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Cockle Bed Ban

Cockle Bed BanIn 'Snippets: August 2011' we broke the news to our readers that the cockle pickers were coming because the North West and North Wales Sea Fisheries Committee was about to declare our beaches fit for harvesting of cockles again after a closure of 20 years.

We were mostly right, but we were wrong (well, out of date, actually) about the name of authority.

That has metamorphosized into 'North Western Inshore Fisheries And Conservation Authority' (NWIFCA). It's more or less the same gang with a different name - although it now excludes Wales - which we suspect is a throwback to John Prescott's regionalisation agenda.

We said in our August report that 'traditionally, cockle fishers used to be local folk working beds, using horse and cart for transport. Whilst some of these local fishers remain, the cockle industry now has many itinerant fishers moving around the country, exploiting the best available cockle stocks, mainly for export to Southern Europe where demand is still high.'

We also said the cockle fishery can be highly lucrative, providing big returns in a short period of time.

We concluded that September (the start of the Cockle season) would see the invasion of the cockle snatchers, and we advised that each person intending to fish commercially for cockles had to register and receive a permit - with first preference given to those who have previously held one (and allowing only 40 new entrants each year for the whole of the UK). Applicants for certificates had to provide proof of identity, residence, a National Insurance Number and a 'Foreshore Gatherers Safety Training certificate'.

Then the invasion began - and almost immediately the trouble started.

6 Nov 2011 - Last day of cockling for a while

Then it got worse.

The NWIFCA has now decided to close the cockle beds as of 1am today 7th November 2011. You can follow this link to see the full details on their website

They're closing the beds using a new emergency byelaw made under section 157 of The Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009.

The emergency byelaw says the purpose of closure is for the management of cockle stocks, but other contemporaneous information supplied with the emergency byelaw, (but not part of it) says the reason for the new byelaw is to close the Ribble area to all methods of cockle gathering in order to protect public safety and reduce the impact of the fishery on other statutory regulatory authorities (They're also closing the Wirral cockle fishery to stop folk from Lytham going there instead).

They say the purpose of the closure is to allow NWIFCA time to review (and presumably, change) their byelaw No 5 under which cockling permits are issued, so they can address their incompetence at drafting it in the first place.

They say they will review the position again on 6th December.

In a letter to permit holders they say "This closure is forced on the NWIFCA by over 20 calls to the air and sea emergency services since 1 September. It is a response to advice from Fylde Council, Lancashire Constabulary, Coastguard and many other regulatory bodies. You may have noted the Fisheries Minister's support for closure on Thursday evening (3 November) news. The problem is that many small craft attempting to access the cockle beds have got into difficulty because they have been unsuitable, ill-equipped and have operated in adverse weather conditions. A closure of the Ribble cockle fisheries is the only way to regulate this unsafe activity in the short term."

So from 00.01 hours today it will be a criminal offence to fish or attempt to fish for cockles from the beds in the Ribble estuary or on the Wirral coast. Fishing for cockles could lead to prosecution and fine of up to £50,000.

And the closure applies to all people fishing for cockles, whether for pleasure or profit, and whatever the fishing method.

So in theory, anyone taking a cockle from the beach today could get a criminal conviction and be fined up to £50,000

As one of our more erudite readers said to us: this whole debacle ought to be called the King Herod system of cockle control - (there's a baby giving us trouble, so we'll kill all of them).

We've had the pleasure to be party to a number of interesting, and sometimes quite heated, discussions on this matter.

We have readers who have relatives that are long established and very experienced local fishermen who are exceedingly angry that livelihoods are being stopped short by the bureaucrat's biro today. They argue that if NWIFCA hadn't the resources to adequately police the byelaw they made in broad daylight, they have no prospect of enforcing a complete ban when hungry people in a time of financial strife go 'poaching' and cockle picking illegally in the dark, (without the support and protection of experienced fishermen nearby) - especially knowing the scale of income pickers can make.

At the other end of the scale we have a friend who sold his van and window cleaning round in order to fund a part share in boat to join the shellfish stampede. He and four others found themselves late away on their first harvest last week due to a temperamental engine. When they did get away, the push of the propeller caused what had been a balanced load to shift to the back of the boat, and the stern went down and the prow came up. The change in angle shifted the cargo to such an extent that the boat tipped completely up and over, losing the catch (and the boat) to the sea, and leaving them in the water on their first attempt at cockle fishing. The main man in the boat had a permit and certificate, but his 'labourers and shareholders' didn't (from what we can understand). They were lucky to be rescued by another of the cockling boats - otherwise there would most likely have been loss of life.

Many people have commented on what has gone wrong and what should have been / should be done, so we thought we've add our 2d worth.

As is the wont of counterbalance, we tend to come from a less usual  perspective.

We attribute most of the problems to NWIFCA.

They set the parameters to regulate the fishery, and they are responsible for policing it. They have failed on both counts.

At first, we thought this mess was going to have yet another European Directive at it's root (and to be honest we were disappointed to find that was not the case), but we found the regulation of intertidal fisheries is a matter for national governments, and here, we discharge that through NWIFCA.

Although we have found few to agree with us, (many people think the authorities know best, and even our local fishermen want to be able to shoot off to the Dee Estuary - or wherever else is opened - in the years Fylde is closed), but we believe that NWIFCA's policy of periodic access to cockle beds around the country - opening and closing them every x years (in our case it is 20 years since the beds were last opened), is not at all a good way of going about things. The practice creates the 'gold rush' mentality as people from all over the country chase around to find the latest estuary or beach opening, and ravage it, clearing out all except the small sizes that will take years to reach adult size.

News of the bonanza spreads, and in come the latter-day prospectors in the great cockle goldrush: the former window cleaners and milkmen who come in search of fortune have little idea of what they are doing.

In our view, the cockles in the Ribble Estuary ought to be harvested more regularly and have less taken each time, so we think that, if the Government wants to regulate the taking of cockles, they should issue not national permits, but local ones. That way the cockles in the Fylde could sustain what they have historically sustained. Lytham's fishermen.

Limiting the number of local permits could broadly limit the amount taken each year by local fishermen; it would avoid the stampede, and avoid the need for hundreds of miles of travel around the country to harvest cockles elsewhere when the Fylde beds are closed, and 'our' fishermen have to go to another estuary.

The downside is that there may not be justification for the transport and other infrastructure to handle vast weights of cockles and have to shipped to Europe or wherever, but we don't see that as a big disadvantage. We might even argue that cockles living locally, ought to sustain local fishermen, and be fed to local families.

So in our view it's a case of 'well, we wouldn't start from here'.

But if we are to start from the present position, then we don't see how NWIFCA can escape the blame for firstly creating the gold rush situation, but more especially, for not ever having a hope in hell of finding the resources necessary to police the byelaws they make.

It's as plain as the nose on your face that if they expect to be reliant only on the *threat* of prosecutions to stop things happening, then unless they actually do prosecute some folk now and again, few people are going to take much notice of their threats.

And whilst we have great sympathy with the lifeboatmen (and there are no classes of folk we here at counterbalance hold in higher regard than lifeboatmen) who have attended many incidents in the recent past, their calling-out has been largely because of the unlicensed or inexperienced would be gold-diggers who have been attracted by the NWIFCA policy of opening the beds once every generation.

So the blame for the lifeboat workload lies with NWIFCA as well in our view.

We've heard the argument that cocklers ought to pay for the cost of being rescued.

That's an easy argument to make, and is superficially seductive, but we believe folk espousing that cause ought to stop for moment and think where that would lead.

What difference should there be between the treatment meted out by the lifeboat volunteers to the unlicensed cockler and the inexperienced weekend pleasure sailor? Both may take out an unsuitable, ill-equipped boat. Both might have inadequate knowledge of seamanship, let alone knowledge of local tides and conditions. So where is the difference? Are we to stop rescues of pleasure sailors unless they can pay? Will the public be happy to continue to give generous donations to the Lifeboat service if they're charging £1,000 a rescue as we heard someone people suggest?

The only difference we see is the cocklers are people trying to earn a living whilst there is no actual 'need' for the pleasure sailors to go to sea (and put others at risk) at all.

And if that is the road to be followed, we should also consider an immediate outright ban on potholing, and mountain climbing, and fell walking and the like, because for sure these pursuits carry equal risk of needing rescue by specialist volunteer rescue services. And they are only 'for pleasure' as well.

Whilst we're on the wider or ancillary issues, we see a really interesting contradictory push-me-pull-you going on at Government level as well.

On the one hand we have folk like Vince Cable making repeated calls for less regulation of business, and we're constantly being told to be more like the Americans - more entrepreneurial, and more self reliant. We're also regularly told we need a "bonfire of the regulations" (and we don't disagree with this, we're very much 'on message' there.)

Yet we see other arms of Government calling for more regulation and control in what they see as the New Klondike, off Grannys Bay.

They can't have it both ways can they?

Locally, we see Fylde wringing its hands - perhaps with some justification - about the additional cleaning up, and loos, and so on, that have been needed.

And it's certain that local people have been inconvenienced by additional vehicles which have sometimes not understood the fact that our traffic systems here still use civility and road manners that, in most places, are seen as being 40 years out of date.

Again we argue the fault lies with the NWIFCA policies that encourage the periodic swamping of the intertidal fisheries.

But we're less than enthusiastic about Fylde's idea of charging for access to the beach (and we're not altogether sure about the legality of that, but hey, that's never worried Fylde before, has it), and we suspect that in practice, it will do nothing more than transfer the access point elsewhere.

So to us, the answer to all of the problems that have arisen runs back to the NWIFCA policies, and it's those that need to change, not their bye-laws.

From what we can see, the powers being used by NWIFCA (section 157 of The Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009) to provide emergency byelaws does indeed provide the powers for them to make emergency byelaws, and such byelaws can have effect without being confirmed by the Secretary of State:....

provided that

(a) the IFC authority considers that there is an urgent need for the byelaw, and

(b) the need to make the byelaw could not reasonably have been foreseen.

We think there are a few holes in their argument here.

Firstly any fool could have foreseen that a policy of opening intertidal areas once every 20 years was going to create a mad rush which would suck in people who didn't have their 'Foreshore Gatherers Safety Training certificate' - especially when they know they don't have the resources to police the byelaws they make.

We also think that the stated purpose of the emergency byelaw "for the management of cockle stocks" is not the real reason for the closure.

The real reason is given elsewhere in the note and accompanying letter as being "in order to protect public safety and reduce the impact of the fishery on other statutory regulatory authorities" and that "A closure of the Ribble cockle fisheries is the only way to regulate this unsafe activity in the short term."

As we understand it, NWIFCA's remit is about managing the fishery by granting licenses, not the conduct of the people to whom they have granted a license to use it.

And although they are tying to make the emergency bye-law appear as though it serves this purpose, we suspect it may not.

We would not be surprised to find that they have exceeded their powers in this matter.

A judicial review of the decision to issue the emergency byelaw that prohibits all cockling would determine it of course, but we think that any of our would-be fishermen are more likely to get a torch or two, rather than go to court to ask for a judicial review *.

And that risks being an even bigger tragedy.

Dated:   7 November 2011

* UPDATE 10.11.11
Additional wording in italics added to make the meaning of our comment more clear


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