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Illegal shellfish picking soared across UK coast after lockdown - fears over human trafficking

ILLEGAL shellfish picking soared across the country after the coronavirus lockdown began with regular seizures happening across the coast.

Experts believe the rise may have been fuelled by a shortage in the legitimate supply chain caused by the closure of markets that sold them during the early lockdown and there are fears they are ending up in restaurants despite not all being fit for human consumption.

There are also concerns many of the pickers are victims of human trafficking.

Commercial shellfish pickers need to have a licence, but cockles, oysters, mussels, scallops and clams and even crabs and lobsters are all being harvested illegally with reports of action by authorities at coastlines from Cornwall to Cleveland.

HOTSPOT: Southend saw a number of operations over the summer (ESssex Police)

Many of the pickers have been found to have entered the country illegally.

The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) was created following the Morecambe Bay tragedy in 2004, when 23 Chinese cockle pickers exploited by an illegal gangmaster drowned off the coast while picking shellfish after being trapped by incoming tides.

A GLAA spokesman said: "There are clear dangers with unsafe and unregulated shellfish gathering, aside from the obvious risk to life and labour exploitation concerns, there’s public health risks from shellfish unfit for human consumption entering the food chain, as well as the environmental impact."

Anyone supplying workers into these sectors without a GLAA licence can receive a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and an unlimited fine.

GLAA Head of Enforcement Ian Waterfield said: “We have seen a noticeable increase in intelligence relating to shellfish gathering since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"While not all of it relates directly to labour exploitation, we are actively investigating reports of illegal gangmaster offences and associated organised criminal activity which is potentially leading to unsafe working conditions for vulnerable workers.

“We have a number of ongoing investigations and operations across the UK."

HAUL: Oysters, winkles and cockles taken from illegal pickers at Southend in July (Essex Police)

Cockles found in Redcar and Cleveland area are not fit for human consumption and eating them could cause severe illness and be potentially fatal for children.

Yet, a group was found picking cockles in the area for use in a Northumbria restaurant.

David McCandless, chief officer at the North Eastern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority,

said: “Our concern is that some of the individuals we have come across harvesting have connections with Chinese restaurants.

“It seems to be a common issue around the English coast.

LOADED UP: Buckets of shellfish found in the boot of illegal pickers' car (Essex Police)

"Up until recently markets have been closed where individuals could buy shellfish.

“It’s very unusual to come across this.”

Essex Police has seen a notable rise with several seizures after pickers were seen off the coast of Southend.

An operation with the GLAA and Southend Council this month saw 42 pickers identified with 290kg of harvested shellfish and 71 pieces of picking equipment confiscated.

In July the force seized 810kg of illegally harvested shellfish with a retail value totalling £11,000.

Chief Inspector Ian Hughes said: “We are continuing to take proactive steps to detect and disrupt those who come to our coast to illegally pick shellfish.

“Not only are they having stocks picked over many hours taken from them, they are also spending additional time with enforcement officers and they are having their tools seized.

SEIZED: Several cockling tools confiscated by Essex Police

“We hope this continues to send a message to pickers – many who may be victims of modern day slavery – and organised crime groups that if they come to Southend, they’re simply wasting their time."

Kent's coastline has also been regularly targeted during warm weather, with several seizures taking place.

Since May 18 there were more than 71 reports of illegal shellfish picking more than with 81 suspect vehicles identified.

Inspector Dave Smith from Kent Police’s Rural Task Force said: "Over the summer months we see an increase in the unlawful removal of shellfish from the Kent coastline.

"Some of these are illegally targeted on a commercial scale with the risk that shellfish that is not always fit for human consumption could enter the food chain.

"Some people are handed over to Home Office Immigration to be dealt with for illegal entry and those harvesting without a licence are also dealt with."


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