North Morecambe Bay Fishery Closure

The sudden closure of this fishery is unfortunate but was essential in the circumstances. The Authority regrets the impact on law abiding fishers, and  I would therefore like to make sure the decision which the Authority faced is understood.

Under environmental law, this Authority is required to conduct an HRA (Habitats Regulations Assessment) approved by Natural England before opening any fishery within a European Marine Site. The HRA must show that features of protected sites will not be damaged by fishing. In particular in Morecambe Bay are the tens of thousands of over-wintering wading birds for which cockle is a substantial food resource during the winter months. Morecambe Bay is an important MPA (Marine Protected Area) and if a fishery fails to comply with an HRA the regulator (NWIFCA) is exposed to potential legal challenge for failing to protect the site.

The north Morecambe Bay cockle fishery, open since 8th October was reviewed by the Technical, Science and Bylaw Committee of this Authority on Tuesday 6 November. Survey in September had showed the stock was small  but just above the usual threshold for commercial fishing. A large proportion were juvenile and under the minimum landing size. It was considered important for sustainable exploitation that only large cockles were taken and that juvenile cockles were protected as much as possible from damage by raking and gathering.

In addressing these issues, the Authority considered very carefully the pros and cons of opening the fishery in October. Members were as always acutely aware of fishers livelihoods and keen to permit fishing if possible. Therefore an Authorisation was issued to byelaw permit holders to fish but only using a reduced size ‘jumbo’ (tool for fluidising sediment so that cockle rise to the surface) and a specific type of rake called a craam (with 3 curved prongs for  taking large cockles only) to cause minimal impact on smaller cockles and the sediment.

This type of fishery has worked well in the past but on this occasion extensive use of rakes was detected by IFCOS (Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Officers. Over the 4 weeks of the fishery, the Authority has dedicated all its available field resources to reducing use of rakes and removal of undersize cockle.

More greater concern was that use of rakes had likely resulted in a lot more cockle taken than was expected. The Authority could no longer be sure that the fishery was compliant with the HRA creating the risk of  legal challenge. Therefore, a decision was taken reluctantly that the fishery should be closed pending survey to re-assess the state of cockle stocks.

Dr Stephen M Atkins