Sharks and octopus spotted in River Mersey as estuary enjoys ‘remarkable recovery’

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Otters, octopus, salmon, seals and even porpoises have also been recorded in the Mersey.

Multiple species of sharks have been caught in the River Mersey estuary, a new survey has found.

The first survey of its kind in twenty years showed a huge increase in fish populations, and suggests the Mersey is recovering from industrial pollution and sewage.

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Smooth-hound, bull huss sharks and starry smooth-hound sharks are among five species found by anglers, between Howley Weir in Warrington and Perch Rock, Wirral.

The sharks were among 37 fish species recorded by the Mersey Rivers Trust, more than double the amount since the last survey in 2002 - when only 15 species were recorded in the estuary.

The increase in numbers shows wildlife is recovering despite the River Mersey being dubbed biologically dead fourty years ago.

Mike Duddy, senior project manager at Mersey Rivers Trust, told the BBC: “The river was full of industrial pollution and sewage, it was possibly the most polluted river in Europe at the time. That continued until about 1985 and since then there’s been billions of pounds spent on wastewater treatment works in the region.

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“That’s prompted this remarkable recovery. Everyone says that our wildlife is in decline, that’s actually the opposite in the Mersey where wildlife is on this rapid improvement curve.”

This isn’t the first time Merseyside has seen unusual visitors, as two dolphins were seen off the coast of Ainsdale in August last year and deadly jellyfish were spotted in West Kirby.

Ben Coba with a starry smooth-hound shark caught in Seacombe. Credit: Wirral Sea Angling AcademyBen Coba with a starry smooth-hound shark caught in Seacombe. Credit: Wirral Sea Angling Academy
Ben Coba with a starry smooth-hound shark caught in Seacombe. Credit: Wirral Sea Angling Academy | Credit: Wirral Sea Angling Academy

Mike believes “the Mersey is now one of the best habitats around, adding: “It’s the best environmental good news story in Europe without a doubt. Everywhere else nature is in decline but in the Mersey the wildlife-ometer is in the red and it’s got loads and loads to go.

“It’s full steam ahead. David Attenborough talks about an environmental crisis but the Mersey is not.”

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Mike thinks this could be a boost for the environment across the whole region and into North Wales. He points to humpback whales being spotted off the coast of Liverpool in 2015 for the first time since 1938 and a 10ft mako shark being found in north Wales in 2014.

In the Mersey itself, there are otters, octopus, salmon, seals and even porpoises.

However, Mike pointed out that it is not all good news when it comes to the Mersey. While reporters were there, three wet wipes were pulled out of the river.

Mike said: “This is part of the ongoing issues with the Mersey. Instead of catching fish, we’re catching wet wipes and masks.

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“We’ve come on a journey where Liverpool had no waste water treatment works but now it does. United Utilities have improved wastewater treatment across the north of England. That’s why our rivers are full of fish but we’re only part way there.

“We’ve got an old style system and the capacity isn’t large enough for the size of the population. There’s loads of things United Utilities can do to improve waste water and improve water quality. That’s why I won’t swim in it.”

He called for United Utilities to invest more money into improving infrastructure. He believes that if this happened, current progress would have happened in half the time.

A United Utilities spokesperson, said: “We’re proud to have been a key partner in the Mersey Basin Campaign and since 1991 we have invested around £3bn in our treatment works and sewer systems to play our part in improving the water quality in the basin.

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“In recent years, this has included a £200m extension to Liverpool wastewater treatment works, £13m on schemes in Sefton to reduce flooding and spills and installing new technology to monitor the sewers in the region to understand their performance and spot potential issues. We’re pleased that our investment has had a positive impact with the wide variety of aquatic life that continues to return to the Mersey.

“We agree that there is more to be done though and that’s why last year we launched our Better Rivers: Better Northwest campaign. In the next two years we will be investing £230m improving 184km of waterways by reducing overflow spills across the North West. We are also currently prioritising our plans for further investment from 2025 onwards, which will see one of the biggest environmental improvement programmes ever delivered.

“We want to work with others as well, and we are in discussion with local authorities to see how we can more effectively manage rainwater at source, developing more sustainable urban drainage systems. The public can also play their part by remembering that things like wet wipes should not be disposed of down the toilet. Only the three Ps should be flushed – pee, poo and (toilet) paper.”

Mike and his group are making a list of all the species they catch which the Rivers Trust will then take to councils and government organisations like Natural England.

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Cllr Liz Grey, who heads up Wirral’s environment committee said: “This is really good news that more species and rare ones are being found there. We’ve come such a long way from the awful polluted mess it was becoming when I was young.

“However we’ve got to be vigilant and protect all those species and ourselves from any pollution, especially plastics. That is the responsibility of everyone using the river right from its source to the mouth.”

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