#UK Meet the cockle fishermen standing up to a water giant that’s pumped a tsunami of filth into the sea #UKnews
At low tide, the mudflats off Southport unfold like a rippled brown carpet stretching to the far horizon. Apart from the circling seabirds, this huge expanse of the North-West shoreline appears empty — however simply beneath the sand there lies a silver lining.
Exploring an space referred to as Penfold South, a few hundred yards from the shore, shellfishermen lately found a huge, untapped cockle mattress.
According to Simon Ward and Terry Davies, who’ve been harvesting cockles for a few years, it incorporates about 5,000 tons of the extremely prized molluscs, which might be price as a lot as £10 million on the open market.
On September 1, the cockle-picking season began in these elements, and by mid-October, when the cockles can have grown large enough, they hope to start gathering them in the time-honoured method.
A picket board with goalpost-like handles, known as a tamp, is laid down flat and rocked from aspect to aspect, liquifying the mud. This is assumed to trick the cockles into sensing that the tide is advancing, so that they rise to the floor, whereupon they’re raked into netted sacks.
The trade is now strictly regulated (a legacy of the tragic drowning of at the very least 21 Chinese pickers working illegally for a ruthless gangmaster in Morecambe Bay in 2004) and the spoils can be shared with different accredited fishermen possessing a licence that prices £500.
Even so, if the mattress might be farmed, Mr Ward, 39, and Mr Davies, 57 — for whom occasions have been robust lately — stand to rake in a very tidy sum.
Terry Davies (pictured), 57, a fisherman and cockler can not fish as uncooked sewage, he believes, has been launched in the areas the place the cockle beds are located
A number of days in the past, nevertheless, their possibilities of cashing in on this bounteous Merseyside seashore suffered an surprising hammer blow — a setback they think to have been attributable to uncooked sewage pumped into the close by estuary by United Utilities (UU).
Along with different English water firms, the North-West agency has come below heavy fireplace in latest weeks following the revelation that it discharges huge quantities of untreated family and industrial sewage into seas and rivers.
And having investigated this unfolding scandal, the villains of that are extensively portrayed as grasping monopolies with monstrously overpaid bosses (UU’s yacht-owning chief government Steve Mogford was reportedly paid virtually £3 million in wage and bonuses final yr) and opportunistic overseas stakeholders, one can perceive their suspicion.
In some ways, the story of two enterprising cockle fishermen — preventing for his or her livelihoods in opposition to a large company that routinely pollutes the surroundings on a surprising scale — encapsulates the criticism levelled at the privatised water trade.
It has overtones of the 2000 film Erin Brockovich, for which Julia Roberts gained an Oscar. The movie recreates a lowly authorized clerk’s true-life wrestle to show that a enormous energy firm contaminated the ingesting water in her obscure Californian city. But that landmark case was settled with a document $333 million payout from the accused agency. It will not occur right here.
Steve Mogford, 61, and daughter Claire, 32, ingesting cocktails at Aqua Shard in London. Steve Mogford, 61, is boss of UK’s largest listed water agency United Utilities, which serves three million properties in the North West
The story begins out on the mudflats. Before shellfish beds might be harvested, their healthiness have to be assessed by the Food Standards Agency.
They are categorised as A, B, or C, relying on the degree of E.coli micro organism (that are present in human and animal faeces and trigger sickness) detected in samples taken from the crustaceans.
Those which might be eaten contemporary from the water are Class A, and should comprise lower than 230 E. coli per 100 grams of flesh.
However, simply seven English shellfish grounds presently meet this customary — itself a damning indictment in opposition to the water companies, in accordance to critics, although hardly stunning given the torrent of uncooked sewage dumped into inshore fishing grounds.
Last yr, their storm overflows — an outdated and overworked community of underground tanks and pipes that pump untreated family and industrial waste mingled with rainwater into the waterways after heavy downpours — discharged their foul broth on a staggering 372,500 events.
The whole quantity of time they had been activated exceeded 2.7 million hours. But the exact determine is unknown as many of the sensors monitoring them do not work.
This tsunami of filth, which has been pumped out for many years however has solely come to nationwide consideration in latest days, shames not solely the water firms.
It additionally embarrasses the Government, which has minimize funding for surveillance of these firms’ actions and voted down an modification to the Environment Bill that will have made it their authorized responsibility to stop dumping.
A critical sewage spill at Morecambe in 2011 shut down mussel grounds (pictured: disused sewage pipes at Morecambe)
But again to the cockles. Those rated as Class B might be bought, however solely after purification — a course of that reduces their worth.
To obtain this grade they have to be sampled eight occasions, normally at weekly intervals, and have E.coli ranges no higher than 4,600 per 100 grams in 90 per cent of the samples. Otherwise, they’re deemed as Class C and have to be additional handled earlier than sale.
Until this week, it was broadly anticipated that the new Southport cockle mattress can be Class B, the classification generally awarded in England (although not on the continent, the place the coastal waters are usually cleaner).
This would have given them a wholesale worth of about £2 per kilo. Mr Davies and Mr Ward provide sellers promoting primarily to British eating places and shellfish stalls, however some export to Scandinavia, France and Spain, the place English cockles are a lot in demand.
A studying taken at Penfold South on August 15 was extremely encouraging, exhibiting 1,700 E.coli per 100 grams — effectively inside the permitted restrict.
When the newest outcome was posted on-line, nevertheless, the shellfishermen had been horrified.
Though the cockles had been collected on August 24, yards from the earlier batch, the micro organism degree had mysteriously soared to 35,000 — greater than 20 occasions increased than it had been 9 days earlier.
Over the coming weeks, extra specimens will probably be analysed. Should they exceed the higher degree once more, the mattress will probably be rated as Class C, slashing the cockles’ worth to 80p a kilo, and making the laborious job of farming them hardly price it.
Harvesting may even be banned altogether, during which case £10 million price of cockles will keep caught in the polluted mud.
Harvesting may even be banned altogether, during which case £10 million price of cockles will keep caught in the polluted mud
So, what precipitated this dramatic spike? As United Utilities factors out — and Mr Davies accepts — it may have been down to cattle droppings being washed onto the sands by the rain that belatedly fell in mid-August, for sizeable herds graze on the salt marshes round Southport.
Yet was it by pure coincidence that the abnormally excessive faecal micro organism studying got here inside days of the revelation that coastal waters throughout the nation had been deluged by sewage from storm overflows? One disturbing image confirmed a enormous slick of brown sludge discolouring the sea at Seaford, East Sussex.
On a number of days final month nearly each West Coast seashore, from Cornwall to the Solway Firth, was rendered unfit for bathing, in accordance to information aggregated by the marketing campaign group Surfers Against Sewage.
And was it by likelihood that, simply ten days earlier than the rogue pattern was taken at Southport, individuals bathing in Morecambe Bay, 50 miles to the north, scrambled out of the water in disgust, claiming to have encountered a tide of floating stools?
(UU insists it did not launch any sewage into the bay at the moment, and there are solutions that globules of algae might need been mistaken for faeces, although one native swimmer, Chris Caton, instructed me indignantly that, as a hospital nurse, she ‘is aware of a human t***’ when she sees one).
Whatever the fact, an eye-opening interactive map produced by The Rivers Trust reveals that the firm recurrently sends uncooked sewage into the River Ribble and its tributaries, which move into the Irish Sea at Southport.
Inspecting the data of UU services located shut to the cockle mattress, the chance that these precipitated the contamination turns into extra compelling.
Last yr, one wastewater therapy works pumped sludge into Crossens Pool — which empties into the Ribble Estuary — 43 occasions for a whole of 207 hours.
On Balmoral Drive, a couple of miles away, the sewage storm overflow kicked into motion 58 occasions for 693 hours, and one other, on Rufford Road, spewed into the Three Pools Waterway 36 occasions for 183 hours.
This will likely appal the many nature lovers who go to the mudflats, an essential breeding floor for wildfowl.
If UU was chargeable for the 20-fold E.coli enhance, Mr Davies claims it will not be the first time it has despoiled shellfish beds.
Some 5 years in the past, he says, a mussel floor at Lytham St Annes was closed by contamination, simply days after the agency admitted to discharging sewage in that space.
UU says it ‘does not have any particulars’ about this alleged incident. But it does personal up to a critical sewage spill at Morecambe in 2011, which shut down mussel grounds. It describes this as a ‘uncommon operational incident’ and says issues at the website have been solved by ‘vital funding’.
When I ask Mr Davies whether or not the shellfishermen sought compensation for loss of earnings after these incidents he provides a hole chuckle. He is clearly not about to emulate Erin Brockovich.
‘We have tried in the previous, nevertheless it’s hopeless,’ he tells me. ‘The agency is simply too wealthy and highly effective for us. How may I afford to take a enormous firm like UU to courtroom?
‘It is a regulation unto itself. The native councils and the Food Standards Agency will not stand up to it, both. They are frightened of it. It’s simpler to simply put a few fishermen out of work. We can solely pray there’s not a lot rain earlier than the remaining samples are taken at Penfold South (in order that no extra sewage — or cattle run-off — floods the sands).’
Mr Davies performs down the possibilities of him having an ‘Erin Brockovich’ (pictured) second
In response, a UU spokesperson stated the firm had lately accomplished a £164 million improve at its Blackburn therapy works to enhance the situation of the River Ribble. Further funding by 2030 is deliberate.
Currents and tides round the estuary are complicated, nevertheless, and water high quality might be affected in varied methods.
While storm overflows had been ‘a contributing issue’, livestock grazing on the salt marshes, personal septic tanks and concrete run-off had ‘a mixed higher influence’.
Perhaps so. Some impartial consultants would likely take a completely different view.
Yet even when the mudflats off Southport — or certainly every other English waterway — are polluted by sewage once more this autumn, little or nothing is probably going to be carried out.
Last yr, Southern Water was fined a document £90 million after a dogged surroundings officer found that the firm had illegally discharged uncooked sewage into the waterways greater than 6,900 occasions between 2010 and 2015. This was to get rid of waste as cheaply as potential.
Yet, final week, an investigation by Channel 4’s Dispatches programme revealed that 870 sewage overflow pipes are nonetheless working with out permits.
Of these, 420 belong to Severn Trent, 184 to Welsh Water (now a not-for-profit firm) and 61 to Northumbrian Water.
These firms stated they had been ‘working with the Environment Agency’ to get licences.
Abhorrent although it could be, releasing untreated effluent into rivers and seas to keep away from a backup of sewage when rainfall overloads the system is completely lawful.
Morecambe occurs to be my hometown and, revisiting the resort this week, I discovered storm overflow pipes hidden away at a number of close by magnificence spots.
Oblivious to the potential hazards, youngsters hunted for crabs in a rockpool at the mouth of one outfall pipe — which, in accordance to residents, empties a few yards offshore at occasions of heavy rain, although it was clearly marked as harmful.
It grieved me to be taught that in 2021 this bay — the second largest in England, and to my thoughts the most lovely — was uncovered to the longest steady discharge of untreated sewage. It went on for five,000 hours.
However, it was equally surprising to uncover that untreated sewage gushed into a brook close to my house in Surrey for 1,778 hours — the equal of 74 days — final yr. No longer will my grandchildren be taken to play there.
We should hope issues enhance. Yet in accordance to Helen Nightingale, who spent many of her 31 years with the Environment Agency (EA) investigating air pollution incidents in Lancashire and North Yorkshire rivers, the prognosis is grim.
Morecombe Bay was uncovered to the longest steady discharge of untreated sewage, 5,000 hours, in 2021 (inventory picture)
Moved to communicate out by her love of the countryside and respect for her hard-pressed former colleagues, the lately retired officer instructed me how understaffing at the EA, and a system that enables water firms to police themselves, undermines efforts to hold waterways clear.
Where as soon as she headed a workforce of 9 officers — a quantity that allowed them to examine websites of reported air pollution — now there are solely 4.
Vacancies are being marketed, however as absolutely educated officers are paid £24,000 a yr for a robust job that may contain nasty confrontations, they’re proving arduous to fill.
Swamped with calls, she says, EA officers are instructed to report solely critical incidents, categorised as 1 and a pair of, the place fish and wildlife have been killed, for instance, or individuals’s well being is threatened. Lesser occasions are ignored.
Worse, the scarcity of EA officers signifies that when the public report considerations about the situation of a waterway, a member of the water agency’s workers normally appears into it, and Mrs Nightingale says they generally prioritise the firm’s fame and revenue margin over environmental safety.
‘It has occurred the place a water firm says an incident is a class 3 when it is actually a 2,’ she says. ‘And sure, they’d know the distinction. But then, if you happen to had been working for a personal agency and also you had been requested to examine your self, would you at all times inform the fact? Particularly when the boss is placing stress on you to preserve a five-star ranking.
‘It’s a bit like the police asking you whether or not you’ve got been dashing. You’re hardly seemingly to admit it.’ By the similar token, she provides, the public do not at all times act responsibly. During her lengthy profession, she noticed sewage pipes clogged by all method of objects, from sanitary towels to a toy truck. An abattoir
even flushed away a entire sheep’s head inflicting a blockage.
But these transgressions had been comparatively minor in contrast with the billions of gallons of germ-laden sewage that gush from the pipes of water firms.
What might be carried out to cease the observe? The debate is complicated. Suffice to say that the trade is at odds with nearly each environmental group, and a good many teachers.
Water firms declare it may value £660 billion to substitute the antiquated, 21,000-mile sewage community, rising water payments and inflicting disruption to cities and cities.
Organisations corresponding to The Rivers Trust and Surfers Against Sewage insist that sewage overflows might be drastically diminished for a fraction of that.
United Utilities, for its half, factors to the £1.25 billion it has invested on the North-West shoreline over the previous 30 years, and the £230 million it would spend to cut back the influence of storm overflows by 2025.
The firm boasts that the area’s bathing and shellfish waters are ‘cleaner than they’ve ever been.’
However, the alarming E.coli studying from Southport’s cockle mattress paints a reasonably completely different image.
And till the stinking-rich water barons rein themselves in — slashing bonuses and dividends and spending far larger sums to abate the tidal wave of filth — they are going to by no means be the fishermen’s good friend.
- Additional reporting: Tim Stewart