Our marine environment needs to be protected, that’s why it’s right to ask questions about dead shellfish - Andrew Vine

Of all the sensitive natural environments within Yorkshire deserving of care and protection, maybe the hardest to look after is our coastline. Across more than 40 years of walking the 120 miles of Yorkshire’s coast between the Tees and the Humber and writing about it, I’ve been told about the problems of monitoring what happens in the sea and on the beaches again and again.

Marine biologists, scientists from the RSPB and the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, fishermen and volunteers who monitor seabird populations have all told me the same thing – changes in the marine environment can be fiendishly difficult to track, predict or combat.

There’s something else they have told me as well – when change for the worse occurs, it can happen with startling suddenness.

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I’ve seen that with my own eyes over decades of tramping the cliffs and beaches between Redcar and Spurn. And when I’ve seen it, my heart has sunk in despair.

Dead and dying starfish that have been washed up on the beach at Saltburn-by-the-Sea in North Yorkshire. PIC: Owen Humphreys/PA WireDead and dying starfish that have been washed up on the beach at Saltburn-by-the-Sea in North Yorkshire. PIC: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire
Dead and dying starfish that have been washed up on the beach at Saltburn-by-the-Sea in North Yorkshire. PIC: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

Sometimes it has been formerly pristine stretches of sand fouled with plastic pollution that will take decades to degrade after being hurled ashore by a high tide. Sometimes it has been oil spills that have left beaches of white chalk boulders blackened and slimy, with dead and dying seabirds caught between them. And sometimes – mercifully rarely – it has been beaches carpeted with dead shellfish, as happened between Redcar and Whitby two years ago, wrecking the livelihoods of the boat owners and crews who rely on the catch.

Everybody who saw that hoped never to witness anything like it ever again. But last week, when the beach at Saltburn was covered in dead shellfish once more, there was not only shock and sadness – there was the very real worry that another mass die-off might be happening.

Let’s hope it isn’t. And the only way we can be sure is for the matter to be properly investigated. The welfare of our marine environment – and those who rely upon it – demands that.

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Yet there are those who seemingly do not want such inquiries to happen. The reaction of Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen and Middlesbrough South and Cleveland MP Simon Clarke to this newspaper’s intention to do its job and report on an issue of huge public interest was extraordinary.

Even before a word was written or published, accusations of irresponsible journalism and political bias were being levelled at The Yorkshire Post, to the incredulity and annoyance of many posting on social media.

The attitude of the mayor and the MP amounts to a high-handed attempt to stifle and undermine the legitimate work – indeed, duty – of the media to investigate something that was reported extensively not only within Yorkshire but nationally.

By doing so, they ignore the public’s right to know what is happening. The questions posed by this newspaper meet a very simple, but very fundamental test of responsible journalism in this country – they are the questions that the public would ask of those in authority if it was given the opportunity.

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We all know what the issue is behind this desire to close down debate.

There is an implacable disagreement over what caused the mass shellfish deaths which so harmed the fishery on the northern part of Yorkshire’s coast.

On the one hand, the fishing crews are convinced that dredging of the Tees for the area’s new freeport is the cause. Researchers from York, Durham and Newcastle universities commissioned by the fishing industry support this view.

On the other hand, we have an independent report by scientists commissioned by the Government, which, though it could not identify a definitive cause, concluded that an unknown pathogen was responsible.

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This lack of consensus means that debate will continue, and even intensify if there is any repetition of last week’s appearance of dead shellfish.

Mr Houchen and Mr Clarke are going to have to get used to the idea of a continuing debate and the asking of questions they might find awkward or irksome.

They are also going to have to get used to the idea that the media in this country cannot be cowed or pushed around on Twitter, or that the levelling of insults is going to do anything to deter journalists from posing questions in pursuit of getting to the bottom of matters of public interest on behalf of readers.

Let’s not forget it was the people of the coast who alerted Britain to last week’s spectacle of a beach covered in dead shellfish. They were the ones posting on social media to express their concern and demanding to know what had caused it.