Just over 18 months ago, waves of dead and dying shellfish began washing over miles of coastline in north-east England. No one knew why they were dying or what killed them, and despite a series of inquiries, there is still no definitive answer.
The die-off has had a profound impact on those who rely on catching shellfish for a living and now a UK charity is urging the government to step in and help a community that is struggling to survive.
The sun shines on Hartlepool harbour. A couple of fishermen are working on their nets and another is watching the sea.
He’s calm, but he’s wondering, “Is it worth going out today?”
It’s a question that more and more local fishermen are contemplating.
The industry they were born into was hit hard in 2021, when thousands of dead crabs and lobsters washed ashore on the northeast coast. They say the washouts continue today and something new is happening: Prawn catches have plummeted by up to 90%.
The price of fuel and running costs have forced about half of those fishermen to put their boats up for sale.
One of them described feeling “trapped” because until his vessel is sold, he needs to come up with £500 a month while it’s docked.
His earnings are down £20,000 and his costs are up £5,000 on last year. Her family lives off their savings and borrows money from relatives. It’s something he and others never thought they’d have to do.
A UK charity is trying to help.
The fishermen’s mission, which has been in operation for more than 140 years, says the continued economic impact on such a concentrated area is unprecedented.
Managing Director Marc Evans came to Hartlepool to offer advice and financial support.
For some, it’s a difficult topic to discuss. A shrimper tells him that the money he just spent on fuel is money that won’t go home.
“How’s the family?” Marc asks him. “No, I don’t even want to talk about it,” he replies and walks away.
“I feel bloody awful,” Marc says. Yet it is a reaction that does not surprise him and he is concerned for the mental health of some fishermen.
“We are hearing from fishermen in the Northeast who are reaching out to us and other charities. They talk about their mental health and talk about how they are seriously contemplating their continued existence in the world.
“They need to know that whatever happened here is going to change and supplies will replenish.”
That’s all Darren Greenwood wants.
He has been fishing for four decades and says the last two years have been the hardest of his life.
“I wish someone could tell me, look, this is what happened, but it’s getting better. You know, next year will be better for you.
“I’ve read so many odds and possibilities about what it could be. I’ve never had a definitive answer about what it really is.”
In January, a report by a panel of independent experts – appointed by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) – found it was “more likely than not” that a new disease or parasite caused the dies in late 2021.
However, the 12-person panel was unable to identify what it was and admitted there was no direct evidence for it. They determined that it was possible a combination of factors were to blame.
Many anglers believe that dredging work around Teesside’s new Freeport is to blame. Those responsible for the creation of the Freeport deny that this is the case.
The Panel concluded that regular dredging of the Tees was “very unlikely” to be the cause and said capital dredging was “exceptionally unlikely”.
Now, the fishermen are working with scientists from Newcastle, Durham and York universities who are testing seawater and sediment samples.
They hope it will give them answers to any questions they still have.
Dr Gary Caldwell, of Newcastle University, is one of those experts.
“We will build a complete picture of what the chemical risk is, in terms of the North Sea and relate that to dredging activity and see what that connection is,” he said. .
If there is a link, the fishermen say they will seek compensation from the government. Until then, they are struggling to find a solution.
“Who wants to buy a boat with what happened?” asks Darren. “I’m a fisherman and there aren’t many jobs for people like me.”
The fishermen’s mission hopes to support local families until their future is clearer. It is now reporting to the government.
Defra says it is already providing millions of pounds through the Fisheries and Seafood Scheme and the UK Seafood Fund, but has ruled out any compensation for losses it has suffered as a result of the die-offs.
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