A new report from the UK government is suggesting that the mass death of thousands of crabs and lobsters may have been caused by a disease previously unknown to science.

The die-off, which occurred along the coastline from Hartlepool to Whitby in October 2021, was detected after thousands of crustaceans washed ashore, with dying creatures twitching and displaying lethargic behavior.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) had previously blamed an algal bloom for the deaths.

Activists and researchers speculated that deposits of the chemical pyridine, an industrial byproduct, trapped in the bed of the river Tees may have been stirred up and released into the sea as a result of dredging activity linked to the government's work to revitalize a nearby port.

Research commissioned from Newcastle University by The Fishmongers’ Company showed that pyridine is highly toxic to crabs.

The Teesworks Freeport, a £200 million (€224 million/$244 million) project, intended to be UK government’s flagship investment in the north of England, is expected to create 20,000 new jobs, revitalizing the region’s economy over the next 25 years.

However, Defra said in a report released recently, "It is about as likely as not that a pathogen new to UK waters – a potential disease or parasite – caused the unusual crab mortality."

It also said it is very unlikely that pyridine or another toxic pollutant caused the crab deaths.

The report added: "It is also possible that a combination of factors led to the unusual mortality, rather than one of the factors the panel considered."

Mike Cohen, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organizations, said the event highlighted the vulnerability of fishing businesses.

"Clearly this is a big problem for the guys who fish up there and shows how precarious marine ecosystems are and how important it is to take care of the seas," he told IntraFish.