Fishermen and scientists in cockle spat
The Fisheries Minister Michelle Gildernew faces a tough decision on whether to permit the opening of a lucrative cockle fishery in Belfast Lough this autumn.
The Department of Agriculture has permitted an experimental fishery on the old cockle grounds near Holywood over the past two autumns. But while fishermen are keen to continue, a seabed survey has raised questions about whether the fishery is sustainable.
For skipper Alan Young, the chance to fish the cockle grounds in Belfast Lough offered a new opportunity and so he invested around £150,000 in a specialist cockle dredger and new equipment.
With a healthy catch over the past two years, that investment appeared to have paid off and other fishermen have also been working the cockle grounds.
While the Department of Agriculture has been monitoring the tonnage of cockles landed, it has also commissioned a survey of the seabed to find out if the fishery is sustainable.
To the dismay of the fishermen, the survey has raised concerns about the absence of young cockles.
The seriousness of that situation has been set out in a cockle fishery report by the Agri-food and Biosciences Institute.
"For a viable commercial fishery to take place there must be a self-sustaining stock that is capable of yielding a commercial quantity of cockles year after year," the report states.
Fishermen though, are challenging the report's conclusions and, according to Alan Young, it is the density of adult cockles on the seabed which is stifling the young cockle spats.
Rather than closing the fishery this autumn, fishermen argue that more adult cockles need to be removed to give the young spats space to thrive.
However, the scientists surveyed a wide area including patches of seabed where cockles were densely packed and others where colonies were much more widely spread.
The survey found that even in areas of the fishery where there are very low densities, there is no evidence of young cockles being recruited.
Fishermen counter by claiming that cockle recruitment can vary from year to year and that, in any case, there remain large quantities of adult cockles which should be commercially exploited.
While the fishermen made a strong case to the Assembly's agriculture committee to be allowed to catch at least some cockles this autumn, the report clearly recommends against any fishing this year.
"Whilst the area still contains cockles of a commercial size, further harvesting should not be authorised until recruitment and growth on this site is better understood and there is evidence of such recruitment taking place," the report states.
Any cockle harvesting would have to be completed before the end of October when wintering wildfowl return to Belfast Lough.
So time is now short for the fishermen and the Department of Agriculture which is currently consulting stakeholders.
A decision on whether fishing will be allowed to continue is expected in the next few weeks.