WHAT “should be the jewel in Southampton’s crown” has been dubbed an “environmental disaster”.

Chessel Bay is smothered “a foot deep in plastic” in some places.

Katrina Ayling, from Midanbury, broke down in tears when she first visited the nature reserve last autumn during a beach clean.

The mum of two who works with guide dogs said it was heartbreaking.

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The reserve on the eastern bank of the River Itchen just south of Northam Bridge is of great local importance according to the council website.

However, just weeks before the lockdown, volunteers collected more than a tonne of plastic waste from what is one of the only remaining undeveloped parts of the lower Itchen shoreline.

Their haul included tampons, food wrapping, a mass of toys and industrial waste.

Community litter picks are held twice a year however Katrina says this is not enough.

The 35-year-old, along with fellow environmental activist Mairin Williams, is calling on local companies to be held accountable.

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Tiny plastic beads – nurdles – which release toxic chemicals and harm wildlife have been pouring into the Itchen from three Southampton plastic factories, they say.

Birds often starve to death mistakenly thinking they are food.

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Katrina and Mairin are representatives for Surfers against Sewage, a charity which is urging manufactures to reduce plastic packaging and tackle plastic pollution with its ‘Return To Offender’ campaign.

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Katrina said: “It’s an environmental disaster. Plastic pollution is not in another county it’s here in our city.

“There is no point in beach clean-ups and litter picking it there is still plastic pouring out into the river. I want to see companies held accountable.

“The bay should be treasured and protected as a wildlife haven.

“It’s my local shore but I would not take my kids down there. It’s not safe. The problem is getting worse.”

A large part of the bay is mudflats which offer feeding grounds for migratory birds.

Accessed via Quayside Road it is also rich in plant life.

In 1989, Chessel Bay was designated Southampton City’s first Local Nature Reserve.

Important nationally, the mudflats are a Special Scientific Interest or SSSI.

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Responsibility for the bay lies with the city council and Natural England.

Cabinet member Steve Leggett said: “We are committed to protecting and enhancing our natural environment. As part of our Green City Plan, we are working with residents and businesses to reduce our impact on our local environment. This includes exploring how we can help businesses and community groups with interests in the river to improve the situation. We need to be wary of clean-ups as, if done too frequently, these can disturb habitats. We accept that litter being found on our foreshores is not acceptable.

“We have been to talking to local organisations to develop actions to reduce litter in the River Itchen. In the meantime, further smaller scale clean-ups will be taking place. We’d like to thank all involved for all of their efforts.”

The Daily Echo is awaiting comment from Natural England.