At the turn of the last century Graham West’s great-great-grandfather, Charles, packed some belongings, boxed up some oysters and took his boat from Whitstable to the west coast of Scotland. After a freezing winter, the population of native oysters off the Kent coast had all but died out, so Charles headed north to join the Loch Ryan Oyster Company. It took a long time for the native oysters to become re-established; Charles didn’t return to Whitstable for five years.
West’s company, West Whelks, is built on his family’s 150-year history of landing and selling shellfish on Whitstable harbour. He supplies tens of thousands of oysters, whelks and other shellfish to restaurants, as well as selling seafood directly from his stall on the harbour. But like others in Whitstable, West is now wondering if a local fishing industry can survive in Britain‘s polluted waters. A number of Whitstable’s fishing boats have left the harbour or been driven out of business entirely, and a business that has supplied sustainable food for thousands of years (oysters were cultivated here by the Romans, and exported across the empire) is dwindling.
Local businesses are clear about whom they hold responsible. On Friday (31 March) the Environment Agency published figures showing that water companies dumped raw sewage into England’s rivers and coastal areas 825 times a day – more than 300,000 times in total – in 2022.
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Southern Water, which covers the area around Whitstable, was handed a record £90m fine in 2021 after it was held responsible for more than 1,500 pollution incidents between 2010 and 2015, causing “a long-term deterioration in the shellfish flesh quality, leaving some areas unsuitable for harvesting shellfish for human consumption”, according to the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas). But there is evidence the fine had little effect: analysis by a local campaign group, SOS Whitstable, indicated that over one eight-day period in November 2022, Southern Water discharged “five months” worth of sewage into the sea in the South East.
West says many oysters in the local area are now infected with norovirus, and the rest of the local shellfish population – including whelks, which many of Whitstable’s boats fish for – are declining as pollution in the sea increases.
Oysters are filter feeders, which makes them prone to contracting disease (and spreading it, especially when eaten raw). West and other suppliers can prevent this using filtration tanks, in which thousands of oysters are held in clean, filtered water for up to a week until they have passed any pollutants or pathogens. But West fills those tanks with water from the local area, and he says the water company can be slow to communicate when it has released sewage; if there has been a release, he must wait four days before he can collect water.
“We have asked Southern Water time and time again for autodialers, so when they release sewage, we will be told immediately. They don’t want to know,” he says. “We never know when they release, so we can’t work out when we can get water.” Without information on the water quality, he says, “You never know when the oysters will be fit for human consumption.”
Shellfish producers send samples of their products to health authorities to ensure they are safe for consumption, but West says many have wound down operations because it is no longer worth the risk. “There’s no point harvesting, sending them to someone like me… then the health people say ‘no good, bring them all back’.” In the past few years, thousands of his oysters have been discarded because of this. Of the 9,000 he has bought in the past 12 months, “I’ve probably put 500 oysters in the skip”, he says.
[See also: Sewage, spills and shortages: why UK water companies have failed]
“One year I put 7,000 in. I bought 7,000 oysters, went to put them in the tanks and Southern Water told us it had released. It put signs up all along the seafront, so I couldn’t get water for four days: by that time, in summertime, oysters are dead.”
Southern Water said: “[We provide] nearly real-time data and were one of the first water companies to do this through our Beachbuoy system. This provides data of when releases happen, whether they’re genuine or false alarms and the duration of releases.” However, Beachbuoy is focused on bathing areas, rather than the areas fishers frequent. Southern Water also says its customers “are already told about storm overflow releases through email alerts, if they choose to sign up to them”.
Whitstable had been a tight-knit fishing community for centuries, but in the Victorian era the Crab and Winkle railway brought tourists from London, and allowed local producers to quickly ship their goods back to the capital. By the 1850s Whitstable was sending 80 million oysters a year to Billingsgate fish market, according to the largest local producer, the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company. The town remained popular with tourists but in the early 2000s it enjoyed a resurgence, becoming an enclave of artists, hipsters and yummy mummies. Throughout the town’s many iterations, the harbour has remained at its heart.
But West says headlines about sewage discharges have degraded the image of Whitstable shellfish – which once commanded a premium – and made many of his clients increasingly nervous. From where he is sitting in his shed on the edge of the harbour, West says he can see “a trawler which hasn’t been to sea since March last year… two other boys who just got bigger boats because they’re talking about going [around the coast] to Ramsgate… four cockle boats, which could go when the season starts, and nine other fishing vessels.” Five boats in the harbour haven’t been to sea for five weeks.
Southern Water said it was “impossible to identify a single factor causing the decline in the shellfish production in the UK given how many variables there are. The general decline in shellfish population is highly complex and is related to a wide range of abiotic and biotic parameters other than wastewater, including climate change and alteration in sex determination, often acting together. The UK shellfish industry has also been impacted by Brexit and the pandemic. Additionally, extensive research by independent experts have shown no decline in water quality in Whitstable’s shellfish beds.”
West agrees that statistical evidence on the effect of sewage discharges on shellfish populations is hard to find, in part because funding for the agencies involved has been cut in recent years. But the effects can be seen, he says, on every boat.
“The biggest catch this week has been 12 bushels of whelks, and that represents 300 quid,” he says. “That’s two blokes on a boat, four hours steaming down off to Ramsgate, hauling for about five hours and four hours steaming back. Out of that, you’ve got to pay £120 for the bait, and they’re on a 50 per cent share. So the boat’s got 90 quid, and they’ve got 90 quid.” In previous years, West says, the average boat was grossing £3,500 a week. But a recent haul included “one codling, two skate and five herrings”, a catch which would have made the fisher “about 15 quid”.
The Kent and Essex Inshore Fisheries Conservation Authority agrees with West, saying it “shares fishers’ serious concerns over shellfish health, especially around Whitstable”, and that its records “do show a significant reduction in days fished in April to November, with 237 days fished in 2022 compared with over 360 days fished for each of the previous three years”.
It adds that “fishers [have] produced evidence of moribund whelks that were dead in traps or pots”, which is likely to be because of “sustained elevated water temperatures in 2022. We are also considering an in-combination effect with disease, which can be exacerbated by elevated water temperatures.” In 2022, 238,000kg of whelks were landed in the Whitstable area, up from 187,000kg in 2021 – but significantly down on the 367,000kg landed in 2019.
For West, the choice made by his ancestor is not longer an option. “You can’t up sticks any more,” he says. “Where is there in this country that’s by the sea, where it’s not polluted?”
[See also: Sewage map shows potentially illegal “dry spills”]