THOUSANDS of tonnes of shellfish are being left to die on Scottish beaches due to a catalogue of failures and a lack of government support in managing a 200-mile stretch of coastline on the border with England, according to a new report.
The wasted resource is estimated to be worth up to £8 million a year for fishermen in Dumfries and Galloway, and the report warns that continued inaction will result in yet another lost fishing season.
An independent study into the viability of cockle fishing in the Solway Firth has blamed the collapse of a once thriving industry on a lack of power, insufficient resources and a shortage of cash for the organisation tasked with controlling its operation.
Problems with poaching, slow decision-making and overfishing also contributed to its demise.
The fishery has remained closed since September 2011, after problems with organised gangs of illegal fishers and low stocks led to a ban on all fishing for the molluscs in the region.
Coastal fishing grounds south of the border are policed and managed at a regional level by ten Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities (IFCAs) with funding, legislative powers and teams of dedicated staff. The North Western IFCA alone had a budget of £1.3 million last year and its own patrol vessels and vehicles.
In Scotland, the voluntary, non-statutory nature of the newly established Inshore Fisheries Groups (IFGs) means they can only act in an advisory capacity.
Despite its criticism, however, the report concludes: “The goal of achieving a sustainable cockle fishery in the Solway Firth is still winnable. The Firth looks set to remain productive and this productivity can be protected by good management.”
Now local fishermen are calling for urgent action to reopen the cockle beds before a further fishing season passes and a potential catch worth at least £100 a day to pickers is left to die of old age.
Michael Bates has been a cockler for 40 years and helped pioneer commercial operations in the Solway. He says there is broad backing for efforts to find a solution but the situation seems to have reached a stalemate.
“The Solway Firth cockle fishery has been a wasted resource for the local fishermen, the economy and the UK export market for many years,” he said.
“Urgent action is needed. The minister needs to take control and see the fishery opened this year before it is lost for ever.
“At a meeting with the minister in Dumfries some three years ago, he was told nothing ever gets achieved. His response was: ‘I’m here now, watch and see. I will sort it out.’
“Since then, nothing - even the hot air seems to have stopped.”
The now-defunct Solway Shellfish Management Association (SSMA) was created in 2004 with the aim of ensuring cockling in the region was sustainable. It was responsible for managing the fishery, including stock surveys, licensing, quotas and policing, and chiefly funded through license fees. This left it vulnerable in years when low stocks meant fewer permits were dished out. There were just two officers to patrol more than 40 miles of coastline. Conversely, the wider Scottish fishing industry is funded and supported by the government agency Marine Scotland, with no direct levies on operators.
The report states “considerable time, expense, commitment, goodwill, energy and expertise have been expended in pursuit of a well managed fishery” and its failure “was not through negligence or lack of interest”.
But Dalbeattie fisherman Cliff Henderson, a former SSMA board member and the first commercial-scale cockler in the estuary, said constraints had left the group unable to do anything meaningful.
“In the end it was a complete a shambles, a money-wasting exercise,” he said.
“It seemed like things were already predetermined and we were just there to rubber-stamp anything.
“It got that it was driven from the wrong end - the conservationists had the biggest say in everything and the chief fisheries officer wouldn’t make a move without the go-ahead from government.
“Nobody could make decisions and there was a lack of leadership, which resulted in nothing getting done and dwindling enthusiasm.”
In spite of widespread support for efforts to re-establish the industry, the most recent move was left in tatters after a government-backed “limited” commercial trial had to be cut short when the contractor pulled out “as a result of difficult conditions and low prices in key markets”.
Scottish fisheries secretary Richard Lochhead said at the time that although he was disappointed “even this development is a learning point”.
The Solway Firth is one of the largest and least industrialised estuaries in Europe, with a diverse marine ecosystem.
The whole of the inner firth on both sides of the border has been designated as a special protection area (SPA) and special area of conservation (SAC) under the EU Birds and Habitats Directives as it supports a number of important habitats and waterfowl populations.
The study was carried out for the recently formed Solway Firth Partnership, a charitable organisation set up to encourage sustainable living in the region, and backed by the Scottish Government.
Organised gangs of illegal cockle pickers have in the past targeted the area, risking their own lives and putting unsuspecting diners in danger of serious food poisoning.
Police and fishermen warned that unregulated activities could result in a tragedy mirroring events in Morecambe Bay in 2004, when at least 21 Chinese cockle pickers drowned after being caught out by incoming tides, or pose a health threat through sales of contaminated shellfish to restaurants and fishmongers.
Bates added: “It is criminal that fishermen are out of work while bureaucrats sit in nice warm offices drawing wages and dreaming up more reasons why it should not open.
“Form a committee of people that understand the industry. Appoint a Solway fisheries officer, do a survey and get it opened.
“It’s time for action or it will be closed permanently.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said ministers remain committed to opening the Solway cockle fishery “as soon as possible”.
“We have been working hard since 2012, in close consultation with local stakeholders, to find ways of reopening the fishery in a sustainable and controlled way,” she said
“We have consulted with local interests to devise a suitable management regime and, most recently, have been testing innovative new approaches to cockle fishery management through Marine Scotland’s Cockle Fishery Management Study.”
“The findings of this study, and the recommendations in the Solway Firth Partnership’s report, are being taken into account as we consider possible future management options for the Solway Cockle Fishery.
“These options will be fully discussed with the local community before any final decision is taken.”
Timeline of key events in the recent history of the Solway Cockle Fishery
Pre-1986 Small-scale harvesting mainly for local consumption. No official recorded landings
1986-1991 First official recordings. Steady increase in landings to 4.519t in 1991
1992 Boat dredging banned
1994 Tractor dredging banned
2000 SSMA formed
2002 After several years increasing hand-gathering, following increased demand,
fishery closed to all
2006 Regulating Order comes into force and fishery re-opens
2006-2008 Fishery operates for 3 seasons
2009 Fishery closes
2011 Regulating Order ceases and fishery is officially closed
2013 Fishery reopens for 3 months for commercial trial, which ended prematurely due to financial difficulties