Despite the tragic events of 2004 when 23 Chinese cocklers drowned at Morecambe Bay, up to 80 unlicensed shellfish gangmasters are still in operation, claimed the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA).
Morecambe Bay cockle beds reopened last Saturday for the new fishing season, but only five shellfish gangmasters currently hold licences, meaning that a large number of gangmasters could try to operate illegally. “It’s very hard to know how many gangs are out there,” said a GLA spokesman. “I’d estimate between 30 and 80.”
GLA chairman Paul Whitehouse said: “GLA actions will never eliminate the risk of another Morecambe Bay tragedy. But we can significantly reduce the risk of this happening again by monitoring shellfish gangmasters and ensuring all reasonable precautions are taken. Where we find somebody employing a gang or directing workers to gather shellfish without a licence we will take action.”
The GLA, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the North Wales and North West Sea Fisheries Committee will have a significant presence in the area over the coming weeks. The groups will ensure gatherers have the correct Sea Fisheries permits, oversee their health and safety and equipment and identify gatherers working while receiving state benefits.
Elinor Dodd, DWP area fraud investigator added: “This multi-agency approach has proved very successful in the past, when up to a quarter of those cockling were found to also be claiming benefit. We have an excellent working relationship with the industry, including gangmasters. We will continue to combat any abuse of the benefits system by such illegal activity, which is also to the detriment of legitimate fishermen.”
Anybody who supplies workers to the agriculture, shellfish gathering and food and drink processing and packaging sectors in the UK needs to be licensed by the GLA. Otherwise they risk prosecution and imprisonment for up to 10 years.