Morecambe Bay: 144 cocklers rescued

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The Independent Online

A turf war between rival cockle gangs was blamed last night for leaving more than 140 cockle pickers stranded four miles from shore in Morecambe Bay.

A turf war between rival cockle gangs was blamed last night for leaving more than 140 cockle pickers stranded four miles from shore in Morecambe Bay.

A major rescue operation was launched with hovercrafts, helicopters and lifeboats to bring the two groups to safety after a near repeat of February's disaster, when 21 Chinese cockle pickers died on the same sands.

It took the rescuers more than three hours to get all the 144 cocklers involved safely back to shore, with the last one saved just minutes before the tide turned.

Yesterday's drama followed a collision between two tractor units pulling the trailers on which rival Scottish and Chinese cocklers were being carried.

Janet Butler, who runs a shellfish business in Newbiggin where the rescue took place, 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 come onto 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."

Cumbria Police said its officers were investigating the latest incident.

Mike Head, a police spokesman, said: "We are aware of the potential of the problem here. In the end, it all ended happily, but on a previous occasion it didn't."

Geraldine Smith, the Labour MP for Morecambe and Lunesdale, said that the latest incident was a warning. "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," she said. "I have been fully aware of the problems and issues and I have done everything I possibly can to highlight them. Now it is up to the Government to do something."

Mark Clark, of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, said yesterday: "All the cocklers are accounted for and everybody is safe and well. But this is the 16th rescue of commercial cocklers this year and with every one you wonder when the next fatality will occur.

"If something like this happened at high tide in failing light, on a winter's day, we could have a rerun of what happened in February, with fatalities."

At present cockles are fetching about £1,000 a ton.

The death of the cockle-pickers on 5 February off Hest Bank in the bay prompted the drawing up of new legislation to set up a licensing body for the gangmasters who have control of the industry.

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