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4.31 pm

Mr. Martin Caton (Gower): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) on his excellent speech. He clearly has a valuable role to play in the House in future. I felt proud as I listened to him because he is from Gowerton stock in my constituency. He may be Ogmore man today, but he was Gower boy. That is why I know that he will be especially interested in the subject that I shall talk about in the few minutes that I have. [Hon. Members: "Cockles."] Correct.

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Tomorrow is St. David's day, and many restaurants, hotels and pubs in the Swansea area will offer specifically Welsh menus—many of them very imaginative and extremely mouth-watering, and some of them involving Welsh cockles. Unfortunately, however, they will not be local Penclawdd cockles, because as I said at Welsh questions yesterday, since last July the Burry inlet cockle shellfishery has in effect been closed.

I guess that if one asked most people who live in Swansea and the surrounding area, or even tourists who have visited it, to list the things that they associate with Gower, cockles would be fairly near the top of most of those lists. Many, when that came to mind, would not think of a small bivalve mollusc. They would have a mental picture from before the war of hardy cockle women from Penclawdd and other north Gower villages, swathed in layers of shawls, leading their ponies and carts on to the estuary at low tide, taking out their wooden rakes and gathering the finest cockles in the world for sale in local markets, perhaps for consumption with local laverbread and bacon for breakfast.

That mental picture, although from a bygone age, is not so very different from what one would have seen if one had gone out to watch the cockle gatherers in the Burry inlet before last July. Certainly, the pony and cart would have been replaced with a Land Rover, some of the women would have been replaced with menfolk and almost all the shawls would have been replaced by more suitable outdoor gear, but the actual gathering of the cockles would have been exactly the same—using a wooden rake and a great deal of back-breaking work.

The shellfishery has a record of environmental and economic sustainability that is probably unparalleled anywhere else around the coast. In recent years, that sustainability has been maintained by regulation through the South Wales Sea Fisheries Committee, so that only a limited number of licensed gatherers can collect cockles in the Burry inlet and the amount that each of them can take is limited, as is the size of the cockles taken. That system ensured that cockles could be gathered in the Burry inlet throughout the year, except when short-term prohibition orders applied as a result of pollution spills or other health hazards. That is largely because it has not, like other shellfisheries, started to use heavy equipment from boats or large tractor rakes, but has stuck with the hard work of the hand rake.

Until last July, the operation had provided a good living for more than 40 families in north Gower. It had led to the development of a sizeable co-operative cockle and laverbread factory and other family processing units in the Penclawdd area, provided a central focus for Swansea's excellent market and given birth to our regular cockle festival in the city. The Burry inlet cockle beds do not provide a living only to some of my constituents. There are also cockle gatherers on the other side of the estuary, in Llanelli and Carmarthenshire. I know that hon. Members from those constituencies share my support for the industry and my concern for its future.

Sadly, what many of us thought of as this most environmentally friendly and sustainable of industries, applauded by conservation groups throughout Wales and beyond, has been closed down for nearly eight months. Since last July, both sides of the Burry inlet have continued to return positive results for diarrhetic shellfish poisoning, which, as its name suggests, is a poisoning caused by the consumption of infected shellfish that

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induces diarrhoea and various other nasty symptoms. To protect public health, the Food Standards Agency and the local authorities therefore imposed temporary prohibition orders to stop cockle gathering.

That has left the cockle gatherers' families in a desperate situation. They have lost their only or main source of income for two thirds of a year. Their savings have been eaten up and many have been forced to extend their overdrafts or to borrow from other sources. What is worse, they have no idea when they will be able pursue their livelihoods again. That depressing uncertainty has grown week after week. At first, everyone from gatherers to environmental scientists expected the problem to disappear, because in the past DSP has come and gone in a matter of weeks in shellfisheries around the coast. That led to a growing awareness that something was different and more virulent about this outbreak than previous outbreaks in the area and around the coast of Britain.

Then, about a month ago—seven months after the fishery was first closed—we learned that the DSP positive test results in the Burry inlet are not due to what the Food Standards Agency calls "classic" DSP toxins. The Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science at Weymouth has found that the toxicity of the affected cockles from the Burry inlet is more acute than normal. Even at this stage, we know little about what is causing these positive results. We know that heat treatment does not kill it, as it does some bugs responsible for other shellfish-induced illness. Work is going on at CEFAS and other institutions. Similar results have been shown in other locations such as the Wash and the Thames estuary. There is also evidence from Ireland and Canada of similar phenomena. As we are so far away from identifying the cause, we are even further away from identifying the factors that have allowed it to develop, be they pollutants or other environmental changes in the estuary.

The distress is greatest for the cockle gatherers, especially for those with no other source of income, but it is not confined to them. Others are suffering, albeit to a lesser extent—for example, those involved in processing who have to pay the extra costs of transporting cockles from other parts of the UK and abroad, and people who sell cockles, especially in the markets, who no longer have a local product and can see the concern about the safety of cockle consumption putting off their customers. Cockle gatherers in south-west Wales who do not work the licensed Burry inlet have had their shellfisheries around the coast, at places such as Laugharne and Ferryside, threatened with overfishing by the displaced gatherers and then closed down to protect stocks.

So what needs to be done and who should be doing it? First, a compensation scheme should be set up for cockle gatherers unable to gather their product in the inlet. There is a strong case for such a scheme. These families have seen farmers whose livelihoods were undermined by foot and mouth disease receiving Government compensation and help being provided to affected parts of the tourist industry. That is quite right. However, these people have not just had their livelihoods undermined—they have had the rug pulled from under them and have so far received no help. Indeed, for most of the eight months they have had to keep paying their licences although they cannot gather their cockles.

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When I make that case contrasting the treatment of cockle gatherers with that of farmers, I am accused of comparing chalk with cheese. People argue that cockling, as a form of fishing, is hunter-gathering, and that if stocks run out in one place hunter-gatherers move on to another location. That is probably true around most of the coast. In places such as the Wash, the Thames estuary and the Scottish coast, cockle gatherers do exactly that. If they get a prohibition order they simply move their activities outside its boundaries. That is not an option for the cocklers at the Burry inlet shellfishery, who are tied to their estuary. They are not really hunter-gatherers, but husbander-gatherers, and hence much more similar to farmers and without, in the main, the option of looking to new cocklebeds.

So: who should provide the cocklers with support? The question of how to do that is complicated. When my colleagues and I ask the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, we are told that this is entirely a matter for the National Assembly for Wales. When I ask the National Assembly, it explains that, while responsibility for the inshore fishery has been devolved, it has no powers to compensate cockle gatherers.

When I ask why the Assembly cannot use the wide power in section 40 of the Government of Wales Act 1998, which states that the Assembly

it is pointed out that the closure of the fishery is not an exercise of one of the Assembly's functions. It is the action of the local authorities on behalf of the Food Standards Agency. Therefore, the Assembly is, apparently, unable to pay any sort of compensation.

A Treasury scheme exists for compensation when a pest or disease has affected a fishery. Apparently, however, diarrhetic shellfish poisoning does not count as a pest because it results from the shellfish ingesting toxins present in the microscopic algae on which they feed. I do not know why the definition of "pest" has to be drawn so tightly as to rule this problem out. We either need to widen the definition or expand section 40 of the Government of Wales Act to allow the Assembly to provide support. Alternatively, we need to find a way of operating through food safety laws to provide compensation to these people, either through UK Government agencies or the National Assembly. Somehow, we should find a way to provide support to these families from the public purse. That is getting pretty urgent for some of the families involved.

It is even more urgent, now, that we get on with sorting the estuary out, identifying the problem and its causes and taking the necessary remedial action to ensure that the estuary environment can once again support a sustainable cockle industry. For the Loughor estuary to be rescued, I believe that we are going to need more geographically specific research that looks not only at the microbiology but at the wider ecosystem in the estuary.

As well as the problem caused by algae toxins, other problems have been identified in the inlet: eutrophication caused by excess nitrates; silting up and encroachment; and an increasingly anaerobic environment. All these have been seen in parts of the inlet and all—as well as the DSP problem—will affect the quantity and quality of collectable cockles.

We are fortunate that Swansea university has the expertise to carry out the sort of research that needs to be done. Dr. Kevin Flynn at the university is an expert in the

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field of algae biotoxins and is prepared to get such a research project under way. However, that research needs to get going as quickly as possible. The phytoplankton that will be a central part of the investigation starts growing in spring. Research should begin as soon as possible if valuable information is not to be lost for another year. I congratulate both Carmarthenshire and Swansea on having put in money to begin that research, but I hope that the Food Standards Agency and the Environment Agency will see the sense in diverting some of their research budgets to this project.

Too often in the history of south Wales, people have been expected to trade off environmental quality in exchange for jobs. This is a case in which improving the environment and saving jobs—even creating new ones—go hand in hand. To do this in time will take political will at every level of government.

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