Dredging is likely to increase around the English coast, while pollution and sewage are piling pressure on coastal ecosystems, and an increasing number of people are at risk of coastal flooding, the Environment Agency has warned.
Three-quarters of shellfish waters around England failed to meet “aspirational” standards for environmental protection in 2021, the report by the agency’s chief scientist’s group found.
Dredging and pollution have come under increasing scrutiny, after a mysterious big die-off of crabs and lobsters was recorded around Teesside on the north-east coast in the autumn of 2021. A report published last week found that dredging was unlikely to be the cause of the die-offs, suggesting an unidentified new pathogen could have been to blame, but the findings have been criticised by some scientists.
The EA report paints a bleak picture of England’s coastal regions, with fewer than a fifth of the UK’s estuaries judged to be at good ecological status. Only 45% of the marine areas assessed met the standard in 2021, according to the report, published on Thursday.
More than nine in 10 of the estuaries sampled had nitrogen levels that were too high in 2019, as did nearly half of coastal waters. Nitrogen pollution comes from agricultural runoff and sewage, and can cause harmful algae blooms that kill off marine life and smother seagrass and saltmarsh.
The report found that there had been “widespread damage to coastal defences, properties and infrastructure” during storms, with about 100,000 people at risk of significant coastal flooding.
Sand dunes were being lost to erosion, and wetlands were drying out under the influence of the climate crisis, the report found. About 85% of England’s salt marshes, a major carbon store, have been lost since the 1800s, along with about half of seagrass meadows and 95% of the native oyster population.
Added to this, many people in coastal regions are enduring economic hardship. Alan Lovell, chair of the Environment Agency, told the Coastal Futures conference on Thursday morning that coastal towns were among the most deprived in the UK.
“We need to work together with coastal communities to identify the best possible way to keep them safe and prosperous,” he said. “We need a concerted effort to better protect coastal communities and economies while enhancing the marine environment.”
More than a third of the UK’s population live within 3km (1.9 miles) of the coastline, Lovell noted. He said there had been some progress in combatting the multiple threats to the coastal environment, including an initiative to restore 15% of coastal and estuarine habitats that are judged to be priority areas by 2043, but that much more needed to be done.
About 1,200 hectares (2,965 acres) of salt marsh and mudflats have been created since 2005, the report found, and there has been progress on overfishing, with about half of stocks fished at sustainable levels in 2019 compared with about a tenth in 1990.
Charles Clover, executive director and co-founder of the Blue Marine Foundation, said that was still far from good enough. “The ocean faces numerous threats, and this report highlights that one of the largest is simply removing far too many fish from the sea – collapsing stocks and preventing recovery. The report also stresses the important role that the seabed can have in storing carbon, yet in the UK trawling is allowed in most of our so called protected areas.”
Rebecca Newsom, head of politics at Greenpeace UK, called for urgent action and stricter regulation. “Our seas are facing a perfect storm of rising temperatures, sewage discharges, plastic and chemical pollution and destructive industrial fishing. This is an existential threat to both marine life and the communities that depend on healthy seas for their survival,” she said.
“What we need are legally binding targets to cut single use plastic in half by 2025, a full and immediate ban on destructive fishing in all marine protected areas, and stricter penalties for water companies responsible for the sewage scandal,” she added. “The time for rearranging deckchairs is over – we need a joined-up, ambitious and properly funded plan from this government and we need it now.”
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