Wales

Burry Inlet cockle deaths mystery enters 13th year

The Burry Inlet, near Llanelli

A blame game has been rumbling on for years over why cockles on the Burry Inlet near Llanelli are dying, but there is still no definitive answer.

Research has been carried out and more money is being pumped in to try to finally find out why there has been a year on year decline since 2004.

In the meantime, cockle fishers there are fearing for their futures in what used to be a thriving multi-million pound industry which dates back to Roman times.

The once 24/7 operation which saw exports across Europe is now a situation of less work and little financial reward.

The annual mortality rate sees most stocks wiped out but it is not the only problem. The average size of a cockle used to be up to 19mm but can now be as small as 8mm.

And there is no sign of improvement on either front any time soon.

'Worthless'

Haydn Hughes, who has held a licence to fish for cockles for 50 years, said: "When I started in 1967 it was 24/7. Now we are only working four or five months a year.

"In 1967, it was 350kg of prime cockles. We are still getting to 250-350kg now but they are worthless. They are too small.

"They are worth like 30p per kilogram whereas years ago it was £1.50 to £2 per kilogram."

He said at one time in the late 1990s his team was exporting up to four lorry loads of cockles to Spain while others were sending to the Netherlands.

Fishermen have been critical of the Welsh Government and Natural Resources Wales (NRW) for how the situation has been handled, including lack of progress in pinning down the problem.

A three-year investigation ending in 2012 ruled out pollution from sewerage works with the finger being pointed towards a likely combination of parasites, overcrowding and conditioning of cockles after spawning.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Cockle pickers said they are losing money due to their decline

In a separate report released in 2015, scientist Matthew Longshaw said it was "highly likely" the diseased cockles at the root of the problem may have come from Europe to be processed at the Burry Inlet, with the parasites washed into the estuary.

However, the exact cause is still unknown and as a result a solution yet to be found.

Cockle fisher Neal Page said he has lost about £50,000 a year.

"I saw on a BBC programme the other evening that the TB outbreak has cost the Welsh Government £150m in compensation for the farmers," he said.

"In the 14 years, I've never had a single penny compensation when my stock is dying year on year. Why?"

The owner of one of Wales' biggest cockle processors, Selwyn's Seafood - a family business running for more than 100 years - is also concerned for the future.

'Substandard'

Ashley Jones said: "The cockles are so small at the moment, the UK market is the only market for them. The European market does not accept them.

"We feel the cockle is substandard because of the size and customers are not buying them.

"I am very concerned for the processors and the gatherers because I can't see how we can introduce young blood into the industry when fishermen are earning less than £9,000 per annum.

"We've certainly had to diversify, going into other areas looking for cockles, travelling the country and into Europe to keep our factories running and also looking to diversify into other products.

"We simply can't sit still otherwise we'll be out of business before we know it."

Huwel Manley, operations manager for NRW, said a new investigation announced on Tuesday aimed to address "unanswered questions" from the 2012 study.

The Welsh Government has been asked to comment.

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