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Were Dumped Munitions the Culprit? Disarmament, Path Dependency, and the Mass Death of Oysters in the Thames Estuary, 1918-1928

Sat, April 13, 8:30 to 10:00am, Hyatt Regency Columbus, Marion


In the wake of the Armistice in November 1918, immense quantities of conventional and chemical munitions went unused by Allied forces on the Western Front and therefore required disposal after the First World War. From a range of imperfect destruction methods, British military and government officials decided to rely on a method commonly used for hazardous waste and industrial pollution: ocean dumping. The proximity of the English Channel and Thames Estuary streamlined logistics and allowed for bulk disposals. However, this proved to be a disastrous development for the shellfish industry along the Kent and Essex Coasts, as anywhere between 17 and 92 percent of every oyster bed was dead by September 1920. After numerous public appeals and accusations from fishermen, the British government hired marine biologists to investigate the possible connections between the dumped munitions and the mass death of oysters in the Thames Estuary. Although the findings proved inconclusive, they cast long shadows over future dumping operations, marine environments, the food chain, and the offshore economy. Using the corporate records of the Whitstable Oyster Company and other scientific, military, and policy documents from the National Archives in London, this paper will explore a British case study of the complex relationship between demobilization, policymaking, and ocean pollution. In doing so, it argues that disarmament was accompanied by steep environmental costs as path dependencies in decision-making, scientific inquiry, and munitions disposal resulted in immense ecological degradation and unintended socio-economic consequences.