English shellfish could be contaminated with sewage as untreated human waste was dumped 29,000 times by water companies last year in the water where they are cultivated.
The new statistics found sewage was dumped into waters containing shellfish for 207,013 hours in one year. The worst offenders were South West, Southern Water and Anglian Water. There are fears that this could happen again this year.
Some of England’s best-known fishing areas have been marred by sewage, raising fears the shellfish could be contaminated. The longest sewage dump event into shellfish water last year took place at Morecambe Bay by United Utilities, lasting 5,000 hours. However, Environment Agency data shows the sewage monitor worked only 15% of the time, meaning that figure could be much higher. In Sussex, Southern Water dumped sewage into Chichester Harbor for 4,996 hours in just one overflow.
The Liberal Democrats have called for a sewage tax on water companies, pointing out that firms that pump sewage into lakes and rivers made more than £2.8bn in profits, with large amounts going out in dividends for shareholders and bonuses for executives.
They say that the tax on their profits would produce a fund worth hundreds of millions to prevent sewage polluting rivers.
Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat environment spokesperson, said: “England’s treasured shellfish, our prawns, crayfish, lobsters and crabs, are the forgotten victims of this environmental scandal.
“The past week we’ve seen our beaches closed because of these polluting water companies. All the while, they are raking in billions of pounds in profits and forking out eye-watering bonuses to their CEOs. Frankly, the whole thing stinks.
“Conservative MPs voted against a ban on sewage dumping. That means right now water companies are still pumping disgusting sewage into the homes of shellfish.”
The shellfish industry has recently been hit by sewage pollution. Whitstable oyster festival, arguably England’s largest celebration of the bivalve, was marred by sewage fears in 2021 after diners fell ill with suspected poisoning.
Earlier this year, the director of Whistable Oyster Company, James Green, spoke of the effect that sewage dumping had on the industry.
He said: “After the first spill event at the end of June, the next three months we had close to zero sales as each time we tried to open, there was another spill event and associated cases of norovirus.”
He said sales had recovered since the incidents, but asked: “How is Southern Water going to compensate both the industry and the people that will lose their jobs if their use of combined sewer overflows continues on a regular basis due to a lack of infrastructure investment ?”
Southern Water said at the time that the sources of bacteria getting into the sea were “many and varied” and not simply from its discharges.
A spokesperson for Water UK, which represents water firms, said: “Water companies agree there is an urgent need for action to tackle the harm caused to the environment by spills from storm overflows and wastewater treatment works. They are investing over £3bn to improve overflows as part of a wider national program to improve the environment between 2020 and 2025.
“However, companies want to go further, faster and are pushing to be able to spend more, and for processes to be streamlined so that investment can be quickly targeted where it is needed most. Any new investment must be combined with action from the government on wet wipes and urban creep that are increasingly triggering spills.
“Water companies can’t do this alone which is why we’re also calling for government, regulators, water companies, agriculture, and other sectors to come together as soon as possible to deliver a comprehensive national plan to bring about the transformation in our rivers and waterways we all want to see.”