Fish deaths in England’s rivers rise tenfold in four years

<span>Fish died in Silchester Brook in Hampshire after a water treatment works released sewage into the water.</span><span>Photograph: Rob Read/Alamy</span>
Fish died in Silchester Brook in Hampshire after a water treatment works released sewage into the water.Photograph: Rob Read/Alamy

Mass deaths of fish in England’s rivers have increased almost tenfold since 2020, with fears sewage pollution is exterminating life in the country’s waterways.

Environment Agency (EA) data from the past four years shows an alarming rise in the number of fish deaths linked to sewage pollution, with figures escalating from 26,690 in 2020-2021 to 216,135 in 2023-2024.

The Angling Trust, which analysed the data, is calling for an urgent government intervention. The charity highlighted that there was a 54% increase in the number of sewage spills – from 301,091 n 2022 to 464,056 in 2023. This correlates with a rise in fish deaths from 42,070 in 2022-2023 to 216,135 in the 2023-2024 period.

Related: Big River Watch: public to monitor UK and Irish rivers for pollution

The Angling Trust analysis shows Southern Water and Thames Water stand out as being responsible for most of the fish kill incidents linked to sewage pollution in 2023-2024.

Stuart Singleton-White, the head of campaigns at the Angling Trust, said: “We can’t let these mass fish killings continue. This unprecedented increase in fish kills caused by sewage pollution is a clear indicator of the deteriorating health of our waterways. The public is quite rightly horrified by the huge environmental damage being done by sewage leaks in the name of water company profits.

“If pollution from a private company were to kill over 200,000 birds, there would be national outrage. The water companies responsible for these sewage leaks – many of which are illegal – need to be brought under special measures immediately before our rivers, the fish and all the life in them are irreparably damaged.”

The Angling Trust works with Fish Legal to hold the government to account over sewage spills and river health more generally. Fish Legal says the numbers are likely to be a vast underestimate, saying: “We’ve found through our own inquiries that the Environment Agency rarely follows up with a fish survey to assess the full impact of pollution, relying instead on counting dead fish when their officers do attend or reports from water companies when they don’t. Of course, counting and recording dead fish can only happen if there are any fish left in the river to kill.”

A spokesperson for Southern Water said: “We take all pollution incidents very seriously and these are never acceptable. Tackling pollution incidents is a top priority and one where we’re making improvements. Since 2019, the number of overall pollutions has nearly halved from 430 to 234 and our work to reduce this further includes installing 23,000 sewer level monitors to prevent incidents and blockages from happening. We remain committed to our ambitious target to reduce pollutions by over 70% between 2020 and 2025.”

Thames Water declined to comment. Defra and the Environment Agency have been contacted for comment.