Morecambe Bay cockling tragedy: What happened before

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A look back at the events leading up to the Morecambe Bay cockling tragedy.

November 2002

Cockle pickers arrived in Morecambe Bay in their hundreds.

More than 100 cocklers, many from Liverpool and North Wales, turned up with a huge boat from the Dee Estuary near Chester.

Dozens of readers began phoning The Visitor to ask why it was there. The Visitor called for tighter regulation of the cockle industry.

The North West and North Wales Sea Fisheries Committee, which is based at Lancaster University, allowed the boat to use the Bay after cockle beds on the Dee Estuary were closed when cockles there were deemed unfit to eat because of algal poisoning.

Local cockle pickers said they were worried that ‘foreigners’ would take all the cockles on the Bay beds and leave very few for them.

Around £20,000 worth (estimated at 50 tons at £400 per ton) of cockles were picked from the beds every day and most were shipped out by the boat to Heysham Harbour and then on to processing plants in the UK and abroad.

November 2002

Visitor reporter Greg Lambert watched the cockle pickers preparing for another day raking for shellfish in the driving rain.

The cocklers unloaded rakes, buckets and netting from their vans parked just off the prom. Their waterproofs and waders were caked in mud.

Once out in the bay they joined more than 100 other cocklers working in groups to rake the cockles up from designated ‘patches’ in the muddy sand.

A man had to be pulled from the sands by a rope during a rescue.

May 2003

Concerns over a shellfish shortage led to cockle beds on the bay being shut down with the threat that they might not open again for harvesting in the summer.

Representatives of the North West and North Wales Sea Fisheries Board were to decide whether to allow cockling to resume.

Dr James Andrews said the board was considering bringing in a permit system giving them greater control over who was allowed to cockle on the bay.

He said it would depend on Government legislation which prevented them from restricting the number of permits.

May 2003

The North West and North Wales Fisheries Committee conducted a survey of the cockle beds.

The officials looked at the size, abundance and distribution of the cockles.

They also looked at how the juvenile cockles were coping in the aftermath of the extensive cockle harvesting.

June 2003

Cockle pickers were the target of a police operation at Pilling Sands near Lancaster.

Operation Exodus was set up to identify people who had been fraudulently claiming unemployment benefit and other benefits while working as cockle pickers.

A checkpoint was set up at Fluke Hall Lane – the access route to and from the cockle beds.

Led by the Department of Work and Pensions, the fraud team intercepted 70 vehicles as they left the cockle beds. Twenty four people were identified for further investigation by the DWP.

In addition, six vehicles were given prohibition notices and two were caught for using red diesel.

July 2003

Morecambe’s cockle beds were to remain closed for harvesting until at least September.

The decision was made by members of the North West and North Wales Sea Fisheries Board.

Tests showed that while the beds exhibited some signs of recovery there was still a high proportion of under-developed cockles which needed protecting.

September 2003

Hundreds of cockle pickers from far flung parts again descended on the bay.

In the early hours vans, cars, tractors and other vehicles turned up at Middleton Sands off Carr Lane in the village.

The North West and North Wales Sea Fisheries Committee said the cockle pickers were legally allowed to pick them.

The beds at Middleton Sands were open for cockle picking, however, other beds near Heysham and Jenny Brown’s Point were closed.

December 2003

More than 200 cockle pickers from all over the country converged on Morecambe as one of the main cockle beds reopened.

The cockle fishers were mainly accessing the beds via Morecambe Lodge and by the level crossing in Hest Bank.

To stop illegal immigrants and benefit claimants from working the beds a new permit system was introduced.

The North west and North Wales Sea Fisheries Committee reopened the cockle beds at Warton sands. Cocklers continued to work near Middleton Sands but the main central Morecambe beds remained closed.

It followed a survey of the beds which revealed they contained over 5,000 tonnes of mature cockles.

For the first time, cocklers who had applied for and had been given special permits were able to work them.

More than 200 were issued.

To obtain one applicants needed to provide their national insurance number, designed to stop problems with illegal immigrants and benefit claimants.

Morecambe’s MP Geraldine Smith said she was full of praise for the permit system and said the hoped it would prevent problems that have cropped up previously.

Insp Richard Debicki, from Morecambe police, said his officers would do everything they could to support fisheries officers in enforcing the permit system.

December 2003

Morecambe’s hovercraft and lifeboat were involved in a huge rescue operation as 30 cockle pickers became stranded in the bay at Bardsea.

The cockle pickers had been cut off by the tide after being taken out by a tractor.

The cockle pickers had expected the tractor to return for them but it broke down, leaving them stranded.

Eventually the cockle pickers managed to rescue themselves by wading to safety.

January and February 2004

Cocklers from across Britain and people of Oriental origin continued to fish the bay.

On Thursday, February 5, the dreadful news broke that some of the cocklers had drowned off the shore at Hest Bank and Bolton-le-Sands and that others were missing.