18 cocklers die trapped by rising tide

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The Independent Online

Nineteen people died when a group of cockle pickers became trapped by the rising tide, police said today.

Nineteen people died when a group of cockle pickers became trapped by the rising tide, police said today.

As a major rescue operation continued in Morecambe Bay, Lancashire, a local MP said the rush by gangs of immigrants to harvest the shellfish had been a "tragedy waiting to happen".

The rescue mission was launched last night after 23 people, believed to be Chinese, were reported missing shortly after at 9pm. Ten were found safe on the shoreline overnight after making their own way out of the treacherous waters.

But during the night rescuers using hovercraft began ferrying bodies back to shore from a sandbank in the northern part of the bay, several miles from Hest Bank where the group were reported missing.

Sgt Nigel Ralphson of Lancashire Constabulary said: "We believe the bodies were taken up to the bank when the tide came in and they were discovered as it went out."

Morecambe Bay is notoriously dangerous, with fast rising tides and quicksands.

Stewart Rushton and his nine-year-old son, Adam, died in the flats two years ago after becoming disorientated in fog and trapped by the rapidly incoming tide.

Two RAF helicopters and lifeboats were scrambled last night after a 999 call from a mobile phone.

A Ministry of Defence spokeswoman described the race to rescue the shellfish pickers from the tide.

She said: "They were out collecting cockles and appear to have become trapped, possibly by mud, and are being threatened by what is being described to me as being a fairly strong incoming tide so they are at serious risk of drowning."

The first body was spotted in the Silverdale area shortly after 4am by an RAF helicopter.

A land-based search team then spotted another two bodies in the same area as the tide receded.

Coastguards said up to ten more bodies were recovered later, although exact figures were not confirmed.

The dead were taken by hovercraft to the RNLI station on Morecambe's seafront. They were carried out in bodybags before being taken away by ambulance to a mortuary.

The survivors wrapped in silver emergency blankets and driven away by police.

Two were taken to Lancashire Royal Infirmary from treatment. The others were being held at Lancaster police station.

In August last year, police arrested 37 Chinese people in the Chatsworth area of Morecambe after concerns were raised about the scale of cockle picking on the sands at Morecambe Bay.

Cockle picking is not illegal but locals complained that gangs from across the UK were flocking to Morecambe Bay, eager to get their hands on the lucrative shellfish, which are mostly sold abroad.

While members of the public should be free to pick cockles, angry locals claim those doing it for a business should be regulated and licensed.

Morecambe and Lunesdale Labour MP Geraldine Smith said there had been concerns about unregulated fishing activities in the area for some time.

"It really is an appalling tragedy. It was a tragedy waiting to happen.

"Morecambe Bay is a public fishery, so basically once the cockle beds opened in December anyone can go down to that beach and fish for cockles.

"People were supposed to have a permit and they would turn up and give their name and address and National Insurance number. But obviously if people go on to the beach and aren't part of the permit scheme, it is virtually impossible to impose.

"You can't stop people turning up and going on the beach at eight o'clock on a dark winter's night, especially as there was about £6 million worth of cockles just lying in the middle of Morecambe Bay on the beaches.

"There has been concerns for a long time by local residents. The legislation dates back over 100 years so there is a need maybe to update legislation regarding fisheries.

"The cockles which were on the beach were worth a great deal of money, but very tragically I would imagine that those poor people who lost their lives were making very little of that money, and were probably victims of exploitation."

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