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Column 1326My Department liaises closely with both Welsh sea fisheries committees, and the committees regularly seek advice from the Department on a range of fisheries issues, including the management of cockle fisheries. However, the Department has no role in the management decision-making process or the Committees' operational activities. The liaison process includes the exchange of information. In the middle of last year, the South Wales sea fisheries committee kept the Department fully appraised of the circumstances surrounding what became known as the cockle wars at Ferryside.
There are several cockle fisheries in the west Wales area. By far the biggest is the Burry inlet fishery. Entry to the fishery is restricted to licence holders. Licences are free and anyone may apply, but the number of licences is restricted to ensure that the stock is not overfished.
The Burry inlet cockle fishery is steeped in history, as I have already outlined. In its heyday in the early 1900s, there were an estimated 250 gatherers in the Burry inlet. They were mainly women. Each gathered some 200 to 300 cwt a day, while the menfolk were at work in heavy industry locally. The women placed the loads in sacks across the backs of donkeys and sold them to the local community. Cockles were sold either shell-on or, more usually, as boiled meats produced in local cooking plants close to the gatherers' houses. The markets at Llanelli, Swansea and Neath were famous for their produce. As I call back there fairly regularly, I can confirm that they still sell cockles at markets in Llanelli, Swansea and Neath.
In the 1920s, development took place with the introduction of the horse- drawn cart, which enabled an individual to gather as much as 10 cwt per day --a considerable growth in productivity--and to return the catch to shore. Men were now drawn into the industry to gather those enhanced loads, and production took place on more of a commercial basis.
In 1921, a minimum landing size was introduced by the South Wales sea fisheries committee to protect the breeding stock. In 1952, so many cockles were being taken that the committee was forced to set a limit to control the amount taken in any one day.
The Burry Inlet Cockle Order 1965 was established to license the fishery and limit the quantity of cockles removed according to number of licences issued and daily quota. Since then, the number of licences issued has ranged from 43 to a maximum of 67.
Cockle landings have stabilised at around 2,000 to 2,500 tonnes a year, but obviously are still subject to much natural variation. The licensing regime appointed by the committee has been aimed at ensuring maximum stability in the local industry. That has led to the most consistent cockle fishery in the United Kingdom, despite some wastage of cockles because of collection levels below theoretical maximum sustainable yield. That stability has placed the Burry inlet at a consistent third position in terms of cockle production, on a United Kingdom basis--behind the more intensive, but more variable, industries in the Wash and Thames estuaries.
The Dee and Morecambe bay fisheries have occasionally crept in at third place. In those fisheries, vessel suction dredging and mechanical harvesting using tractors have been allowed, whereas in the Burry inlet, hand gathering, using rake and sieve only, has been the order of the day. The industry today is precisely as it was
Column 1327in the 1700s, except that donkeys were replaced by horse and cart, which were in turn replaced by motor vehicles and trailers in 1987. In recent years, the pace of change has increased. Since 1983, European Community legislation--or European legislation, as we now describe it--and markets have naturally become more important. The Europeans are great shellfish eaters, as the right hon. Member said. Vast quantities are consumed, especially in France, Spain and Portugal. Consequently, markets have increased and extra demand has fuelled higher prices.
At the same time, new EC directives on bathing waters, municipal waste waters, molluscan hygiene and fish hygiene have meant huge changes to waste regulatory practice, pollution control and--for gatherers and merchants-- new standards governing quality control and health requirements. Those changes have lead to recent requirements for investment to meet new standards.
The benefits, however, have been top prices for quality produce and increased markets. No longer is the industry purely local in terms of gathering or selling. The licensing system has so far meant that the Burry inlet licence holders are still very much the same people and families who prosecuted the fishery tens of years ago.
I congratulate the sea fisheries committee on its good management of the Burry inlet cockle fishery over the years.
Mr. Denzil Davies indicated assent .
The three rivers cockle fishery comprises a number of fisheries along the estuaries of the Rivers Tywi, Taff and Gwendraeth near Carmarthen in south- west Wales. It is an opportunist fishery, which occurs on average once every ten years. Consequently, the South Wales sea fisheries committee, which manages the fisheries, has not considered it necessary to introduce a licensing scheme to restrict the number of individuals who may take cockles.
Because of the opportunist nature of the fishery, local fishermen do not prosecute it regularly, and very few of them rely on it for a living. The fishery may therefore be prosecuted by any member of the public, subject to their observing the SFC byelaws, which restrict the times when cockles may be gathered, and set a minimum landing size.
Last year, however, there were signs during the winter months that a very good spat fall--that is, entry of young cockles into the fishery--had occurred during 1992. In anticipation of a good harvest, a number of local fishermen linked up with a Dutch-owned, Merseyside-based processing company which was eager to supply the Dutch market.
Once news of the extent of the fishery became common knowledge, a large number of cockle fishermen from other local cockle fisheries moved into the area. This
Column 1328influx of outsiders, or "offcomers", angered the Ferrysiders, who saw the fishery as "their" fishery, and a number of scuffles took place. The violence increased with the arrival of cockle gatherers from as far away as the Dee estuary in north Wales, and the police, who had been closely monitoring the situation, were called upon to deal with several serious breaches of public order. The situation improved, however, when an officer was assigned to patrol the fishery on a regular basis.
The SFC continued to enforce its byelaws and to monitor catch uptake, but it concluded that, as there was no threat to stock levels, it had no grounds for restricting access to the fishery. SFC byelaws can only be made on conservation grounds, and any breach of the peace was and is the responsibility of the local police. At the time of these disturbances, it was also reported that the Department of Social Security and the Inland Revenue had been alerted to the possibility that some of the outsiders might be in receipt of unemployment benefits.
As the Ferryside fishery thinned out, the gatherers moved to the neighbouring fisheries at Laugharne and Llanstephan, as the right hon. Gentleman mentioned. But with the onset of winter, activity decreased markedly, although some individuals continued to gather through to the spring. By this time, the South Wales committee were becoming concerned that juvenile cockles were not being allowed to mature, and the fishery was closed in April. It was partially reopened in August this year, with gathering being allowed on only two or three days a week, depending on the circumstances within each fishery.
The SFC, with its mix of local authority representatives and fishing industry nominees with their knowledge of the local industry, is, I believe, well placed to manage the fisheries within its district. It has, over many years, responded positively to changing circumstances to maintain cockle stocks at suitable levels to the benefit of the local industry.
I am confident that the committee will continue to meet its responsibilities effectively. Cockle stocks are monitored constantly and, if the committee identifies a need for any new management byelaws, I can assure the House that the Welsh Office will give them careful consideration. I shall ensure that this evening's debate is conveyed to the committee.
I listened carefully to the right hon. Gentleman, and he seemed to suggest that central Government should interfere with a local authority in the prosecution of its statutory duties. I am rather surprised by that, because I know that the right hon. Gentleman is an advocate of devolution.
Mr. Denzil Davies: The SFC is not a local authority. An order has been made to regulate the fishery in the Wash and, in 1965, the Welsh Office introduced an order to regulate the Burry inlet. All I am asking is that the Welsh Office should make another order to regulate the fishery. That has nothing to do with imposing on local authorities.
Mr. Richards: I most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for clarifying his position. As he knows, and as I have already said, the Welsh Office is more than ready to listen to what the SFC wants. It would be for it to decide whether it felt that new byelaws were needed.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): In common with the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies), I have had the benefit of tasting those cockles. I was born in Swansea, and I regularly went to Swansea market to buy cockles, so I can speak for their high quality. Surely my hon. Friend is absolutely right. If, at any stage, the SFC felt that either the quantity or the quality of the cockles
Column 1330available to the local, or even the export market were being damaged, it would recommend the Welsh Office to step in immediately to regulate the industry.
All three of us have expert knowledge of the local cockle industry, and we all have its interests at heart. I would not wish anything to happen that threatened employment opportunities in that industry or impaired the taste of cockles that are enjoyed by thousands of people.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Eleven o'clock.
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