THE Solway Firth is facing a potential environmental and economic disaster because legislation protecting valuable cockles beds has been allowed to lapse – according to the Sustainable Inshore Fisheries Trust.
It is a year since a Regulating Order – put in place in 2006 to manage the controlled gathering of shellfish on one of the country’s most important shorelines – expired. Without that vital legal protection the Solway, cockles are now vulnerable to poaching by criminal gangs attracted by easy pickings.
Increasing demand from the restaurant trade in Holland and Spain means a tonne of cockles can fetch up to £2,000 in the export market, tempting some gangs to use illegal machinery to scoop up to 50 tonnes of cockles at a time, regardless of the age and size of the catch. Cockles need up to two years to mature before reproducing if stock levels are to be kept at a sustainable level.
As well as destroying the cockle population, unrestricted harvesting is threatening to seriously damage the biodiversity of an EU Special Protection Area to the detriment of important populations of birds and undermining efforts to create a sustainable fishery for local communities.
“This illegal activity in the Solway is a potential disaster,” said Charles Millar of the Sustainable Inshore Fisheries Trust, a charity campaigning to promote the sustainable management of Scotland’s inshore waters. “It threatens to send cockle stocks back to the years of boom and bust which would be highly detrimental to local fishing interests as well as to the biodiversity of the Solway flats.
“Since the Regulating Order came to an end last year there’s been a return to the problems which existed previously with illegal cockle fishing. There have been reports of hundreds of people going out on to the flats far from shore and helping themselves. Apart from the very real safety concerns, it makes catching the culprits in the act almost impossible.
“It is highly regrettable that for the want of only small amounts of public funding the Regulating Order was allowed to lapse. It is a tried and tested mechanism by which local people can manage the fishery to balance the needs of conservation and sustainable exploitation. We urge the Scottish Government to move quickly in strengthening the legislation to protect the cockle beds and the economy of those communities which rely on the fishery.”
SIFT believes the use of Regulating Orders is an excellent means of managing local fisheries and it is currently developing proposals for one aimed at reviving the moribund fishery on the nearby Firth of Clyde.
During the time the RO was in place, the Solway cockle fishery generated employment for around 110 people, of which at least 50 per cent were from local communities. Even those with a licence that travelled from elsewhere in the UK spent money living in B&Bs and in local businesses during the legitimate cockle season between September and March.
Under the terms of the RO, 100 hand gatherers, six vessels and a mechanised tractor were allowed to harvest up to 500 tonnes a year of premium value cockles.
Solway cockles are particularly prized because they can grow 30mm, almost twice the size of those found in other parts of the UK. As a result fishermen could command premium prices of up to £1,500 a tonne on the open market while still ensuring enough stocks were left to create a sustainable business for years to come.
“The problem with the illegal gangs is that they are taking cockles of all sizes, have no thought for the damage they are causing to the ones discarded or left behind and are harvesting during the summer when the fishery should be closed to allow the cockles to spawn,” added Charles Millar.
“A re-introduced Regulating Order would allow for a sustainable fishery providing jobs for local communities. For an outlay of around £250,000 a year, which includes the cost of policing the fishery, a new Regulating Order could protect a valuable industry worth in excess of £750,000 per annum to the local economy.”