The Environment Agency is monitoring cockle fishing with new 'cockle cams'
By Brendon Williams
Cockle fishing is under way on the Dee Estuary for the first time in three years, under a controversial new licensing system.
Whereas up to 400 fishermen took to the cockle beds in recent years, the Environment Agency (EA) has slashed the number of annual licences to just 50.
The agency says the new system will sustain stocks, but many fishermen are unhappy at being refused permits.
A new "cockle camera" will also monitor the area for illegal fishing.
Under the watchful eye of EA officials and several police officers, between 20 and 30 fishermen took to the estuary from Greenfield Dock, near Holywell, Flintshire, for the first day of the fishing season on Monday.
The last time the beds were open, in 2005, more than 400 fishermen descended on the sandbanks for just a two-day season.
They have remained closed ever since, to allow the cockles to regenerate and to protect a wealth of bird and sea life in the estuary.
Between 20 and 30 men fished the first day of the season
The EA now hopes the new licensing system will sustain stocks and maintain a longer season for a smaller number of fishermen.
Alan Winstone, environment manager, said: "A licence costs £992, and that entitles a fisherman to collect as much as he wants until the end of December.
"After that, the beds close until 1 July.
"Previously, anybody who wanted a permit, we had to give it to them.
"In 2005 we had between 400 and 500 people out there for a two-day season and it was mayhem.
"Now, we're hoping the 50 people who have licences will have a sustainable income for longer, and there will be less disturbance to the area."
EA officials and police will monitor the area throughout the season, and will be assisted by a state-of-the-art "cockle cam".
Colin Bryden says he and others have been put out of business
The camera's location is being kept a secret, but it can record images up to three miles away.
Heat sensors mean it can also track activity at night, and is so powerful it can monitor movement on the English side of the estuary.
It is hoped the camera could also prevent tragedies like the Morecambe Bay disaster which saw 23 Chinese cockle pickers die in 2004 after they were cut off by the tide.
The EA estimates that a "good cockler" can pick half a tonne in a day, with cockles currently fetching between £200 and £300 per tonne.
In 2005, a tonne could fetch £1,500.
Of the 9,000 tonnes of usable cockles on the estuary, it is thought the fishermen will take 3,000 tonnes, leaving a third for bird life and the remainder to breed.
But not everyone is happy with the new system.
It is hoped the "cockle cam" could prevent tragedies like Morecambe Bay
Colin Bryden, from Dumfires, was one of several unlicensed fishermen who travelled from Scotland to Flintshire to "make their point".
He said: "I have been doing cockles since 1987 , and I think it's disgusting.
"There's not one Scotsman out there today. We're being discriminated against. We've held licences for years.
"There's people out there who shouldn't be out there. They're not real fishermen.
"It's not right and we've come to make our point.
"Morecambe Bay is shut and the Solway has no cockles - we're effectively out of business."
The EA said licences were granted according to a ranking system, with applicants required to demonstrate they are commercial cockle pickers with a history of harvesting the Dee.
Retired local cockler Keith Williams worked the Dee Estuary for 55 years, and now sits on behalf of fishermen on the committee which grants the licences.
Environment Agency officers ensure the cockles are large enough
He said: "I think it's a good thing to give the fishermen a full-time living. There used to be so many people before that they'd just take the lot and the full-time fishermen couldn't sustain a living."
However, he added: "The system could be a lot fairer. I'm on the committee but I've only got so much say, and you can only do what you can.
"There's businessmen out there with licences and one or two millionaires. I can understand why some of the full-time fishermen who haven't got licences are depressed."
Local fisherman Philip Tarran, from Deeside, said he believed more permits could have been issued, but agreed with the idea to limit licences.
He said big gangs had previously drained the area of all the cockles, leaving nothing for the local fisherman.
He added: "Fisherman now have to riddle [sieve] all the cockles [to ensure smaller shells are left behind].
"It will rejuvenate then for the year after. That will help us year after year."
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