New rescue of cockle pickers raises fears of another tragedy

Latest incident is 16th time the coastguard has been called out to the Ribble estuary in six weeks
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The Independent Online

Fears have been raised of a repeat of the Morecambe Bay tragedy after a spate of incidents involving cockle pickers working in dangerous conditions at sea.

The coastguard has been called to rescue cockle pickers 16 times in Lancashire's Ribble estuary since the cockle beds there opened six weeks ago.

A major rescue operation involving two helicopters and two lifeboats was carried out on Monday after a group of ten cocklers got into difficulties.

In another rescue on Wednesday, five cocklers were helped by Lytham lifeboat after the engine failed on their boat.

The spate of incidents has led to calls for emergency controls to avoid a repeat of the disaster in 2004, when 23 Chinese cockle pickers working for criminal gangmasters drowned in Morecambe Bay, only 30 miles up the coast from the Ribble.

Mark Menzies, Conservative MP for Fylde, said: "We are at crisis point, every few days people are having to be rescued. I fear we could see another tragedy. I find it incredible that in 2011 we are seriously talking about large numbers of people having to be rescued."

Mr Menzies is to meet Fisheries Minister, Richard Benyon, to discuss the issue.

Stephen Atkins, chairman of the North Western Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Board, said: "With earnings of £1,000 a day on a good day, you can see why people will take risks. It was only sheer good fortune that they all got back. This is a disaster waiting to happen."

The cockle beds in the Ribble estuary opened at the beginning of September, having been closed for 20 years to allow cockle stocks to replenish.

Hundreds have flocked to the site every day hoping to cash in on an abundance of the "shells of gold", which sell for more than £1,200 a tonne.

Among the fisherman heading out each day are a large number of unlicensed and inexperienced migrant workers who risk their lives on unseaworthy vessels.

Most of those who have been rescued have been of Eastern Europe origin, according to Helen Stuart, a spokeswoman for Lytham RNLI.

"Some of them admitted they had never been out on the sea before. They have a total lack of experience. Many of them have no clue at all." she said.

"Officially you need a permit, but I would say there are a lot of people out there without one."

Police are at the site every day in an effort to crack down on unlicensed cockle picking, but many of those without a permit are selling their harvest out at sea to avoid being caught.

After the tragedy at Morecambe Bay, new laws were introduced to license the industry. The Gangmasters Licensing Authority has powers to investigate and bring to the courts those who break the law and endanger others.

The watchdog has announced it will investigate the latest spate of incidents to determine whether gangmasters were involved.