Tide of misery for UK shellfish trade as health scares and algae blooms hit the industry

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The fruits of the sea. Left in their shells, served on some ice, little curls of meat ripe for plucking, to be washed down with a glass or two of chilled Muscadet. Thanks to Rick Stein, the non-stop diet of television cookery shows and the rise of the British gastronome, the success of the shellfish industry should be assured.

The fruits of the sea. Left in their shells, served on some ice, little curls of meat ripe for plucking, to be washed down with a glass or two of chilled Muscadet. Thanks to Rick Stein, the non-stop diet of television cookery shows and the rise of the British gastronome, the success of the shellfish industry should be assured.

Yet despite more and more restaurants dedicated to the mussel and the oyster, the industry is shrinking. Where once hundreds of thousands of people were employed around our coasts, British shell fishermen are standing idle.

Since 2000, scallop fishermen on the west coast of Scotland, the famous oystermen of Whitstable in Kent, cocklers on long stretches of the Thames Estuary and Ireland's musselmen have been hit by a succession of health scares which render their produce unsaleable and their livelihoods ruined.

Last week, Weymouth Bay in Dorset became the latest shellfishing area to have a health ban slapped on many species of clams, mussels and scallops destined for the metropolitan dinner table, after the discovery of toxins carried by algae.

Weymouth's misery followed the shutting down of the famed cocklebeds of the Burry Inlet in west Wales, when tests showed the presence of diarrhetic shellfish poisoning (DSP), carried in the algae, which can cause vomiting and diarrhoea.

The beds, which supply one-quarter of Britain's cockles, were closed for 10 months before finally reopening, to the relief of local businesses. But after only three weeks they were shut down again earlier this month after more tests.

The cockle industry, which employs 3,000 people nationally, has also been hit by a ban in The Wash. The supply shortage has seen prices per ton rise by about 25 per cent.

But many fishermen believe that banning the sale of their shellfish is often the product of over-reaction and heavy-handed regulation.

Rory Parsons, whose west Wales company pickles cockles and mussels, said the bans on seafood said to be contaminated are often based on flawed scientific research. The experience in west Wales has had a dramatic effect on an area which has been certified as a fishery that is being responsibly and sustainably managed.

"It's been a total disaster for the gatherers around here who have only had any real income for three weeks in the last 11 months," he said.

"The closures have most definitely not been triggered by any increase of illnesses, it's just based on pseudo-science."

Shellfish are seen as vulnerable to poisons of all sorts, whether naturally occurring or man-made, as they feed by filtering water and extracting micro-organisms from the sea. When potentially dangerous algae is absorbed, it accumulates and toxins are not destroyed during cooking.

Moreover, producers complain that no actual evidence of shellfish poisoning has yet been discovered. They dispute the validity of test results ordered by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and claim that they are discriminated against compared with counterparts in Europe and wider afield.

The first reported cases of DSP were in the Netherlands in the 1960s, followed by further reports from Japan. Outbreaks have since been reported in Europe, South American and the Far East.

Although DSP is reported worldwide, Europe and Japan appear to be the worst affected. Different forms of the algae can cause paralysis and loss of memory.

However, it is scallop farmers who have been hardest hit by another form of shellfish-borne illness: amnesic shellfish poisoning (ASP).

Industry leaders will be in Brussels next week to lobby officials in an attempt to preserve the jobs of thousands of people dependent on the scallop industry on the west coast of Scotland.

After a series of bans, scallop farmers have won a concession which allows them to sell scallops without the roe – where the toxin is concentrated – in areas where there have been positive tests. But at the same time, officials have lowered the permitted toxin levels.

Doug McLeod, the chairman of the Association of Scottish Shellfish Growers, said: "Traditionally, the Scottish scallop has been sold with the roe on and that has been a sign of freshness and premium quality. That premium product is needed to support the industry.

"If it's just white meat alone, we will be competing with imports from China, Taiwan, Thailand where costs of production are very much lower."

He said if they could not reverse the lower toxin thresholds, scallop fishermen would be forced into selling at rock bottom prices. "It will be a major blow to the economy, particularly the island communities and we will get boats tied up to the quay with fishermen taking their keys to the bank manager," he said.

Some ecologists blame the effect of global warming and rising sea temperatures for the apparent growth of algae in waters where molluscs and shellfish have been collected since Roman times.

Farmers are also being blamed for nutrients spread onto fields that are then being washed into the waterways by heavy rain turning the sea into ideal breeding grounds. In its most dramatic form, the algae can colour the waters and lead to so-called "red tides".

Kate Hutchinson, of the Marine Conservation Society, said: "The government has not recognised the British coasts have any nutrient pollution. They need to.

"Cases of shellfish with toxins appear to be on the increase. They are having more and more bans. It may be that they are testing more but it doesn't help that they are chucking out more and more nutrients.

"If they don't have a big research or monitoring project, we will never know. Why do we have to ruin our shellfish industry before we find out?"

Shellfish producers complain that testing procedures are haphazard and the bans take a lot longer to lift than on the continent.

Dr Clive Askew, the assistant director of the Shellfish Association of Great Britain, said part of the problem was that bans were longer compared with the rest of Europe. "There are a lot of very worried producers out there," he said.

John Bayes, the managing director of Seasalter Shellfish (Whitstable) has had to shut down part of his operation this year because of bans continually being imposed and lifted on cocklebeds.

"It's never been an easy industry, now we have this," he said. He feared more fishermen would go out of business.

Their concerns come after the industry has continually lobbied the government to clean up the country's estuaries and coastal waters, during years of wrangling over EU clean water and hygiene directives.

There are three standards for shellfish waters, A, B, and C, to ensure consumers are protected. The best, A, allows for consumption without further treatment, B requires that they are put in clean water for two days and C-grade cannot be sold without at least a two-month purification process.

Only three per cent of fishing areas in England and Wales are considered to be good enough to get a category A award, which producers blame on the failure of the government to invest enough money in cleaning waters, despite the improvements of recent years. It means that supermarkets go abroad for their shellfish.

Yet despite the fears, figures from the Public Health Laboratory Service offer some solace to producers and consumers of shellfish and molluscs, with a total of 148 outbreaks between 1992 to 1999.

Most cases of shellfish poisoning occur around the oyster-eating peak of Valentine's Day. In a study published last year, it said: "Reports of molluscan and crustacean outbreaks show a general decreasing trend."

Shelling out

  • The cockle industry employs about 3,000 people in England and Wales. Cockles worth about £5m are harvested every year.
  • After canning and pickling, the industry creates about £20m for the economy.
  • Overall, the shellfish industry is thought to employ up to 40,000 people.
  • About 120,000 tonnes of shellfish a year are produced by the British market, most of which is exported.
  • Domestic consumption has increased markedly, yet most of the shellfish goes to France, Spain, Portugal and Italy where much more is eaten per head of population.
  • Mussels farmed in Scotland, Wales and on the south coast of England are marketed throughout the year, but are best from October to March.
  • By law, native flat oysters cannot be sold from May to August when they are spawning. But Pacific oysters are available throughout the year.
  • There are 236 designated shellfish sites in the UK. In England and Wales, the Government has instructed water companies to spend £50m on shellfish waters over the next three years.
  • The rings on a scallop's shell can be used to determine its age. Some live for more than 10 years.