Shellfish areas around the UK were polluted by human sewage tens of thousands of times last year, data reveals.
The River Teign in Devon was the worst hit of the shellfishing areas, suffering 2,198 cases of sewage contamination, it’s claimed.
The River Ribble in North Yorkshire and Lancashire was the second-worst affected, with 1,713 incidents.
In all, water companies allowed raw or partially-treated sewage to run into rivers and watersheds or into the sea for a total of more than 3.9 million hours last year, according to the Top of the Poops website, which uses Environment Agency official statistics.
But even these figures are an underestimate, it says, because the data is “poorly collected by the water companies, with monitoring defective or in many cases completely absent”.
Sewage contaminated areas where shellfish are found more than 30,000 times last year, the data shows. Shellfish can become unfit for human consumption when polluted by sewage because of the health risks.
It coincides with a report from Surfers Against Sewage that finds water companies are increasing the discharge of harmful sewage into our seas and rivers, with devastating consequences for the environment.
Water firms issued 5,517 sewage discharge notifications over a 12-month period to September this year, an increase of 87.6 per cent.
In July, Southern Water was fined a record £90m for dumping 21 billion litres of raw sewage into the sea from 2010-2015.
Up to 10,000 contaminated oysters are believed to have entered the food chain and dogs became violently ill after swimming in the sea.
The Environment Agency found high levels of faecal matter, E.coli and norovirus, Canterbury Crown Court heard.
In summer this year, the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company had to stop selling oysters after customers reported suffering from norovirus, prompting the boss to warn sewage leaks could threaten shellfish companies’ businesses.
Industry chiefs say buying from licensed fishermen who clean shellfish of bacteria is safe but anyone catching them to eat is at risk.
Last month the government provoked fury for vetoing more severe action against pumping raw sewage into rivers and seas, eventually bowing to pressure and performing a U-turn.
An Environment Agency spokesperson said it was working with water companies to ensure overflows were properly controlled “and the harm they do to the environment stopped”.
Monitoring of the sewerage network has increased 14-fold in the past five years, they added. “In the next four years, water companies will undertake 800 investigations and over 800 improvement schemes to storm overflows. The Storm Overflows Taskforce is also looking into further ways that we can reduce the harm from these overflows.”
Water UK, on behalf of the water firms, said it could not comment on the fisheries data, but on the Surfers Against Sewage report, a spokesperson said: “Water companies recognise the urgent need for action to protect and enhance our rivers and seas,” adding that its recent report called on government to bring forward a new Rivers Act, providing greater protection for rivers.
“We know we need to go further and water companies want to invest more to improve infrastructure and stop harm from storm overflows and outfalls.”