Feuding cockle gangs blamed after crash leaves 144 stranded          

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Two feuding cockle gangs rescued from the advancing tide in Morecambe Bay at the weekend had been warned days before that they were putting their lives at risk in an ever more reckless pursuit of profit.

Two feuding cockle gangs rescued from the advancing tide in Morecambe Bay at the weekend had been warned days before that they were putting their lives at risk in an ever more reckless pursuit of profit.

Coastguards mobilised hovercraft, helicopters and lifeboats on Saturday morning after simmering tensions between rival gangs of Chinese and Scottish cocklers allegedly boiled over, leaving 144 people stranded four miles from shore.

Coastguards said yesterday that the incident could easily have developed into a repeat of February's disaster in which 21 Chinese cockle pickers died, trapped by the advancing tide. Officers said they had warned the gangs last week that the feud and the desire to maximise profits was putting lives at risk.

"We keep trying to talk to these gangs about safety, but you can often see a glint in their eye that shows that they're thinking they can make a few bucks and any concern over safety comes after that," a Coastguard spokesman said. "Cocklers are going further and further out to reach the most profitable beds which means if they get into trouble it is harder to rescue them. We warned them but it seems from what happened at the weekend that some at least are not taking the issue of safety seriously."

Officials say the potential profits from cockling are driving those involved to take bigger and bigger risks. Michael Guy, one of Saturday's rescuers, said: "The problem is the cockles can earn these people so much money, about £1,000 a ton, and it seems they are prepared to do anything for it." Those rescued on Saturday were further out than the Chinese workers who died in February and the last man was picked up just as the tide turned.

"At that point, it was becoming very dangerous," the Coastguard spokesman said. "These people often have the equipment to get on to the sand but if something goes wrong - like an accident or collision - they don't have the back-up to get everyone off safely, which is what seems to have happened this time."

In July, Cumbria Police said its officers were investigating rumours of a turf war between Morecambe Bay gangs. Yesterday, police were investigating claims that Saturday's incident had been caused when tension between groups of Scottish and Chinese cocklers flared after two tractor units collided on the sands. "We are aware of the potential problems here and inquiries regarding criminal matters are ongoing," a police spokesman said yesterday.

Jane Butler, who runs a shellfish business in Newbiggin where the rescue was launched, said: "All I know is that there was some sort of altercation between the gangmasters who run the Chinese cockle gangs and the Scots. There was a clash and then somehow the tractors have collided. It is not the first time we have seen this sort of thing happen. These people have come on to our cockle beds and all they are interested in is making as much money as possible. They have no respect for the local ecology or even the lives of the people who are working for them."

Five people have been charged in connection with events that led to the deaths in February of the 21 Chinese cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay after being trapped by fast-rising tides. Detectives believe two more drowned but their bodies have not been found. Since the tragedy, emergency services have been working with the local authorities, the local MP, Geraldine Smith, and gangmasters to try to regulate the industry. But many believe Saturday's rescue proves that little headway has been made. Ms Smith, Labour MP for Morecambe and Lunesdale, said: "There is a tragedy waiting to happen in that bay. I have tried to make it crystal clear that if further action is not taken, someone will die." In other parts of the country, cocklers have been prevented from working. Last week a ban was imposed on the Dee estuary after a survey showed a drop in mature cockle numbers.

The Environment Agency took the decision after a huge increase in the number of fishermen going to the beds off Wirral attracted by the profits.

But last night it was unclear whether a similar ban could be imposed in Morecambe Bay. A spokeswoman for the Environment Agency said: "We can impose a ban only in relation to the environmental impact on cockles and at present this is not an issue in Morecambe, although we will continue to monitor stock levels and take action if it becomes necessary. But it may be possible for others to impose a ban for safety reasons."

Saturday's rescue was the 16th time the Coastguard has been called to save cocklers stranded in Morecambe Bay since the tragedy in February. "We have been doing everything we can to work with different authorities to try to improve the safety at Morecambe Bay," the Coastguard spokesman added. "But we can't do much without the co-operation of those involved. We are getting a mixed response when we talk to them about safety."

The Health and Safety Executive said it would also be investigating and would talk to the gangmasters responsible for the cocklers involved.