Fisherrow water quality classified as "good" Nov 2023

This year's bathing water classifications have been released by SEPA. Fisherrow was rated as "good". This is one grade better than the two bathing waters west of us (Portobello West and Central) which were both rated 'sufficient' and is the same grade as the two sites to our east (Seton Sands and Longniddry).

Environmental Standards Scotland asked to investigate SEPA's handling of Eastfield pumping station - Aug 2023

In early August the Environmental Rights Centre for Scotland (ERCS) made a standalone representation to Environmental Standards Scotland (ESS) about SEPA’s failure to enforce the CAR licence at Eastfield (the pumping station at the bottom of the Brunstane Burn where it empties out at Fisherrow Sands). See the "Local Campaigning" section below for more information on the issues found at Eastfield. 

 Unfortunately ESS have refused to investigate the matter. The reasons ESS made that decision seem to be that:

 The way in which ESS approached this representation raised some issues for ERCS who had discussions with them about their decision not to investigate this.

ERCS has expressed concerns that ESS is not effectively enforcing environmental laws. More information is available in their consultation response

Fisherrow reinstated as "bathing water" May 2023

This year SEPA announced that Fisherrow had been reinstated as a "bathing water" following a range of maintenance and upgrade work done in the area which Scottish Water report, have improved the water quality. All the improvements are very welcome  to FHSA and the other local people and organisations who have campaigned on this issue, and we look forward to seeing more locals and visitors enjoying our seafront. 

We'll continue to keep a close eye on the monitoring data and will update this page with any new information we learn.

Efforts to improve Fisherrow water quality

One of the issues affecting Fisherrow in recent years has been the loss of our ‘bathing water’ status at the end of 2019 due to the presence of high levels of dangerous bacteria in our sea water as measured by SEPA for several years in a row. Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly In 2021, Fisherrow unfortunately featured in a list of UK beaches ranked lowest for water quality based on a new analysis of the published figures published by Save on Energy.  

What’s involved in being a Bathing Water?

Fisherrow had been named as a bathing water by SEPA in 2013 after a campaign by the Fisherrow Waterfront Group. Anyone can apply to SEPA to get this designation for a beach which is regularly used for swimming by lots of people. 

“For a new bathing water to be identified, an applicant should be able to provide evidence that the site is being used by a large number of bathers, usually through photographs or a survey of bather numbers. In addition, evidence that the relevant authorities or land owners are actively seeking to promote bathing at the site will be taken into consideration.”

Once bathing water status is established, the Scottish Government has put in place some requirements to protect them.

“These areas of water are given special protection to ensure they are safe for people to swim in during the bathing season, which normally runs from 1 June to 15 September.”

How does Fisherrow’s water quality compare to its neighbours?

Each year SEPA takes 18-20 measurements  at bathing sites on different days over the bathing season. These are published during the year on each bathing water's page as they are collected and ultimately the whole dataset is made available as a download. The data for 2020 has not been published as it was a shortened monitoring season due to the pandemic.  The 2023 data were taken down manually from each location's bathing water page. 

The figures below show the percentage of monitoring dates on which samples contained E. Coli or Intestinal Enterococci (IE) (both markers of human faeces) at levels which exceeded SEPA’s quality thresholds in Fisherrow Sands (white) and its two bathing water neighbours to the west (Portobello central (red) & Portobello west (green)) and east (Seton Sands (yellow) and Longniddry (blue)). The table shows the same data in numeric format. 

How often do bacterial levels exceed SEPA thresholds?

How high are the bacterial concentrations?

As well as monitoring the frequency with which faecal bacteria appears in the water, SEPA also report their concentration. The graphs below show these data for Fisherrow and its neighbours - firstly with all values displayed, and then with the scale zoomed in to expand the values which are up to three times the SEPA limits (all the values higher than this are not shown). The red dotted line on each graph shows the SEPA quality thresholds. 

Low water quality  and rainfall

It is often claimed that poor water quality is due to sewage releases after heavy rain which are necessary to prevent backflow into properties & SEPA advise against swimming in any bathing water for 48 hours. In an attempt to explore this in relation to Fisherrow's water quality, data were download from UK National River Flow Archive for the River Esk

The figures show the daily rainfall for the Esk catchment in cubic metres per second as dots for 2013-2017 for the  bathing season months (when SEPA were doing regular water quality monitoring).  Dates on which SEPA measures indicated low water quality at Fisherrow are marked by triangles. Note that the level of pollution is not marked by the triangles - they are just an indication of whether of not a SEPA measurement which happened to be taken that day contained levels of E.Coli or Intestinal Enterococci above their defined quality threshold. 

Some low water quality days coincide with a high flow of river water, but clearly others do not. 

Local campaigning during the period when the bathing water status was removed

Members of the Fisherrow Waterfront Group, Musselburgh StreetClean, the FHSA and others contacted SEPA, Scottish Water, Keep Scotland Beautiful and the Scottish Government to express their dismay at this situation. This is in addition to countless local residents reporting sewage related debris on the beach, an all too familiar experience for regular beach walkers and litter pickers. We were involved in many formal and informal discussions to try and keep this issue high on the agenda of the organisations who are responsible.

A lot of what arrives on Fisherrow beach comes via the River Esk, and there are a range of organisations working to try and improve its quality on a variety of fronts including water quality. This includes The Esk Valley Trust who have hosted some online talks this year - recordings of some can be found on their website. Colin Beattie (MSP) chairs The Esk River Improvement Group and minutes are published from those meetings.

Scottish Water and SEPA put out community briefings  in August 2022,  June 2021 and November 2020 (see below) giving details of work done to fix misconnections and make sewer network improvements. The 2021 briefing indicated that Eastfield - a local pumping station - had been running at reduced capacity and therefore was "not complying with licence requirements".  As SEPA are required to enforce these licenses, we asked for information about the consequences of this failure but there did not appear to be any. The 2022 briefing noted that "Brunstane Burn is still affected by urban pollution from a range of sources. Misconnected properties are thought to be a significant source of this pollution. Connections of foul drainage (from sinks, washing machines, showers and toilets) to a surface water drain (for clean rain water from roofs and driveways etc.) are due to incorrect plumbing."  We look forward to hearing what actions will be taken to address this. 

We remain concerned about the mixed messages given out about Fisherrow and we know that sewage pollution is a regular feature of the two main fresh water sources which feed into the area (Esk River and Brunstane Burn).  Repeated references to dog waste and seagulls in posters, media interviews & newspaper reports are confusing given that water quality status is largely influenced by levels of bacteria from human waste. 

The release of sewage into waterways is unfortunately a widespread and growing problem in Scotland and the rest of the UK.  You can read more here:

Looking ahead

We want Fisherrow to be a safe and welcoming wild swimming spot and remain committed to trying to work positively to continue local improvements. We are looking beyond Fisherrow for advice and support from others who are also horrified by the regularity with which sewage ends up in our waterways, such as the River Almond Action Group, the Environmental Rights Centre for Scotland, Surfers Against Sewage and the Marine Conservation Society, Coastal Communities Network.  

We'll continue to report sewage pollution on the beach or at the river, including sewage related debris (sanitary towels, tampons, wipes). As a resident or visitor to Fisherrow, if you find anything, please do report it to Scottish Water

SEPA Scottish Water Fisherrow Sands briefing note, 08 August 2022.pdf

Fisherrow Sands Improvement update and briefing note, August 2022

SEPA & Scottish Water

Fisherrow community briefing note June 2021.pdf

Fisherrow Sands Improvement update and briefing note, June 2021

SEPA & Scottish Water

Fisherrow community briefing note, final 27_11_2020.pdf

Fisherrow Sands Improvements update and briefing note , November 2020

SEPA & Scottish Water