About 25 fishing boats have sailed into the mouth of the River Tees while setting off flares and fireworks in a protest over mass marine deaths that are ruining livelihoods as well as being a “huge ecological disaster”.
More than 200 well-wishers, many representing conservation and environmental campaigns, cheered from the shore, chanted “Stop the sludge” and sang protest songs.
Large wash-ups of dead crabs, lobsters and other marine life have been reported on England’s north-east coast since October.
A government investigation in February ruled out dredging as the cause and concluded that a naturally occurring algal bloom was the most likely culprit. However, fishers have rejected that explanation, blaming the dumping of contaminated, dredged sediment, and want the investigation reopened.
“Emotions are running very high,” said Sally Bunce, a marine mammal rescuer, one of hundreds supporting the protest from the shore at South Gare, a spit of land in Redcar at the mouth of the Tees.
“These fishermen have had no income for eight months and they are getting no help from anybody. Farmers get compensated for BSE, avian flu … The fishermen have got nothing.
“We still have crab and lobster washing up dead on beaches in their thousands. We’ve got seal pups that are dying of starvation.”
The boats came from harbours between Scarborough and Hartlepool. One of the protesters was Joe Redfern, a co-founder of Whitby Lobster Hatchery and the chairman of Whitby Commercial Fishing Association, who said: “We are facing a huge ecological disaster.
“It is deeply concerning. The catch rates have dropped; there is no life in the rock pools; there are dead and dying marine animals washing up and in our pots.”
Campaigners say the blame for the deaths lies with 250,000 tonnes of dredged sediment from the Tees that was dumped two and a half miles offshore.
David McCreadie, a retired marine biologist and oceanographer, came across one of the first dead lobsters last October and stopped walking his dog on the beach. “Within weeks, there were hundreds of dogs going to the vets, ill,” he said.
Rowan McLaughlin, a co-coordinator of the South Tees Green party who attended the protest, said: “I’m here because I live by the sea. All this affects me. It affects my family; it affects jobs … We shouldn’t be polluting our sea. This idea that it is an algal bloom is just nonsense.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “We are monitoring recent wash-ups at South Gare and the Tees area. Small-scale wash-ups can occur naturally due to seasonality and weather conditions and we are working closely with partner agencies to support the monitoring and recovery of stocks.
“We note that there are reports of poor catches and we are working with the industry and partner agencies to monitor this and are communicating regularly with the fishing community.”
The company PD Ports, which manages the estuary, said it shared concerns about the large number of dead crustaceans along the shoreline. A spokesperson said that because they were the statutory harbour authority “we are required, by law, to dredge the river on a regular basis to ensure safe navigation and maintenance of the 12-mile stretch of river within our jurisdiction.
“All dredging and sediment disposal takes place in compliance with strict environmental regulations by the Marine Management Organisation and Environment Agency, and is overseen by our expert team of marine and environmental specialists.
“In addition to fulfilling our statutory legal requirements, this activity supports a thriving river and helps sustain thousands of livelihoods across the Tees valley and wider north-east, which are dependent on the river for global trade.”