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Last Updated: Monday, 6 February 2006, 15:32 GMT
Cockling deaths 'almost certain'
Solway Firth
There have been a number of cockler rescues in the Solway Firth
Coastguards on the Solway have warned that deaths off the coast are "almost certain" if illegal cockling continues.

Sector officer Tony Wood said that if gangs continued to go out at night in the dangerous tides then a tragedy was almost inevitable.

The claim came as a major search for 20 Polish cocklers reported missing in south west Scotland was scaled down.

Helicopter and lifeboat searches failed to find any evidence of the cocklers or their vehicles in the area.

The cocklers were reported to have gone out onto sands around 2000 GMT on Sunday but not to have returned.

The tides of the Solway are very dangerous - and if gangmasters are sending people out there in the middle of the night, it's only a matter of time before life is lost
Tony Wood
Solway Coastguard

Reports said other Polish cocklers came ashore earlier after being contacted by mobile phone, but 20 remained unaccounted for.

Mr Wood confirmed that police had received a number of calls corroborating the claims that the cocklers were missing.

"The information was credible at the time but whether it is now is open for speculation," he said.

"You do wonder sometimes whether the emergency services may be being used - maybe to prove a point to other agencies and authorities."

Cockle net
The executive said illegal cocklers were facing real dangers

Mr Wood stressed, however, that the risk of a tragedy off the Solway Coast was a real one.

"It's very possible and it's almost certainly going to happen," he said.

"The tides of the Solway are very dangerous - and if gangmasters are sending people out there in the middle of the night, it's only a matter of time before life is lost."

The group were thought to have been trapped by the incoming tide in the Solway Firth but a coastguard search failed to find any sign of them.

The latest incident has sparked a number of calls for action.

Galloway and Upper Nithsdale's Conservative MSP Alex Fergusson is urging the Scottish Executive to fast track the implementation of a regulation order for the Solway fisheries.

"While this rescue attempt turned out to be a false alarm, and we must all be grateful for that, it highlights the urgent requirement for a properly regulated regime to be put in place by the Scottish Executive," he said.

A call for large-scale policing to tackle the problem went out from Scottish National Party South of Scotland MSP Alasdair Morgan.

Those who are engaged in this have to understand that these are highly dangerous waters and they simply should not be there
Ross Finnie
Environment Minister

"Legislation will be useful in the future once the legal cockle fishery is reopened," he said.

"What is needed immediately and in the future are resources so that the cocklers' activities can be monitored and action taken to stop them breaking the law."

The Scottish TUC also wants maximum resources to be used in the enforcement of new regulations.

"Whilst this was only a scare, the STUC do not want agencies to wait for another tragedy before acting," said assistant secretary Dave Moxham.

Environment Minister Ross Finnie said the executive had contacted all the agencies involved to help tackle the issue.

"I am extremely concerned at the potential for real danger by people who are illegally fishing in dangerous waters," he said.

"Those who are engaged in this have to understand that these are highly dangerous waters and they simply should not be there," he added.

"That fishery is closed and it is illegal to fish there."

Last month, Polish workers had to be rescued twice in a week off Powfoot, near Annan, leading to calls for action to be taken.




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Watch how the gangmasters operate



SEE ALSO:
'Lives at risk' off Solway coast
26 Jan 06 |  Scotland
Solway cockling equipment seized
16 Sep 05 |  Scotland
Solway cocklers pin hopes on plan
08 Mar 04 |  Scotland


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