The Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre is best-known for the new species of ichthyosaur - unveiled there by David Attenborough - which features in a popular documentary.
The Centre attracts 150,000 visitors a year, mainly during the summer. On a blustery Monday afternoon in November, the beach outside is littered with debris from a recent storm and the place is more or less deserted apart from a small group of locals gathering in a back room.
They are beach-cleaners, surfers, museum volunteers, parents, local councillors, Transition-towners: and they are all here to talk about bio-beads.
Bio-beads are small plastic pellets which, coated with bacteria, are used as part of the filtration process in some waste-water treatment plants.
The local water company, South West Water (SWW), operates eight plants of this kind and it became apparent, early in 2017, that the beads were escaping in vast quantities.
Five million were removed from a 100m stretch of Tregantle Beach in Cornwall. Thirty-two were regurgitated in a single pellet by a herring gull on the Fal estuary.
The beads – heavily contaminated with cadmium, lead and the bromines used in flame retardants – appear to be made from recycled electronic equipment.
So when bright blue bio-beads began to wash up at Charmouth later in 2017, this was already part of a larger story. When questioned about them, the company argued that it would ‘cost too much’ to find out what colour beads were being used in their nearest plant, at Uplyme. A spokesperson told a reporter SWW was ‘confident that there has been no loss of bio-beads from the site.’
A group of concerned locals was finally admitted to the plant at Uplyme in February 2019 and easily found bright blue bio-beads, exactly matching those on the beach, lying around on the site.
The newly-formed group at Charmouth, Ban the Beads, will be responding to the company on behalf of the communities around the bay.
In a recent statement about its performance in the six months to November 2019, SWW claimed to be both ‘reducing pollution incidents’ and ‘on track to meet our leakage target.’
To judge by the half year report of its parent company, Pennon, it is also on track to turn a profit of nearly £200m at the full year.
A 2019 report from Surfers Against Sewage, meanwhile, places SWW as the third worst company in the country for ‘discharge notifications’ (i.e. discharge of untreated waste water). On some metrics it is the worst-offending water company in the country and is rated overall as having ‘relatively poor performance’.
SWW recently told the Times that any escape of beads is ‘unacceptable’ and it has now installed secondary screening at all its plants (except the largest one, at Plympton). But the confidence about its record on the environment would appear open to question, at least to those who recall the company’s earlier statements.
Reporters on the marine environment do not regularly connect stories like this with marine conservation ‘proper’ but Charmouth of course overlooks the Marine Protected Area (MPA) in Lyme Bay.
The connection here is hard to miss. Established in 2008, with the exclusion of scallop-dredgers from parts of the bay, this remains the best-studied and best-managed of the larger MPAs in UK waters. Fifty-five smaller boats have signed up to a voluntary agreement limiting their fishing effort in the common interest.
There has been, however, an unforeseen consequence of success here. Excluding the dredgers made the area very attractive to potters, who could now set their gear confident that it would not be towed away – and set it, what’s more, on a rapidly recovering sea-bed.
The question now arose as to whether commercial potting might begin to damage the very sea-bed we had set out to protect.
2019 saw publication of Adam Rees’ long-awaited report into these matters. Dr Rees, a researcher at Plymouth University, worked with fishermen to select 16 designated areas within the MPA, each of 500m x 500m, where potting effort was carried on over three years at high, medium or low pressure, with control areas in which there was no potting.
Ross coral and Neptune’s heart sea squirt are slow-growing organisms crucial for ‘reef-forming’, or building up a ‘honeycomb’ of habitat on the sea-bed.
Their growth encourages the settlement of larvae, offers shelter to young fish and structure for nest-building reef fauna. What the report showed clearly for the first time was that these recovered more slowly where potting intensity was at medium to high.
Rees concluded: ‘We have demonstrated evidence of the first known ecological impacts associated with commercial potting.’
Jean-Luc Solandt, of the Marine Conservation Society, agrees: ‘Sea squirts filter large amounts of seawater, extracting nutrients, so large-scale unregulated potting will have deleterious impacts to seabed habitats.’ Rees’ report puts reliable information about this, for the first time, into the hands of fisheries managers.
Back at the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre, a new set of panels is being set up. These will form an indoor ‘marine area’ to raise awareness of the MPA just offshore.
Alison Ferris, deputy senior warden at the Centre and convenor of the group I began with, said: ‘Most of the visitors I speak to don’t know much about the marine life or that it is a protected area.'
The Centre, she admits, is ‘primarily focused on fossils’, but big storms now routinely dump large amounts of plastic on the beach: volunteers now lead both nurdle-hunts and beach-cleans. Two of them are monitoring the spread of an invasive sea-weed along the coast.
All of the activities I’ve touched on here – holding polluters to account, managing an MPA, exploring the geology – these all happen in and around the same bay but in the main are carried on in parallel, each one oddly sealed off from the others.
The Centre’s new ‘marine area’ aims to start putting this right. But isn’t there a larger issue here? Might not the present emergency be just the occasion for a new ‘synoptic’ view of the environment?
A synoptic view would take in all facets of a shared problem and see them not as rivals for attention or funding or prestige but as fellow-contributors to a joined-up solution.
Charmouth is on the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, most of which runs along the edge of Lyme Bay. The geologist (and local resident) Denys Brunsden first conceived of it as a kind of conservation project.
Brunsden describes how visitors would walk its sequence of rocks, from the Triassic to the Jurassic and the Cretaceous, ‘and understanding it, they’ll want to look after it.’
Doesn’t the same apply to living systems, about which the public also knows more and more?
When an American oil company in the 1990s planned to drill through the reefs in Lyme Bay, both local opposition and the cost of extraction dissuaded them.
Joan Edwards, a participant in that debate, now Head of Living Seas with the Wildlife Trusts, is in no doubt about the connection between the decisions we make, all of us, in places like Lyme Bay and questions about our wider impact.
Edwards said: ‘We are in a climate and environmental emergency. It’s right to reduce our carbon emissions. But we shouldn’t just think of wind turbines, or even of trees.
'Salt marsh, sea grass and deep-sea mud all absorb more carbon than wood. We’ve over-trawled and over-dredged the seas for centuries.
'Lyme Bay is what good fishing management can look like. But we need really large HPMAs (Highly Protected Marine Areas). How we use the sea could have a huge role in mitigating climate change. We need to start thinking differently.’
Horatio Morpurgo is a writer and campaigner. His most recent book, The Paradoxal Compass (2017), sets current efforts to protect Lyme Bay in the longer historical context of the West Country's relationship with the sea.
Image: Miles Hoskin.