The illicit and highly-lucrative trade in shellfish is putting the health of many thousands of people at risk with tonnes of potentially contaminated seafood feared to be entering the food chain.
Health officials and food watchdogs are concerned that a boom in the illegal harvesting of cockles, clams and oysters for sale to restaurants and wholesalers threatens outbreaks of serious food poisoning.
The thriving seafood rustling industry, which sees unlicensed gangs of pickers target beaches and mudflats across the country to steal molluscs worth thousands of pounds at a time, has prompted a crackdown by the authorities. But with some pickers operating in organised gangs, fisheries protection bodies say they lack the resources to effectively tackle the problem.
With an annual value of at least £250m, the legitimate shellfish industry is a major part of Britain’s food economy. Properly gathered molluscs are subject to strict purification treatments, including ultra-violet light an filtering, to ensure they are fit for human consumption.
But shellfish taken from prohibited or unclassified fishing grounds, or sold before being properly treated, put the public at risk of serious illness caused by E.coli, the vomiting bug or Norovirus, and salmonella, which can all be found in contaminated molluscs.
An investigation by The Ecologist and The Independent has been told that in the event of a major health scare, the illegal trade would make it difficult for officials to verify the origin of some shellfish despite strict documentation procedures which are supposed to ensure traceability of all consignments of shellfish moved or sold on a commercial basis.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) said it received “regular” reports of illegal shellfish harvesting and warned of the risks it poses to consumers.
Linden Jack, head of food hygiene policy at the agency, said: “Shellfish bought from illegal sources will not have been subjected to the checks which ensure it is fit for human consumption. Shellfish from approved beds are monitored to ensure they meet standards for microbiological contamination. Consumers will therefore have no guarantee that illegally-harvested shellfish is free from such contamination and are risking their health if they eat it.”
The FSA said it was unable to calculate how much rustled shellfish was entering the food chain but insisted the documentation rules and enforcement action helped to protect consumers. A spokesman said: “Because of the illegal nature of harvesting shellfish from unapproved beds it is difficult to assess how much of itgoes into the food chain. Where it is identified, the shellfish is seized and action taken to warn people.”
Highly-organised gangs, some believed to be operating directly on behalf of fish merchants, others run by gangmasters, are known to have targeted shellfish stocks in Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset, Merseyside, Lancashire, Cumbria and Teeside, amongst other areas, in recent years. Parts of north Wales and Scotland have also been affected.
In the last week, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, the body set up to regulate and enforce the shellfish picking trade in the wake of the 2004 Morecambe Bay tragedy which claimed the lives of 23 Chinese cocklers, completed the successful prosecution of two gangmasters who were illegally organising shellfish harvesting in on the Isle Skye and Merseyside.
It is a lucrative trade with a tonne of clams recently fetching £1,000 per tonne (although prices have recently fallen). In a two month period last year, cockles worth £6m were harvested from the Dee estuary in the Wirral.
As a result, the illegal gangs target known shellfish beds at day or night, depending on the tides. Many arrive in Transit vans, quad bikes or 4x4 vehicles and, using spades – or in some cases small boats fitted with dredging equipment – extract the lucrative molluscs before transferring them to chill boxes.
From there, the shellfish are delivered to waiting merchants, or are offered for sale speculatively to traders, to restaurants or even via the internet. Some of the shellfish end up in markets for sale to the public, but most is thought to pass through processors or wholesalers who in turn sell to restaurants, pubs or other caterers, or export it abroad.
Enforcement bodies say the informal shellfish sector is associated with high levels of criminality and exploitation.
Poole Harbour, in Dorset, has abundant shellfish stocks and has seen an escalation in illegal harvesting in recent years, with sizable quantities of clams being taken from prohibited or restricted areas. The clam poachers work either alone or in pairs using boats to ‘fish in tight circles and use water to blast sand away [from the seabed]’, according to harbour officials.
There are currently between 15 and 18 boats licensed to harvest shellfish in the harbour - fishermen need to to apply for a permit costing £300 - but as many as 50 boats are believed to be operating. The area where the shellfish were taken from was believed to have high levels of E-coli and bacteria that posed a threat to human health.
Officials say the problem is difficult to thwart. One officer from the Southern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (IFCA), told the Ecologist: “Because of the unlicensed activities [in Poole Harbour] we’ve stepped up our enforcement work, with officers working on the ground, split patrols around the clock... We’ve nine officers and 1000 square miles [to police], all year around.”
Fisheries protection officers have been threatened, buildings attacked and patrol boats sabotaged during efforts to combat the problem, with parts of the harbour regarded as being off limits for enforcement officers without police protection.
Much of the illegal fishing centres around Lytchett Bay – classified as a prohibited area for shellfish collection because of high levels of contamination. Fisherman working on boats parked adjacent to a nearby housing estate – where many of the illegal harvesters are believed to be based - declined to answer questions about the clam trade and concealed their faces.
Officials described illegal fishermen as the same people “who'd be knocking off car stereos if they weren't doing this” and laid the blame for much of the problem on unscrupulous fish merchants and buyers. An IFCA officer said: “We’ve got incitement by merchants, they even lay on the transport [for the shellfish]. Whilst the markets are still there, this is still a problem.”
The Ecologist was told that several major fish buyers on the south coast were suspected of taking clams and other shellfish on a “no questions asked” basis. Some are believed to directly ‘order’ shellfish and lay on the appropriate transport, chilling equipment and other gear; others will simply pay cash for whatever is brought in, depending on demand.
One of the areas targeted by the clandestine pickers is the Sussex coast. In March this year three men were convicted of offences under food hygiene rules after being observed collecting cockles from an non-certified beach in the Littlehampton area. The men were spotted delivering the cockles on four occasions to a seafood merchants on the south coast, although investigators could find no evidence that the merchant knew the molluscs had been illegally obtained.
The trial followed an investigation by the GLA and a series of raids in Sussex, Hampshire and at London’s world-famous Billingsgate fish market, with a number of people arrested and a quantity of clams seized.
Residents in Rustington, one of the Sussex beaches targeted by the gang in 2010, had earlier complained that organised groups of clam diggers had been targeting the area for more than a year,.”turning up at low tide in cars, vans and even a mini coach, dressed in fishing clothing and carrying spades and buckets”.
One environmental health officer involved in the case said: “They were doing this to put cash in their pocket, it's a bit like the scrap metal taken from railway lines. All businesses are required to show traceability of products supplied to them – with shellfish that’s done by registration forms, they need paperwork for every consignment – but here there was a break in the chain.”
By law, all commercial batches of shellfish destined for human consumption are supposed to be accompanied by movement documentation forms issued by local authorities, detailing, amongst other information, the name of the harvester, the boat used and the area the shellfish have been taken from.
But environmental health officials say the system – with forms filled in by the harvester (although in some circumstances the buyer can now complete the paperwork) – is inadequate and open to abuse.
One enforcement officer told The Independent: “The truth is that all too often there is scant attention paid to these records. Local authorities do not have the resources to look at these documents to check they are doing the job they are supposed to be. We’ve heard of cases where cockles are harvested and put on a lorry to the Continent with documentation that doesn’t come up to scratch.”
A Poole-based environmental health officer added: “We give [the forms] continually to our legitimate guys, relatively few to small clam fishermen, some to merchants. But based on the volume of fish appearing, our documents issued wouldn't cover it. The fact that they are self completed means they are not very useful from an enforcement point of view.”
With illegal activity threatening the livelihood of legitimate and licensed shellfish harvesters, further measures are being considered to try to thwart the illicit trade, including the abolition of a loophole which allows up to 5kg of cockles to be gathered for personal use in some areas but is used as a cover for illicit harvesting.
Ian Japp, head of northern operations for the GLA, warned that as well as a public health risk raised by picking from unclassified beds, there was a risk to untrained and ill-equipped cocklers themselves. He said: “We are not seeing the levels of exploitation that we saw in 2004. We have been throwing resources at this issue and working alongside the cocklers themselves. But there is a lot of danger out there and because of the current economic climate, people will take unnecessary and incredible risks to get a few quid in their pockets.”
However, it is the threat of a major food poisoning outbreak that is the most serious concern for many of those involved in trying to police the shellfish rustling phenomenon.
One police wildlife liaison officer working with the Environment Agency said the major concern was that cockles gathered illicitly could be mixed in with legitimately caught shellfish. He said: “It’s like the E.coli case with [German beansprouts], in the event of a health scare, the cockle industry would have no idea where some of them came from.”
In 2011, a deadly E.coli outbreak – first blamed on cucumbers, later traced to German grown bean sprouts – killed at least 22 people and poisoned more than 2000 across Europe.
Shellfish are frequently associated with instances of food poisoning, particularly when eaten raw or inadequately cooked, as they ingest viruses and bacteria that are potentially harmful to humans.
Last year, research by the FSA found traces of Norovirus in more than three-quarters of shellfish tested from UK beds, much of which is eliminated by treatment and cooking.
In 2009, the Michelin-starred Fat Duck restaurant, owned by celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, was forced to close after more than 450 people fell ill with Norovirus. Raw oysters and clams were later identified by the Health Protection Agency as being the main source of the contamination. There is no suggestion that the shellfish had not been sourced from legitimate suppliers.
The Health Protection Agency said that at least 163 food poisoning outbreaks recorded between 1992 and 2010 were linked to shellfish and crustaceans. Research published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases in 2005 claimed that more than 77,000 cases of food-borne disease were linked to consumption of shellfish between 1996 and 2000.
Despite increased law enforcement action, there is little sign of problem diminishing.
In Merseyside and the Wirral, there are “chronic problems” with illegal harvesting. “We’ve had 80 people out there, with 4x4’s and quads,” a spokesman for the Mersey Port Health Authority said. “We get reports of between 10 and 15 tonnes [of cockles] being carted off the beach in one go.”
In one particularly audacious “harvest”, a gang of more than 50 people in a convoy of 4x4 vehicles carted off more than 10 tonnes of cockles from Wirral in August 2010. It is believed the haul was transported to Lincolnshire for processing.
The GLA this week warned it remained active in targeting illegal gangmasters. Last week, Peter Lackey, of Ulverston, Cumbria, was found guilty of acting as a gangmaster without a licence at Wirral Magistrates Court. Lackey was found to have been controlling a number of Chinese workers harvesting shellfish in the Dee Estuary in December 2010 and February 2011. On one occasion his vehicle, used to transport Chinese workers, became stranded in incoming waters and was later wrecked by seawater.
In a separate case, Vitalie Cacicovschi, from Portree, pleaded guilty to trading as an unlicensed gangmaster on the Isle of Skye. The prosecution was brought after 16 migrant workers, many of them Romanian, complained about their treatment whilst working as shellfish pickers.
Margaret McKinlay, GLA Chair said: “We are active in this industry, and will continue to be so. This is essential because those who break the law place the lives of individuals at risk.”