was.

“The fishermen have had to crowdfund £30k to fund this themselves. It’s like Christmas for me. Let’s hope now that we get this independent review done and we get a halt on the dredging and we test the whole of the area.

“Now we know that it is a killer of marine life, we can’t go chucking stuff out at sea anymore. We’ve got to look at other ways. The data clearly shows that the toxic plume could spread down as far as Whitby. We could wipe out the tourist industry way below Bridlington if we’re not careful.”

Alongside the North East Fishing Collective, other organisations involved in the study included The Fishmongers’ Company’s Fisheries Charitable Trust, Whitby Lobster Hatchery, and multiple academic institutions such as Newcastle University, the University of Hull, the University of York, and Durham University.

I don’t think this can be dismissed as a simple case of incompetence on the part of DEFRA. What we have seen here is a wilful, government sponsored attempt to cover up a major pollution event. It has been politicised science at its very worst. What more do we ‘deniers’ and ‘conspiracy theorists’ have to do to convince the public that the idea of governments following the science is so often a monstrous deception?


  1. John,

    Thanks for drawing that to our attention. What is disappointing is that – so far as I can see – neither the BBC nor the Guardian (who in fairness have looked at this issue in the past) have yet stirred themselves to report the new findings. Now, if there had been some way of linking it to climate change….


  2. Mark,

    It has been covered on the local news. ITV led with it with a 10 minute article. The BBC had it at item four, for a grand total of two minutes


  3. John,

    And the BBC do have it (in reasonable depth) on the Tees section of the website:

    “Shellfish deaths: Toxic chemical could have killed crabs, study says”

    However, if ever I saw a science & environment story that’s it. So why bury it in local news and ignore it in the science & environment section?


  4. Mark,

    Even if the BBC continues to treat this as a local matter of little national importance, the fact that a government scientific agency (DEFRA) has now been shown to be incompetent at best, and at worst institutionally corrupt, ought to mean something more. I now await with interest to see what Monbiot makes of this.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I can’t rule out incompetence as the reason why DEFRA came to the conclusions it did. I can’t say that finding levels of pyridine in the crabs that were over four times the level required to kill laboratory specimens in less than six hours, and yet still ruling out pyridine as the cause wasn’t just incompetence. I can’t say that the fact that they discounted pyridine because it was also found in control specimens from Cornwall but omitted to point out that the levels were over 70 times lower, wasn’t just incompetence. I can’t say that pointing to the absence of pyridine in the water column and using this as an argument, despite the fact that the die-offs were of sediment feeders, wasn’t just incompetence. I can’t say that surmising that an algal bloom was responsible without bothering to test for the toxins associated with such a bloom wasn’t just incompetence. I can’t say that pointing to the satellite imagery of an algal bloom that was no greater in size than the bloom that forms off that coast every year, without die-offs, wasn’t just incompetence. I can’t say that DEFRA’s current position of ‘welcoming’ the new study whilst also saying that they see no reason to revise their conclusions, isn’t just a sign of incompetence. But I’ll leave you all with the statement made by one of the university academics involved in the independent study, a certain Dr Gary Caldwell, senior lecturer in marine biology at Newcastle University. When asked by a reporter what he made of DEFRA’s negligence in this matter, he said that it “struck me as strange”.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Also, I can’t rule out incompetence as the reason why large quantities of a deadly nerve agent have been dumped off the North East coast, and a government agency has been caught in a clumsy attempt to cover it up, and yet the BBC thinks this is just a local news item. But I find it strange.


  7. “”I can’t say that finding levels of pyridine in the crabs that were over four times the level required to kill laboratory specimens in less than six hours, and yet still ruling out pyridine as the cause wasn’t just incompetence.” .Ummm, I dunno…


  8. Beththeserf,

    DEFRA could argue that this information was not available to them at the time. That is, of course, because they didn’t look for it. Besides which, they now have that information but still won’t change their position.

    Incidentally, I have now corrected the triple negative I managed to introduce into my comment. It might even make sense now 😬


  9. John, finally, the BBC are reporting the story at the Science & Environment section of the website:

    “Shellfish deaths: Government to examine toxic chemical study”

    A minister has said he will “seriously” consider a study that claimed a toxic chemical was more likely to have caused mass shellfish deaths than algae.

    Fishermen on the North East coast have said their industry has been devastated by large wash-ups of dead crustaceans.

    A study by several universities commissioned by the fishing industry said pyridine, which could have been released by dredging, was more likely.

    Mark Spencer MP said any evidence “should be examined properly”…

    Which one could take as being an implicit acceptance that DEFRA hasn’t examined the evidence properly. Certainly, they’re not mentioned in the article until the very end, and the article also says this:

    Mr Spencer said his department would work with the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture (Cefas) – the government’s scientific arm – which did the examination work.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I have previously bemoaned the fact that an ecological disaster on the Northeast coast doesn’t seem to have troubled the mainstream media that much. For example, to my knowledge, it has yet to feature on the national news of any TV channel. However, the sad fact is that the level of interest tails off remarkably quickly the further one is from the region affected. It’s a coastal problem, and it seems one only has to travel about five miles inland to find a disturbing lack of shared concern:

    “Council left to go it alone in sea creature deaths probe as Tees Valley authorities snub offer”


  11. John. Several days ago the BBC featured this story in its main news. It showed a shoreline with a long pile of dead carapaces but the species wasn’t identified. So at least in wild Norfolk we have been shown the problem and told that there is a controversy about how it has been explained. Even the possible involvement of the specific poison was mentioned.


  12. Alan,

    Thanks for the update. Obviously I had missed that. So it only took them a year to acknowledge the event. Or should I have said, ‘the recent controversy surrounding it’?


  13. Jit,

    I blame the algae 🙂

    Also on Algae News:

    The local Teesside mayor, who has always taken Defra’s side, is now referring to ‘deniers’. He says:

    “People need to read the facts and follow the science and not political propoganda”.

    Of course, to take that position he has had to dismiss the independent research undertaken by a consortium of universities as ‘unscientific’. He also decries the local fishermen as being led by others, despite the fact that it has been patently obvious that they have led the protests from the start. Idiot.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Declining crab populations in Alaska now. Of course, according to the Guardian (or the Observer, this being Sunday)it’s probably down to climate change:

    “Alaska cancels snow crab season over population decline
    Causes being researched but likely included increased predation and stresses from warmer water”

    Alaska officials have cancelled the upcoming snow crab season, due to population decline across the Bering Sea.

    The fall Bristol Bay red king crab harvest will not happen. The winter harvest of smaller snow crab has also been cancelled for the first time.

    The causes of the population collapse are being researched but likely include increased predation and stresses from warmer water, which the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) believes may have prompted the crabs to shift away from coasts….

    Increased predation and stresses from warmer water, eh? Nothing to back up the warmer water claim, other than that the alarmist EPA believes it “may” be the explanation. And predation by whom or what? How much is predation, how much is warming? No clues in the article. Dreadfully lightweight stuff.


  15. But apparently some crabs are thriving due to climate change….

    “‘Like a train that can’t be stopped’: how the climate crisis threatens clammers”

    …Since 1980, however, the number of clams harvested has declined by nearly 75%, primarily because of green crabs (Carcinus maenas), which prey on soft shell clams. These invasive predators, which first came to the Gulf of Maine on ships in the 1800s, have seen their populations boom as the climate crisis causes water temperatures to rise, creating the perfect conditions for the green crabs to thrive….

    No explanation offered to back up the claim that green crabs are thriving due to warmer waters. And according to the article the green crabs didn’t move there due to climate change – they arrived on ships in the 1800s. Could it be that their numbers have just steadily risen since they arrived, in a natural process, because they have a source of food, but now the source of food is threatened by the growth in green crab numbers? Or could there be there explanations? Another analysis-lite article, but it’s all part of the narrative that blames just about everything on climate change, whether or not there is robust evidence to justify the claims.


  16. Mark, it is a known fact that negative impacts attributed to climate change are never, repeat NEVER, accompanied by information about the magnitude of the warming. I suspect that commonly this information doesn’t exist, or if by chance it does, the change is so small that to attribute the large negative impact to the smallness of the temperature change would rightfully be considered ludicrous.


  17. Of course changes in climate affect few, it’s the changes in the frequency and/or magnitude of weather events that might affect organisms. In which case they are responding to weather change.


  18. Carcinus maenas is known in these parts as the shore crab. My old (1996) book of seashore life calls it the green shore crab. In any event, its distribution is described within thusly:

    All British coasts; Norway to Mediterranean and W Africa. Introduced to NE USA, and to other parts of the world.

    Such a range does not seem to be evidence that it is a climate-sensitive species.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. John – the BBC has recent “We Are England” 1/2hr prog on this –

    “Trouble at Sea
    We Are England Farming England

    October 2021 saw the beginning of an environmental catastrophe on the north east coast, as thousands of crustaceans washed up dead along numerous beaches. Fishermen from Hartlepool to Whitby reported plummeting catches as their livelihoods became seriously threatened. We follow the local community as they deal with the fallout from this ecological disaster and try to understand how it came about.”

    Liked by 1 person

  20. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs select committee is currently hearing from witnesses about the crustacean deaths. For those interested, a live feed of proceedings can be followed here:

    There has already been one highlight worth bringing to a wider attention. When asked why the algal bloom only affected crabs and not the fish, Rachel Hartnell, Science Director, Centre for Environment, Fisheries, and Aquaculture Science, said it is because fish can swim away and crabs cannot.

    Fish can swim? Why had no one else thought of that?

    Liked by 2 people

  21. “MPs call for urgent inquiry into Teesside dredging and mass crab deaths
    Environment committee chair says crab die-offs in north-east having ‘profound impact on fishing communities’”

    The chair of the House of Commons environment select committee has called for an urgent investigation into whether dredging around a freeport development in Teesside has caused mass die-offs of crabs on the north-east coast.

    In a letter sent on Tuesday, Sir Robert Goodwill told Thérèse Coffey, the environment secretary, his committee had heard evidence that the repeated mass deaths were having a “profound and long-lasting impact … on fishing communities”.

    He called for the urgent appointment of an independent expert panel to investigate the cause of the deaths. Until the impact of the dredging can be ascertained, large-scale dredging in the area should be avoided, said Goodwill, and “maintenance dredging should be kept to the minimum level needed to keep the port operational until the expert panel’s investigation is completed”.

    Residents of coastal communities close to the mouth of the River Tees have been raising the alarm over the deaths of crustaceans since autumn last year. In February crab and lobster fishers from Hartlepool to Scarborough were reporting that their catches were a 10th of what they would normally expect at that time of year.

    The effects of the die-offs were cascading up the food chain, with seal rescue volunteers reporting emaciated seal pups, which would normally scavenge seabeds for crustaceans and other bottom-dwellers, washing ashore.

    An initial report by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) blamed a naturally occurring algal bloom. But independent researchers blamed chemicals released by dredging operations linked to the development of the government’s flagship freeport at the mouth of the Tees.


  22. found this –
    quote – “Harmful algal blooms – Main article: Harmful algal blooms

    An algae bloom off the southern coast of Devon and Cornwall in England, in 1999
    Satellite image of phytoplankton swirling around the Swedish island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea, in 2005
    A harmful algal bloom (HAB) is an algal bloom that causes negative impacts to other organisms via production of natural toxins, mechanical damage to other organisms, or by other means. The diversity of these HABs make them even harder to manage, and present many issues, especially to threatened coastal areas.[29] HABs are often associated with large-scale marine mortality events and have been associated with various types of shellfish poisonings.[30] Due to their negative economic and health impacts, HABs are often carefully monitored.[31][32]

    HAB has been proved to be harmful to humans. Humans may be exposed to toxic algae by direct consuming seafood containing toxins, swimming or other activities in water, and breathing tiny droplets in the air that contain toxins. [33]

    If the HAB event results in a high enough concentration of algae the water may become discoloured or murky, varying in colour from purple to almost pink, normally being red or green. Not all algal blooms are dense enough to cause water discolouration.”

    wonder if that was DEFRA starting point ?


  23. “Shellfish deaths: MPs call for government inquiry details”

    MPs probing the deaths crustaceans off the North East and Yorkshire coast have criticised a government investigation for a “lack of transparency”.

    Fishermen between Whitby and Hartlepool have complained of catastrophic catch losses since the first mass die-off in October 2021.

    Officials initially said an algal bloom was to blame but fears have been raised about chemicals released by dredging.

    The government has said an independent panel will reinvestigate by January.

    The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which held a hearing into the die-offs in October, said it welcomed a pledge by the Department for Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to set up “an independent group of external experts to analyse the evidence behind the competing theories”.

    In a new letter to Environment Secretary Therese Coffey, Conservative committee chairman and MP for Scarborough and Whitby Sir Robert Goodwill said the inquiry should be “open and collaborative” to “rebuild trust and work towards a consensus”.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Mark,

    This one is a puzzler. I struggle to see what Defra hopes to achieve by being so secretive at this stage. The more I see of Defra in action, the less I am impressed.


  25. “Mass crab die-off: scientists say ‘we weren’t questioned’ for crucial report
    A review panel on the 2021 Teesside eco-disaster is due to send its findings to ministers this week, but evidence from academics may not be given full weight”

    Scientists who led research into the mystery deaths of thousands of crabs and lobsters along England’s north-east coast say they have been asked no questions by the panel investigating the disaster.

    The expert review panel has also been excluded from examining government processes as part of its inquiry, despite widespread scrutiny of the official explanation for the deaths, the Observer understands.

    The revelations raise questions about potential limitations of a forthcoming report into the die-offs, which is expected to be sent to ministers this week.

    An initial government investigation said the crustacean deaths in 2021 were most likely caused by a naturally-occurring algal bloom, and effectively dismissed suggestions that human activity had played a part…

    Liked by 1 person

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