Not to be mistaken with gentle simmering shellfish this is the midnight ransacking of remote beach bounty.
Although it is not illegal to harvest shellfish for personal consumption, strict food safety regulations make it an offence for molluscs to be gathered from unclassified fisheries to be sold for profit.
The Gangmasters’ Licensing Authority (GLA) was set up after 23 Chinese cockle pickers drowned at Morecombe Bay and following the prosecution of another gang using Romanian immigrants on Skye and another using Chinese workers on the Dee Estuary.
The regulations introduced include minimum catch sizes for clams, defined periods when clam digging is allowed and the kind of equipment permissible. Claming in some areas is forbidden entirely.
The Ecologist has revealed that gangs of poachers, run by gang masters, regularly target wild shellfish stocks on English, Welsh and Scottish beaches. Workers in transit vans park on low tide beaches at night dig for the lucrative molluscs and keep them in chill boxes before delivering the catch to waiting traders selling to restaurants, pubs, caterers, markets and wholesalers.
Poole Harbour, in Dorset, has abundant stocks of shellfish in what is Britain’s largest natural harbour. There has been an escalation in illegal clam harvesting in recent years, with large quantities of clams dug from areas where the practice is illegal because the water there contains bacteria harmful to humans.
Harbour authorities have mounted a number of enforcement operations in recent years and brought several prosecutions but the Inshore Fisheries & Conservation Authority (IFCA) said ‘We’ve nine officers and 1000 square miles [to police], all year around. Protection officers have been threatened, buildings attacked and patrol boats sabotaged during efforts to combat the problem, with parts of the harbour regarded as being off limits for enforcement officers without police protection‘.
Gangs can harvest 100 kilos, or even a tonne a day and clam merchants have paid up to £1000 per tonne in the past.
Major fish traders on the south coast are suspected of accepting clams on a ‘no questions asked’ basis. Others are believed to ‘order’ shellfish and lay on the appropriate transport and chilling equipment.
In north Wales and the north of England – enforcement bodies say shellfish is an increasing income source for organised criminals and the authorities know the gangs involved — it’s hard to hide a convoy of 4x4s on a low tide beach.
In the Dee Estuary, Merseyside and the Wirral illegal harvesting is a growing problem. In Lytham gang workers even had to be rescued by emergency services after getting into difficulties. In Scotland there have been prosecutions for illegal clam harvesting on the Isle of Sky.
10 ton haul
‘We’ve had 80 people out there, with 4×4’s and quads,’ a Mersey Port Health Authority representative said. ‘We get reports of between 10 and 15 tonnes being carted off the beach at a time.’
During one audacious session in August 2010, more than 50 workers in a convey of 4x4s took away 10 tonnes of cockles from Wirral.
In Teeside, gangs of Chinese migrants have regularly been digging cockles from beaches in Hartlepool Marina and surrounding areas. Much of this illegal shellfish is believed to be sold ‘through the back door’ to local hotels and restaurants.
One vendor at London‘s world famous Billingsgate Market, which sells to London’s top restaurants, was earlier this year found to have, on four occasions, taken delivery of clams harvested from unclassified Littlehampton and Rustington shellfish beds.
The authorities observed the poaching, the transit and the sale of the clams all the way to Billingsgate. One environmental health officer involved in the case said ‘They were doing this to put cash in their pocket, it’s a bit like the scrap metal taken from railway lines’.
The agency has brought 12 prosecutions, suspended 15 licenses and seized 20 tonnes of illegal cockles in one recent year alone.
Shellfish are frequently associated with instances of food poisoning, especially so when eaten raw or undercooked, as molluscs filter seawater to feed and, if the waters are dirty, the molluscs ingest viruses and bacteria that can be harmful to humans.
Tut tut Heston
In 2009, the Michelin-starred Fat Duck restaurant, owned by celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, had to close after more than 450 customers became ill with norovirus. Raw oysters and clams were later identified by the Health Protection Agency as being the main source of the contamination.
Brussels insists waters used by the fishing industry for commercial shellfish harvesting and shellfish cultivation are regularly tested for bacteria and viruses. Argyll and Bute environmental health department is responsible for this information around the Treshnish Isles, Gometra, Ulva and Staffa.
So, when wild camping on a remote uninhabited wilderness island beach far from the mainland, remember the clams you caught were inspected by a little clipboard toting man behind a desk in Brussels – for your safety.