The Cockle War

Seven years after 23 cockle-pickers died in Morecambe Bay – and after a series of subsequent near-disasters – the lucrative fields have now been closed, to the fury of those who risked their lives to exploit them

Gritty, rubbery and typically served drowned in cheap vinegar, the humble cockle seems an improbable reason for anyone to risk their life.

Yet out on the perilous, shifting sands of the Ribble Estuary this week, up to 400 men at a time have been doing just that.

Since the Foulnaze Bank, off the genteel seaside town of Lytham St Annes, was opened for the first time in two decades at the beginning of September, a ragtag army of professionals, speculators and weekend chancers has descended in search of a shellfish bonanza valued at £80m.

But this is a perilous place for the inexperienced, where brisk offshore winds can viciously whip up the rapidly advancing tide in a few moments. Dozens of cocklers have had to be rescued in the past few weeks and, with the memory of the nearby Morecambe tragedy still fresh even seven years on, the authorities last night announced the temporary closure of the beds from midnight Sunday.

Some of the novice fishermen have been drawn here from as far afield as Poland, Romania and the Baltic by the belief that, in these straitened times, big money can be made from a few hours raking, bagging and humping heavy sacks of bivalves to shore.

A tonne of cockles bound for the paellas and stockpots of the Iberian Peninsula can net between £600 and £1,000. Workers are able to earn £200-£300 a day and the money is paid as the haul is weighed on the beach in front of them.

But in the past few weeks, 35 people have been rescued by the coastguard in 26 incidents. The Sea King helicopter has been scrambled twice, and the cocklers themselves have helped dozens more who have got into trouble.

There have been reports of encampments of East Europeans sleeping in the sand dunes, while others have been spotted putting to sea in over-laden dinghies bought for a few hundred pounds off the internet and dangerously inadequate in the face of the Ribble's 30-knot tides.

A spot check by officers from the North West Inland Fisheries and Conservation Authority on Tuesday found 30 boats to be unsafe, while 50 cocklers failed to produce one of the 400 valid permits issued ahead of the opening of the beds.

So far no one has died or been hurt, but concern is mounting over the safety of the cockle harvest and there is pressure to close the fields altogether. An announcement is expected next week.

Uppermost in the minds of the authorities is the 2004 disaster just 30 miles up the coast in Morecambe. On a grim February night, some 23 Chinese migrant workers were swept to their deaths by the incoming tide as they raked cockles off the shore.

Afterwards, for almost the first time since the Magna Carta, the industry became the subject of significant regulation. Now, as they wait to learn when - or if - the beds will be reopened before the official close of the season in April, the bona fide fisherman believe their livelihoods will be destroyed.

They fear that the authorities are poised to permanently ban what they say is the environmentally-sustainable practice of hand raking in favour of industrial dredging from boats – a technique which they claim can strip a bed of all marine life in days, devastating the fragile intertidal ecosystem.

Craig Lomas, 39, is a local fisherman who has been working these waters for much of his life. He and fellow members of his co-operative have spent £13,000 on new boats and quad bikes preparing for the opening of the fishery.

"They are going to kill our jobs and they are going to kill the environment. The guys that do it full time and have the permits – they have the knowledge and the equipment to do it safely. It is the ones without the permits and the right gear that are ruining it," he said.

Gary Wells, 43, from Dumfries, said emotions were running high among the men. "We get the feeling we are being victimised for a few that couldn't care less. This is our job, our livelihood. Just because one car drives along at 100mph you don't stop all the traffic," he said.

The professional fishermen say they are happy to pay for a safety boat and blame IFCA for failing to check permits until the media picked up the story following the vocal demands for action from local Tory MP Mark Menzies.

Colin Bryden, 57, from Dumfries, spends most of the year travelling to cockle fields around the coast with his workers. He says he has witnessed first hand the damage dredgers can do in other fisheries. But, he adds, there is a collegiate mood among the 150 or so professional shell fisherman on the circuit, many of whom were at Morecambe Bay around the time of the tragedy.

"It is greedy people and stupid people that get into trouble," he said. "There's no racism out there. If someone breaks down it doesn't matter if you are black, brown or green. Someone will throw you a rope. They know it could be them next time."

But some fear little has changed since 2004. While few believe there are gangs of illegal workers operating here – thanks in part to the Gangmasters Licensing Authority which was set up in the wake of the tragedy – there is still danger.

Nick Broomfield of the Morecambe Bay Victims Fund, which raised more than £600,000 for the drowned cocklers' families, said illegal Chinese workers had left the industry in favour of safer jobs in construction and catering.

But he warned: "It is an industry which is largely unsupervised. This country is still completely dependent on undocumented workers. The Government is using the economic crisis as an excuse to do way with even more supervision."

Cockles In Numbers

1215: The year in which the Magna Carta enshrined the right to forage up to 7lb of cockles from the foreshore

£80m: The estimated value of cockle reserves off Lytham St Annes

53: The number of calories in a 100g serving

133,000: Tonnes of shellfish including mussel, prawn and cockles landed by British fishermen each year

£240m: Annual value of British shellfish catch

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