Dredgers threaten to suck the life out of cockle beds

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The cockle-gatherers of Penclawdd, who have been harvesting shellfish by hand in the Burry Inlet in south Wales for generations, could soon be no more.

Local authorities are threatening to abolish the regulatory body for the industry, the South Wales Sea Fisheries Committee (SWSFC), which could allow mass dredging and swiftly diminish shellfish stocks. Set up in 1921 to protect breeding stock, the committee limits harvesting to 300kg per person per day.

Deregulation would allow powerful suction dredgers from East Anglia and the Netherlands to operate in the area. Capable of lifting 10 tonnes of shellfish an hour, these vessels generate a large profit for their operators but could wipe out stocks in the 11,000-acre estuary in months.

The loss of the cockle-gathering tradition could be catastrophic to the rural economy of the Gower Peninsula: although only 44 licensed operators rake and sift cockles on the Burry Inlet, many more are employed in spin- off jobs such as processing.

Brian Jones, a third-generation cockle man, and his family run a pounds 250,000 processing plant on the estuary. He says that the termination of the committee could sound the death knell for Penclawdd. "The fisheries committee plays a major part in our industry, if we didn't have that the local trade would collapse as it would be a free for all," he said.

Bill Davies, fisheries officer with the committee said: "Funding this body is relatively inexpensive, but since the reorganisation of the unitary authorities last year some of the county councils share in the funding of the SWSFC now no longer have a coastline, therefore keeping up their contribution is hardly a priority."