BOSSES at London Gateway have insisted that their huge programme of making the river deeper has not affected fish stocks in the Thames.
During construction of the £1.5billion superport in Stanford-le-Hope, 27m cubic metres of material was dredged from the river, making it seven metres deeper so the port can accommodate the biggest container ships in the world.
But fishermen argue that the project has caused for fish stocks in the Thames to dwindle - with particular concern for a “collapse” in the number of Dover Sole being landed by fisherman.
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However an independent firm appointed by London Gateway, which has been monitoring marine life in the river since 2001, say there has been no “significant change”.
And while on fishing boat - where the port sought to show the Echo first hand that fish stocks are unchanged - Marcus Pearson, the port’s environment manager said: “The river is alive.”
The survey vessel
While aboard the boat, Josh Hatton and David Alexander, marine biologists from Bath-based firm Marine Ecological Studies, carried out four short “trawls” for fish.
The only netted one Dover sole big enough to be sold off, but one trawl landed a large number of small Dover sole and baby sole. The same trawl landed a large number of brown shrimp, which are the dole’s primary food source.
In 2001, some nine years before construction and dredging started at London Gateway, MES categorised the River Thames in three large sections - the inner estuary, the mid-estuary and the outer estuary. The marine biologists also identified 40 sites in the River Thames, where they have collected samples of fish found there every other month, every two years.
At those sites they measure the number and type of species, the quantity of fish, their size and their weight.
Mr Hatton, a marine consultant with MES, said: “Our reports show overall, that over time there’s been no systemic or significant change in fish since 2001. There’s been variation, but no significant change.
“That variation is natural. For instance, water conditions can affect it. The last winter was one of the wettest since records began back in the early 1900s. Certain species of fish are less tolerant to fresh water. It’s very hard to attribute change to one thing.”
He added: “No evidence of dredging activity has been demonstrated in relation to the number of minimum landing sized or juvenile Dover sole sample in the pre- and in-dredge data.”
Josh Hatton with a Dover sole
Mr Pearson added: “The data shows - and even these trawls show - that the river is alive and that there is Sole in the river. We have all of this data and we want to share it.
“It’s encouraging that, even in these four short trawls today, we’ve seen lots of baby Sole and brown shrimp. If neither of those were there, I would be worried.”
SOUTH Essex fishermen claim that the haul landed by scientists while the Echo was aboard a fishing boat on the Thames was “negligible” and insisted...something isn’t right.
Paul Gilson, who is co-chairman of the Leigh and Southend Fishermen’s Association said that from the minute London Gateway started dredging, there had been a collapse in fish stocks, though he couldn’t guarantee dredging was the cause.
Data by the Marine Management Organisation, which measures how much Dover sole is landed in the Thames, found that 18 tonnes, worth £125,000 was landed in 2011. In 2013, just eight tonnes, worth less than £40,000 was landed.
Mr Gilson said: “To land one decent sized Dover sole while you were out there just shows that the survey is negligible. There is a dearth of fish in the Thames.
“It’s becoming the trend of what’s going on here, while in the North Sea, fish stocks are improving; colleagues in Belgium are telling me that.
Paul Gilson - no Dover sole
“Whatever it is, something is acting as a repellant.
“Where you fished is traditionally one of the most prolific areas in the Thames.
“The river’s becoming unviable and many fishermen have tried going elsewhere. You can’t tell that from a survey done three times a year. There is very little future at the moment.”
TALKS will get under way to work out why fish stocks in the River Thames have declined.
Experts from the Kent and Essex Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority, the Port of London Authority, the Environment Agency, the Marine Management Organisation and the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science will discuss any possible environmental impacts - such as dredging - climate issues and and the water becoming less salty.
Colm O’Laoim, a fishery officer with the fisheries and conservation authority, said the meeting had been organised off the back of concerns raised by fishermen.
He added that observations suggested that there has been a decline in fish stocks but was unable at this stage to give an indication of why.
He said: “Concerns have been raised by members of the commercial fishing industry regarding the reduction in the amount of sole being caught in the Thames Estuary. Observations also suggest that this has been a poor year for sole catches by the commercial fleet in the Thames.
Trawling outside the London Gateway port and Thames Oil Port
“As fish stocks like sole naturally fluctuate it is difficult to conclude whether the changes in catches reflect naturally changing conditions or other external influences such as other activities in the marine environment or changes in fishing methods throughout the range of the wide range of the species.”
Conservative MP for Southend West, David Amess recently blamed the “disappointing” and “depleting” stocks of sole, plaice, cod and herring in the Thames on channel deepening via suction dredging.
George Eustice, environment minister, said an initial investigation had shown a decline in stocks but said the reason for that was unclear.
A spokesperson for the Marine Management Organisation said: “We will be meeting a number of other agencies and the Environment Agency shortly to discuss the concerns raised by fishermen in Leigh.
“The meeting will look at current scientific information and landings data, and consider possible environmental impacts, including marine developments, climate issues, freshwater run-off and reduced salination.
“We are also currently liaising with the local fishing industry, and Cefas has recently written to respond to their concerns.”
A spokesman for the Environment Agency said: “We work closely with the Marine Management Organisation and, in the Thames Estuary, the Port of London Authority to ensure that dredging does not have an adverse impact on the environment.”
My view: Matt Abbott
IT was great to be on the River Thames.
You get a heightened sense from the water of just how important the river is - and indeed has been - to the economy in south Essex; as you float by the now defunct power station at Tilbury and away from the Port of Tilbury, up to the enormous new port and to the Thames Oil Port and soon-to-be Enterprise Park, beyond.
And of course, there is the vital significance that the Thames holds for the local fishing industry.
In some respects, it is the existence of this industry, vying for a place on the water, that has brought about the argument over fish stocks.
Our vessel journeyed to four different points of the Thames and trawled for five minutes at a time - far less time than a commercial fisherman would trawl for - as London Gateway sought to show that their huge dredging programme has not impacted on fish numbers.
I was surprised and fascinated by the diversity and amount of marine life found beneath the water’s murky surface: flounder, sole, crabs, cod, rays, a funny looking tub gurnard. I was amazed, too, to hear that sea horses had been collected in past trawls.
But I was somewhat disappointed by the size of the fish. We landed just one Dover sole and one cod that looked big enough to be sold over a counter.
Of course, you can’t draw definite conclusions from four short trawls and five hours on the water.
But what I glimpsed, appeared to be the crux of the argument: yes, there are fish in the Thames - plenty. But, they certainly don’t look big enough at the moment to earn a fishermen a living.