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Last Updated: Friday, 24 March 2006, 11:46 GMT
Q&A: The cockling industry
Cockle net
The BBC News website looks at the controversial cockling industry which has grown enormously in recent years.

It was thrust into the limelight in February 2004 when at least 21 Chinese cockle pickers drowned in Morecambe Bay.

What is a cockle?

A cockle is an edible shellfish. Cockling is the gathering of cockles from sand flats and mud flats in shallow water where they live.

Who cockles and why?

Local people and fishermen have traditionally cockled, but in modern times a commercial industry has grown up where they are gathered on a much larger scale.

Itinerant gangs of workers - including those of Chinese and Eastern European origin - also now cockle in the UK.

While the workers themselves do not generally earn much money for cockling, it can be a lucrative business for the alleged gangmasters who could get more than 1,000 a ton when the cockles are in peak condition.

Many cockles are sold to be consumed in Spain.

Where are the best areas in the UK for cockling?

There are only a limited number of places around the UK which have good stocks of cockles.

Those areas have become more and more restricted, and various regulations have been brought in to patrol the fishing and so areas have become less available to gangs.

Why are most of the cockle beds at Morecambe Bay currently closed?

Beds low on stocks of cockles can be closed to people wanting to fish on them. This has happened to most of the beds in Morecambe Bay due to the amount of cockling there in recent years.

Is cockling dangerous and why? What safety advice is given to cocklers?

The dangers of Morecambe Bay in particular are well-known. There are a lot of areas of sinking sand and areas where you have to cross river channels to get to the cockle beds.

If you are not very careful about watching the time and very accurate in your reading and understanding of the tide tables, the tide can come in behind you and you can get cut off.

In parts of Morecambe Bay you can go seven or eight miles from the shore down the sands and the tide can come in faster than anyone could run.

As the tide comes in, the sinking sands become more dangerous and extensive.

Those doing it in the dark are taking an extra risk unless they know it very well because people could become very disorientated.

Which organisation oversees the cockling industry and how is cockling regulated in the UK?

There are 12 Sea Fisheries Committees (SFCs) in England and Wales. These are management bodies which encourage, maintain and regulate the activity of sea fisheries up to six nautical miles offshore.

SFCs were established in the 1890s and are regulated under the Sea Fisheries Regulation Act of 1966. They enforce government and EU legislation, and also make and enforce local byelaws.

The problem with areas like Morecambe Bay is that there are a lot of access points and many different land owners who own bits of the foreshore and sea bed, so it can be a difficult place to regulate.

The bay is regulated by the North Western and North Wales Sea Fisheries Committee (NWNWSFC) which operates a permit scheme. Under a bye-law, it means no one can fish unless they have a permit.

It works like a registration scheme rather than a licence in that people wanting a permit are simply required to supply a name and address, evidence of identity, national insurance number, and evidence of right to work in the country.

A set of health and safety guidelines, primarily in English, Chinese and Polish, is sent out with the permit.

What is the UK government doing in response to problems associated with industries similar to the cockling one?

The government has unveiled plans to set up a Gangmaster Licensing Authority which would require anyone who supplies labourers to the agriculture or food processing and packing industries to have a licence.

Licensing for the shellfish-gathering sector is due to start on October and become mandatory from April 2007. The measures are to protect workers from unscrupulous gangmasters.

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