Cockle beds to close?

Cockle pickers are rescued from Ribble Estuary in Lytham by the coastguard and RNLI.
Cockle pickers are rescued from Ribble Estuary in Lytham by the coastguard and RNLI.

RECKLESS cocklers have diced with death in a desperate attempt to get to the rich pickings in the Lytham estuary.

But the shocking disregard for their own lives may well have put a stop to the cockle harvest.

For the cockle licence issuing authority has exclusively revealed to the Express that it is seeking legal advice to have the cockle beds closed on safety grounds.

Around 100 cockle pickers battled for their lives in high winds on Monday night when a massive search and rescue operation was launched on the Ribble Estuary.

Ten people had to be rescued as rapidly fading light, high winds and towering waves meant around 30 boats working the cockle beds struggled to get back to shore.

Distress flares were fired into the air as desperate cocklers found their fishing boats filling with icy water.

Calls for tough action have repeatedly been made into what is a multi-agency cockling operation, following a flood of complaints.

And Dr Stephen Atkins, chief executive North West of the Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (IFCA), which issues the licences, said: “The problem is IFCA isn’t really able to take action on safety grounds. We are there to look after stocks and the marine environment. At the end of the day, I’m not sure we can close the beds on safety grounds. But I’m getting legal advice on that to see if we can do that.”

He said he was reluctant, as it would hit the livelihoods of responsible cockle fishermen, after the beds opened in September following a 20-year ban.

On Tuesday Fylde Council met police and senior IFCA officers to review recent events. IFCA will meet again in early December to review police and council evidence into the impact on the local community.

Calls for greater harvesting controls will include a temporary ban, safer mechanical harvesting and daylight working only.

Council Leader David Eaves said: “In the meantime we will continue to work with the police, IFCA, Coastguard and other relevant agencies to minimise the impact as best we can with the tools we have available.”

Dr Atkins explained that cockling off the Fylde was unusual in that: “They use boats to get out to the cockle beds. I have not experienced that before. It is a dangerous stretch of water.”

Meanwhile, powerless Fylde Council feels as though it has its hands tied as tragedy could be lurking just around the corner.

Coun Tommy Threlfall, cabinet member for the environment and partnerships, wants a meeting with Fisheries Minister Richard Benyon to press for the right to restrict the number of licences.

He said: “The discussion we want with Mr Benyon will cover the issuing and policing of permits to ensure that cocklers are licensed and trained in working safely.

“We will ask if it is possible for the council to have an input into how many licences are issued.

“We will examine if it is possible to retain a proportion of licences for local fishermen who know the local conditions.

“We will ask if we can raise any money from cocklers to offset our costs in monitoring their activities.

“Another idea we would like to pursue is closing access to the beds if there are safety concerns.”

Fylde chief executive Phil Woodward said: “This meeting will give us the opportunity to lobby for a longer-term change in the legislation relating to cockle harvesting, which, to be effective, meaningful and contain timely controls, should be vested in the local district council that has a greater understanding of local circumstances and the community impact of this operation and is locally accountable unlike many of these other agencies.”