Lifting of cockle-fishing ban backfires in clamour to net a fast profit on the Dee

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Conservationists may be forced to close down Britain's richest cockle beds to fishermen, days after lifting a four-year ban imposed because the clamour for the shellfish had stripped it bare.

Conservationists may be forced to close down Britain's richest cockle beds to fishermen, days after lifting a four-year ban imposed because the clamour for the shellfish had stripped it bare.

The Environment Agency, which imposed Britain's first cockling ban on the Dee estuary beds in 1997, was forced to reopen them last week after four fallow years resulted in a fatal overpopulation of cockles. The crustaceans come to the surface at high tide to take in algae from the water but cannot find room back on the estuary floor when it is over- populated. Millions have been left stranded at the surface, exposed to wind and sunlight, and have died in the Dee.

In a six-week trial reopening, the agency limited access to permit-holders who must arrive in fishing boats – a deterrent to the fly-by-nights who arrive on motorbikes and quad bikes to make a quick buck.

But 300 still turned up on the first day last Monday – from professional fishermen to amateur treasure-hunters in tracksuits and football tops, piloting any boat they could find. They travelled from as far as Swansea to the south and the Solway Firth to the north, many sleeping in lay-bys to be on the estuary by low tide, at 7am. Spanish refrigerator wagons were seen at Thurstaston on the west Wirral shoreline, waiting for produce to ship to the Continent.

In the clamour, some cocklers have already been suspected of seizing shellfish below the regulation 20mm diameter, which were not to be picked out under the new permit rules designed to sustain the industry for the future.

Alan Winston, area fisheries manager, said yesterday: "Our enforcement officers have been monitoring the area but with only six of them, and up to 300 fishermen, there are limits as to what we can do. A number of people have been caught harvesting young cockles and we are considering legal action."

The rush is because no cockles have as much meat in them as the Dee variety. Some put the value of the industry in the estuary at £5m per year. Professionals seasoned in the art of picking out the largest and separating them from "the small" – cocklespeak for the mud and younger, less valuable crustaceans buried in it – have been going home with £400 to £500 apiece.

By mid-morning last week, the estuary was alive again with the sight of cocklers, many clad in bright orange waders, bent double over the small rakes used to drag back the mud and expose cockles, then shaking riddles, or sieves, used to separate the small cockles and packing the harvest into onion sacks.

Alan Yoxall, a cockler of 20 years' standing, despaired yesterday of the "dole-ites in to make a quick kill". He said: "The beds wouldn't last at this rate. The agency must grant a permit to anyone who asks, so there's no way of legislating against this."

The Environment Agency agrees. It wants a proper fishery, accessible on licence to 60 or so cocklers a year on the estuary, but cannot establish one until a regulatory order has been approved by the Government and the Welsh Assembly (the Dee lies within both countries). This will not be until next year at the earliest; in the meantime, it is a free for all.

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