Water firms accused of harming UK’s seafood supply chains through sewage dumping

Sewage dumping will certainly hit consumer trust and potentially impact breeding pattens, seafood trade experts have warned

Published by the Liberal Democrats, the analysis concludes that untreated sewage has been dumped for more than 27,000 hours in English coastal regions used for shellfish production during the past 12 months. The Party documented 29,000 individual dumping incidents, with the longest, in Morecambe Bay, lasting some 208 days.

United Utilities has been named by the Party as the organisation responsible for that incident. However, in terms of the total levels of dumping in shellfish areas in the 12-month period, it classes South West, Southern Water and Anglian Water as the worst offenders.

These figures are significantly higher than those put out by the Environment Agency previously. The Agency has stated that England’s bathing waters were subjected to 160,000 hours of sewage discharge in 2021, totalling some 161,000 hours.

The new analysis has been published at a time when sewage dumping in seaside regions is receiving much media coverage. Surfers Against Sewage stated last week that the levels of dumping recorded, and the number of areas affected, has been “extreme” this summer, with holidaymakers at many of the UK’s most popular beaches unable to swim. The UK’s sewage management systems mix sewage with stormwater at times of high rainfall, and, in these cases, water companies are forced to discharge. Supply chain disruptions mean that most have struggled to access sufficient treatment chemicals. This, compounded with looser requirements on only discharging treated water, has resulted in an uptick in untreated discharges.

The Lib Dems are now arguing that marine creatures are the “forgotten victims” of sewage dumping and, that, without more intervention from the Government, seafood supply chains will take the hit. The Shellfish Association of Great Britain has warned that product sales in 2023 will likely be affected by consumers wishing to avoid pollution, and perhaps be affected by pollution impacting breeding patterns.

A vote on a Lib-Dem-led amendment to the Environment Bill was held last October, in a bid to force water companies to work with policymakers to reduce the number and duration of storm overflow discharges. The majority of the amendment passed but some believe the “teeth” had to be taken out of it for it to receive backing from the Conservative Party, which expressed concerns over the cost of changing the sewage system – and the ability of water companies to access treatment chemicals amid Brexit-related supply chain disruption.

The Liberal Democrats continue to advocate for a greater sewage tax on water companies, with proceeds placed in a fund for initiatives to prevent future pollution. The Environment Agency is also advocating an increase in tax, plus additional powers to charge water industry executives in a manner that could result in prison sentences.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) issued a blog earlier this week on its plans to reduce sewage discharges, claiming that the Environment Bill should still have a “significant” impact and result, “categorically”, in reductions. The blog highlights recent consultations on a proposed Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan, which would limit where and when water companies can use storm overflows and paves the way for an end to any discharges that would harm the environment. A final plan is due out in September.

A Government spokesperson said: “We have been clear that the failure of water companies to adequately reduce sewage discharges is completely unacceptable. They have a duty to put their customers before shareholders and we would expect them to take urgent action on this issue or face fines.”

Water UK, the industry body, has stated that its members are already planning on investing £3bn in infrastructure and process improvements. However, it wants further action from Whitehall to tackle wet wipes and urban sprawl, which it claims are “increasingly triggering” the need for discharges.

The global state of seafood supply chain

In timely fashion, WWF has today (24 August) published a new report quantifying the amount of seafood eaten by people in the UK and assessing risks to domestic and global supply chains. The report states that more than 80% of the 887,000 tonnes of fish and shellfish eaten in the UK in 2019 was imported. It also reveals that 70% of the fish and shellfish caught and farmed in UK waters that year was exported.

Further into the document, WWF assesses the negative environmental and social impact of different popular seafood categories – and how exposed each of these categories are to climate and nature risks.

It states that tuna, swordfish, warm-water prawns, squid and some crab species have the highest environmental and social footprint. Tuna and swordfish supply chains were found to be the highest-risk for harm to endangered, threatened and protected species, as fishing methods often end up entangling sharks, turtles and birds. Also considered high-risk in this regard are cod, haddock, monkfish, pollock and pollack supply chains.

In terms of climate risk, WWF deems crustacean supply chains the biggest contributor and poorly adapted. Its report highlights how production is fairly inefficient, with only a mall amount of food resulting from the use of much feed.

“We are now facing a ‘triple challenge’: producing nutritious food for a growing global population while staying on track to keep global temperature increases to within 1.5C and reversing biodiversity loss,” the report states. “The UK’s departure from the EU offers an opportunity for UK governments to review and improve domestic seafood production policies, and to ensure new trade deals with other countries help mitigate the UK’s global environmental, social and economic seafood footprint. UK seafood businesses and consumers can also play important roles to drive the improvement required to build a future in which people live in harmony with nature and where sustainable seafood plays its part in meeting the challenges of the future.”

WWF is calling on the Government to do more to address the environmental and social footprint of the seafood imported to the UK post-Brexit. It acknowledges that “significant” work to improve and grow certification schemes has taken place since the 1990s, but argues that all seafood produced in and imported to the UK should be certified by 2030.

It also calls for policy and regulation go beyond certification. The Government is asked to use the UK Seafood Fund and Blue Planet Fund to support producers domestically and abroad and to align all fishing operations are net-zero compatible, among other measures.

Businesses and shoppers are asked to promote and choose, respectively, products with lower risk potentials. These include mussels and herring.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie