Cornish oyster dredgers face their final catch

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A CENTURIES-OLD Cornish fishing tradition will die on Wednesday unless a last-minute ministerial reprieve saves the oyster dredgers of the Fal estuary.

The little fleet of some 20 sail- and oar-powered boats has fallen foul of new licence regulations issued by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), and will have to cease fishing when the current six- month season ends. Past confusion over registering boats has meant that most of the fleet will not qualify for the new licences.

Ray Collins, 53, said: 'If I can't get my licence then my livelihood has gone. Something I have had since I left school.'

The dredgers are already strictly regulated, enshrining traditional methods: no engines are allowed, and work is restricted to the six winter months, and from 9am to 3pm Monday to Friday, 9am to 1pm on Saturday.

'We reckon we are the most beautiful industrial unit there is,' said Colin Frost, 50. He fears for his future even though he meets the licence requirements. A reduced fleet is less likely to be able to beat off demands that the growing number of leisure yachts be allowed to moor above the oyster beds. 'That would be the beginning of the end. No one could work across the moorings,' Mr Frost added.

The oyster dredgers' job is strictly seasonal. In the summer Mr Frost lays and maintains moorings, and fishes in another boat for crab. Mr Collins works at the council's refuse dump.

The Fal beds are the last traditional oyster fishery in Europe. Oysters are brought to the surface by trawling a small dredge across the estuary beds at a slow speed perfectly suited to sail craft. In waters below eight feet or so, rowing punts are used.

The fisheries, which are made up of native British oysters rather than the Pacific oysters commonly farmed elsewhere, are just recovering from a disease caused by the parasite Bonamia. Water quality and oyster samples are checked by MAFF and the National Rivers Authority. 'There are more people looking after us than are doing the fishing,' said Mr Frost.

Working from small boats only part of the year, most of the Fal oyster dredgers never registered their craft with MAFF, despite a legal requirement to do so. They believed a pounds 100 licence from Carrick District Council, which has regulated the fisheries since 1876, was sufficient.

But from 1 May, when new regulations to limit the size of the European fishing fleet come in, not being registered means no licence: dredgers such as Mr Collins, who did not have his boat registered by the deadline date last year, have failed the test.

Protest meetings have resulted in widespread support. The local MAFF office in Newlyn has some sympathy and is to make recommendations to ministers. According to Richard Thomasson, district inspector of fisheries, MAFF recognises the 'unique and traditional nature of the fisheries'.

Backing has also come from Captain Andy Brigden, harbourmaster of the port of Truro, who has written to the Government to plead for a blanket exemption on behalf of the dredgers. 'You cannot accuse them of overfishing. It is conservation through inefficiency,' he said.

(Photographs omitted)