Long term dredging damage to Thames fishing grounds

Fishing News of 24th October 2014 published an article written by Tim Oliver on the findings of the Thames fishermen who have seen their fishing grounds damaged by the intense dredging operations in constructing the huge deep water container terminal at Thurrock, on the north bank of the Thames, just 20 miles east of central London.

To ensure coverage and recognition of the full quotes, MARINET repeats Tim Oliver’s article in full here.
Long Term Damage Done To Thames’ Fishing Grounds
A Thames fisherman with 40 years’ experience fishing the region believes dredging is at the root of the lack of fish in the Thames estuary and east coast up to the Wash, reports Tim Oliver.

Stocks have declined in the whole region over the past few years and the decline has coincided with massive dredging operations involved in the development of a huge deep water container terminal at Thurrock on the north bank of the Thames about 20 miles east of central London, the London Gateway project.

Some fishermen have been paid compensation for loss of fishing and others have simply left the industry. Fleets at ports such as West Mersea, Holehaven, Margate and many others have declined alarmingly as their staple stocks of Dover sole, cod and skate have all but disappeared.

It was agreed at a major meeting in Southend on 29 September involving all the relevant interests to set up a scientific enquiry to try to determine the cause of the decline.

Dredging, the London Array windfarm, heavy rainfall affecting the salinity of the river and climate change have all been in the frame (Fishing News 10th October ‘Scientists to look at Thames problems’) but Paul Gilson, vice chairman of the NFFO SE Committee, joint chairman of Leigh and Southend Fishermen’s Association and a leading industry spokesman in the region, lays the blame squarely on dredging in the region, not only in the Thames but all the way up the east coast to the Wash.

Paul, who has fished the area all his life, like his family for generations, says he is speaking out not only because of his fears about the long-term damage being caused to the Thames and east coast marine environment but also because he is concerned that the same damage could occur in other areas. He attended the meeting in Southend and said there was a “blatant refusal” to accept the fishing industry point of view that the past and continuing large scale dredging in the Thames was the cause of the decline in commercial fish stocks. This was despite stark evidence of major ecological change in the region such as the disappearance of mud on both shores of the Thames estuary that had exposed features that had been buried for centuries and the loss of six or seven acres of mudflats, leaving only pebbles. White weed, a key element in the local habitat and food chain, has also disappeared.

Paul is also a fish trader and says the decline in the Dover sole fishery over the last decade has been dramatic. From handling up to nine tonnes a week in the early 2000s he now handles barely one tonne per year. “We know that the decline started with the dredging and has continued as the dredging has continued, but the meeting speculated about every possible cause you could think of — rain, cold, storms, climate change — everything but dredging,” he told Fishing News. “They blatantly refused to see our point of view. By the middle of the afternoon I was getting tired of arguing. “Yes, the meeting did agree on a scientific investigation but where’s the money coming from?”

He said that apart from the direct effect of moving millions of tonnes of material the dredging could also have stirred up old pollutants that have built up in the Thames and been buried in the silt over centuries of dumping in the river. Since the Southend meeting new information had come to light that suggests pollutants from an old landfill site could be running out through the sea bed and in to the river.

Barren East Coast

More evidence pointing to dredging is the stark contrast between fishing off the southern east coast of England and in the eastern North Sea off the coasts of the Netherlands, Denmark and Belgium where dredging is banned, and where there is good fishing offshore. “

“There’s no doubt there’s fish offshore,” said Paul. “Once the tide goes north/south, the Ramsgate boats and the Mersea boats that work offshore do well. But inshore there’s nothing or very little. The whole UK coast south of the Wash is an industrially dredged area. There were major ports at Lowestoft and Yarmouth but now there’s virtually no fish being caught down that stretch of the coast — there’s no fish from Yarmouth south,” Paul said, and pointed out that plaice are at record levels, so much so that scientists have said they are worried that its abundance is affecting the growth of other fish. “Why are none of those fish on our coast? Why isn’t there a major flatfish fishery north of Lowestoft? There’s no-one fishing there, there’s just a handful of bass and cod pass through. There’s not enough fish there to sustain a fishery at Lowestoft any more — they’ve had one of the worst seasons ever”.

“The Crown Estate gets millions of pounds from dredging — but the Belgians, Dutch and Danes refuse to allow dredging near their foreshores. They’ve got large vessels, working efficiently and earning a living, right on their coasts. What have we done differently to the other side? It’s got to come back to dredging. We’ve got information that flatfish, sole in particular, will not swim away from dredgers, they bury themselves instead and then the dredger comes along and scoops them up, which is very disturbing. This is much bigger than just the Thames. We see it in a massive way because a spawning Dover sole fishery has disappeared, and it’s all happened very, very quickly. But I’ve always felt something was wrong on the east coast. Dredging could be damaging the whole marine environment – it’s moving excessive amounts of sediment, it could be turning up old pollutants – it could be just the noise that scares fish away.”

Paul pointed out the lack of fish was occurring despite the setting up of marine conservation zones and that fish stocks in most other areas were recovering well. He said there were some small signs of recovery, with some juvenile skate, codling and whiting starting to show, but there didn’t appear to be the food to support them.

“There’s a broader picture starting to develop. Our fishery has been destroyed and I don’t want to see it happening anywhere else. They say it’s in the national interest to have this container port in the Thames but it could happen anywhere else, like Southampton or the Mersey say, where all these old pollutants would be recirculated. Some of the answers we get are frankly unbelievable. I’m not a scientist with letters after my name but I’ve got 40 years’ experience of catching fish in this area. My family have fished it for hundreds of years and so much just doesn’t add up”.

“People ask me why I keep fighting over this — it’s because I have to. I don’t think we can trust any of the agencies, unfortunately. But this is politics and the money from the Crown Estate and the new container port and distribution complex will help the UK’s coffers — as for the fishing industry we are expendable,” he told Fishing News.

■ Thames cockle fishermen have taken legal action against London Gateway over claims of alleged damage to cockle beds in the wider Thames region.

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