By Martin Hamer
BBC News, North West
A shrine, now in disrepair, was built in memory of the dead cocklers
A permit scheme is not enough to control the controversial cockling industry, a sea fisheries chief has claimed.
Cockle pickers currently register for a permit to work on beds in the North West of England.
Stephen Atkins, chief executive of the North Western and North Wales Sea Fisheries Committee (NWNWSFC), whose Lancaster-based organisation oversees the cockling industry in the region, said a national licensing scheme was needed.
He added he was surprised the government had not acted since the 2004 Morecambe Bay disaster in which at least 21 Chinese cockle pickers died.
"There has been a lot of effort from the sea fisheries committee here and local MPs to press the government for a national framework for regulation of the cockle industry UK-wide," said Mr Atkins.
"The government has not done it in the aftermath of the 2004 tragedy and are now saying they will look at what is needed as part of a Marine Bill, which is proposed for around 2008 at the earliest, so we are looking at a very long-term solution on a national scale.
"We really need something quite urgently.
"I am very surprised that they have not acted. I came here in May 2005 and was really very surprised to find there had been no new national measures brought in following the tragedy in Morecambe Bay in February 2004.
Stephen Atkins says Morecambe Bay is not an easy area to control
"I would have thought it was a high priority to bring in some form of licensing and regulation of this industry on a national scheme.
"You can attach much stronger conditions to a licensing scheme - you can limit the numbers, make it much better regulated and then you would have a standard, common system for all the cockle beds in the UK. It's a national, even an international, industry now."
Mr Atkins said that attempts to bring in regulating orders had so far been unsuccessful.
"The sea fisheries committees were set up in the 1890s. Some of their legislation dates back to the 19th Century - some of it was renewed in the 1960s - but essentially it is very outdated legislation and it's not really adequate for management of the modern cockle industry," he added.
The NWNWSFC is one of 12 Sea Fisheries Committees (SFCs) in England and Wales, which encourage, maintain and regulate activity up to six nautical miles offshore.
It operates the permit scheme which requires cocklers to supply a name, address and national insurance number, plus evidence of identity and of right to work in the country.
A set of health and safety guidelines, primarily in English, Chinese and Polish, is sent out with each permit.
The NWNWSFC is based in Lancaster
Mr Atkins said Morecambe Bay was not an easy area to control and that the permit scheme was very limited in its power.
"Morecambe Bay is large, there are a lot of access points and lots of different land owners who own bits of the foreshore and sea bed, and so it is a difficult place to regulate," he said.
"We can't limit the numbers, we can't charge for the permits and we can't attach sensible conditions to the permits such as health and safety regulations. We just are not empowered to do it.
"As a fisheries management tool, it is ineffective."
Mr Atkins said the permit scheme, introduced before the disaster, was enforced by fishery inspectors who monitor who goes out on the bed.
He said one step which had helped considerably since the disaster was the formation of the Morecambe Bay Joint Liaison Group.
About 20 organisations, including the emergency services and local authorities, are members of the group which was set up to tackle all the issues arising from fishing in the region.
"It's still not ideal that it has to all happen at a local level, but it is an improvement," said Mr Atkins.
"We feel now that the industry is a lot safer and better regulated than it was."
Government spokeswoman Denise Hart said environment department Defra had been working with the NWNWSFC to make sure it was fully aware of how it might further strengthen the regulation of cockle fisheries within its district.
She added: "One option open to the committee is to apply for a regulating order to improve management of the cockle fishery and I am pleased therefore that the committee is now actively pursuing this.
"The government's planned Marine Bill will be an opportunity to review and, where necessary, strengthen the powers of inshore fisheries managers."