Revealed: the illegal shellfish trade that's putting consumer health at risk

| 30th May 2012
The illicit supply of clams, cockles and oysters could spark a serious outbreak of food poisoning from E.coli, novovirus or salmonella. But gangmasters are cashing in on the lucrative trade. Andrew Wasley reports

An underground trade in shellfish is putting the health of consumers at risk with tonnes of potentially contaminated seafood feared to be entering the food chain, an investigation by the Ecologist has revealed.

The illegal harvesting of clams, cockles and oysters - amongst other fish - for sale to restaurants and wholesalers is an increasing problem and threatens an outbreak of serious food poisoning, say health officials.

Legitimately gathered shellfish are subject to strict purification treatments to ensure they are fit for human consumption, but fish taken from prohibited or unclassified sources, or sold before being properly treated, put the public at risk of serious illnesses caused by the E.coli, novovirus or salmonella bugs, which can all be found in contaminated molluscs.

The scale of the illicit - and highly lucrative - trade has alarmed health officials and fisheries protection bodies who say they lack the resources to effectively tackle the problem.

Strict documentation procedures are supposed to ensure traceability of any consignment of shellfish moved or sold on a commercial basis, with each batch accompanied by appropriate paperwork.

But the Ecologist has been told that in the event of a major health scare - such as last year's deadly E.coli outbreak - officials would be unable to verify the origin of some shellfish because of the illegal trade, undermining efforts to pinpoint the source of contaminated produce.

Highly organised gangs, some believed to be operating directly on behalf of fish merchants, others run by gangmasters, have targeted shellfish stocks in Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset, Merseyside, Lancashire, Cumbria and Teeside, amongst other areas, in recent years. Parts of north Wales and Scotland have also been affected.

The gangs target known shellfish beds at day or night, depending on the tides. Many arrive in transit vans or 4x4 vehicles and, using spades – or in some cases small boats fitted with dredging equipment – extract the lucrative molluscs before transferring them to chill boxes.

From there, the shellfish are delivered to waiting merchants, or are offered for sale speculatively to traders, to restaurants or even via the internet. Some of the shellfish end up in markets for sale to the public, but most is thought to pass through processors or wholesalers who in turn sell to restaurants, pubs or other caterers, or export it abroad.

The legitimate shellfish industry is an important part of the UK's food economy, worth more than £250 million. But enforcement bodies say the informal shellfish sector is associated with high levels of criminality and exploitation.

The Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) – set up following the Morecambe Bay tragedy in 2004 in which 23 Chinese cockle pickers drowned – recently warned it is stepping up its efforts to combat illegal gangmasters in the shellfish sector.

The move follows the prosecution of two gangmasters found to be operating without appropriate licenses. One had been controlling a number of Chinese workers harvesting shellfish in the Dee Estuary, another had been using Romanian migrants to pick shellfish on the Isle of Skye.

Threats and sabotage

Poole Harbour, in Dorset, has abundant shellfish stocks and has seen an escalation in illegal harvesting in recent years, with sizable quantities of clams being taken from prohibited or restricted areas. The clam poachers work either alone or in pairs using boats to 'fish in tight circles and use water to blast sand away [from the seabed]', according to harbour officials.

There's currently between 15 and 18 boats licensed to harvest shellfish in the harbour - fishermen need to to apply for a permit costing £300 - but as many as 50 boats are believed to be operating.

The harbour authorities have mounted a number of enforcement operations in recent years and brought several prosecutions. One followed an undercover sting carried out using the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, with a fishermen found guilty of taking undersized clams in restricted waters out of season.

The area the shellfish were taken from was believed to have high levels of E.coli and bacteria that posed a threat to human health.

Officials say the problem is difficult to thwart. 'Because of the unlicensed activities [in Poole Harbour] we've stepped up our enforcement work, with officers working on the ground, split patrols around the clock,' one officer from the Southern Inshore Fisheries & Conservation Authority (IFCA), told the Ecologist. 'We've nine officers and 1000 square miles [to police], all year around.'

Fisheries 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.

Much of the illegal fishing centres around Lytchett Bay – classified as a prohibited area for shellfish collection because of high levels of contamination.

When the Ecologist visited the bay, adjacent to the Turlin Moor residential estate, boats pinpointed as being involved in the illegal clam trade were moored up on the shoreline rather than working.

Several fishermen were working on the boats, and others were parked up in transit vans nearby. They didn't want to be identified, concealing their faces when the Ecologist approached. (When we later tried to make contact with the fishermen by phone none would respond to our questions.)

Officials describe the illegal fishermen as the same people 'who'd be knocking off car stereos if they weren't doing this.'

'You are dealing with people who don't care,' a Southern IFCA officer said. 'They are organised, with look outs, with scouts... when [one of our officers] was parked up observing they circled him.'

One legitimate shellfish producer based in Poole Harbour, who didn't want to be named, said: 'This is a vast problem that's been going on for years, they are not all nice people... some are organised, some less so.'

He said that rich financial rewards were driving the trade: 'They can harvest a 100 kilos, or even up to a tonne, in a day.' The fishermen said that in the past clams had fetched £1000 per tonne, although current market prices were lower.

Both fisheries officials and fishermen blame the problem on fish merchants and buyers: 'Whilst the markets are still there, this is still a problem', a Southern IFCA officer said. 'We've got incitement by merchants, they even lay on the transport [for the shellfish].'

The Ecologist was told that several major fish buyers on the south coast were suspected of taking clams and other shellfish on a 'no questions asked' basis. Some are believed to directly 'order' shellfish and lay on the appropriate transport, chilling equipment and other gear; others will simply pay cash for whatever is brought in, depending on demand.

Raids and seizures

In a case officials described as 'worrying', one major shellfish merchant was earlier this year found to have taken delivery of clams harvested from an unclassified shellfish bed on the Sussex coast.

The company sells direct to the public, supplies restaurants and acts as a wholesaler at London's Billingsgate Market. The world-famous market is a major hub for the seafood trade and supplies a number of top London restaurants.

The claims came to light during a recent trial at Worthing Magistrates Court where three men were found guilty of illegally gathering clams from beaches at Littlehampton and Rustington in early 2010.

According to Arun District Council, which brought the prosecution, the men delivered clams to the company on four occasions in April and May 2010 after being observed harvesting the shellfish on the Sussex beaches.

Officials found no evidence the company knew the shellfish were from an unclassified source.

The trial followed an investigation by the Gangmasters Licensing Authority and a series of raids in Sussex, Hampshire and at Billingsgate Market, with at least one person arrested and a quantity of clams seized.

Officials had feared that any clams harvested from the Sussex beaches could be contaminated with E.coli or other bugs as there are no classified shellfish beds in the region – and consequently no water testing for any contamination.

Residents in Rustington had earlier complained that organised gangs of clam diggers had been targeting the area's beaches for more than a year, 'turning up at low tide in cars, vans and even a mini coach, dressed in fishing clothing and carrying spades and buckets.'

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.'

‘All businesses are required to show traceability of products supplied to them – with shellfish that’s done by registration forms, they need paperwork for every consignment – but here there was a break in the chain,’ he said. The prosecution was part of a ‘much bigger issue’ he said.

Nat Slade, of Arun District Council's environmental health department, confirmed that approximately 2.2 tonnes of clams were illegally harvested in a three month period between February and May 2010, although he said the volume could have been higher.

Lack of traceability

By law, all commercial batches of shellfish destined for human consumption are supposed to be accompanied by movement documentation forms issued by local authorities, detailing, amongst other information, the name of the harvester, the boat used and the area the shellfish have been taken from.

But environmental health officials say the system – with forms filled in by the harvester (although in some circumstances the buyer can now complete the paperwork) – is inadequate and open to abuse.

'We give them [the forms] continually to our legitimate guys, relatively few to small clam fishermen, some to merchants,' a Dorset-based environmental health officer told the Ecologist. 'But based on the volume of fish appearing, our documents issued wouldn't cover it.'

'The fact that they are self completed means they are not very useful from an enforcement point of view,' the officer said.

The environmental health officer said that whilst the majority of shellfish harvested from Poole Harbour were legitimately caught, it was possible for unscrupulous fishermen to bypass the whole system: 'If there's a market, the bigger the business, the more they have [to gain]. I suspect quite a lot of the C grade stuff [from waters with higher levels of contamination] is not going for heat treatment.'

The officer said the onus was on the merchants to check the origin of fish they buy: 'They could check they are buying from properly licensed boats, they can check the sizes and the classification if buying a lot out of season.'

In north Wales, the Environment Agency is looking to introduce a voluntary code of practice for shellfish buyers to help combat the problem.

The agency recently warned that illegal cockling on the Dee Estuary is on the rise and said that it had brought 12 prosecutions – and suspended 15 licences – in recent months. The body estimates that approximately 20 tonnes of illegal cockles were seized.

‘This type of illegal activity threatens the livelihood of licensed cocklers and can be incredibly dangerous to people who may be unfamiliar with the tides,' spokesman Dylan Williams said. 'We strongly advise people not to try and take cockles illegally as they put themselves at risk of harm and of being prosecuted.’

One police wildlife liaison officer working with the Environment Agency said the major concern was that cockles gathered illegally could be mixed in with legitimately caught shellfish: ‘It’s like the E.coli case [with beansprouts], in the event of a health scare, the cockle industry would have no idea where some of them came from.’

Health warnings

In 2011, a deadly E.coli outbreak – first blamed on cucumbers, later linked to German grown bean sprouts – killed at least 22 people and poisoned more than 2000 across Europe.

Shellfish are frequently associated with instances of food poisoning, particularly when eaten raw or inadequately cooked, as they ingest viruses and bacteria that are potentially harmful to humans.

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 and then sold on a commercial basis.

European hygiene regulations insist waters used for commercial shellfish harvesting or cultivation are regularly tested for bacteria or virus levels, with different classification categories stipulating what processes fish harvested must go through before being safely consumed.

Last year, research by the Food Standards Agency found traces of novovirus – or winter vomiting bug – in more than three-quarters of shellfish tested from UK beds, much of which is eliminated by treatment and cooking.

In 2009, the Michelin-starred Fat Duck restaurant, owned by celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, was forced to close after more than 450 people fell ill with norovirus. Raw oysters and clams were later identified by the Health Protection Agency as being the main source of the contamination. (There's no suggestion shellfish from unlicensed sources were to blame).

The Food Standards Agency told the Ecologist that it received 'regular' reports of illegal shellfish harvesting, and warned of the risks the trade posed to consumers:

‘Shellfish bought from illegal sources will not have been subjected the checks which ensure it is fit for human consumption. Shellfish from approved beds are monitored to ensure they meet standards for microbiological contamination, including E.coli and Salmonella, chemical contamination, as well as algal toxins... consumers will therefore have no guarantee that illegally harvested shellfish is free from such contamination and are risking their health if they eat it,’ Linden Jack, head of food hygiene policy at the agency said.

The Health Protection Agency said that at least 163 food poisoning outbreaks recorded between 1992 and 2010 were linked to shellfish. And it pointed to research published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases in 2005 which claimed that more than 77,000 cases of food-borne disease were linked to consumption of shellfish between 1996 and 2000.

Organised crime

In north Wales – and the north of England – the shellfish sector is increasingly associated with organised crime, say enforcement bodies. In the Dee Estuary, all of the individuals involved in illegal shellfish gathering are understood to be ‘known to the police.’

‘If there’s money to be made, one day it could be drugs, then it’s something else,’ a police wildlife liaison officer said.

The picture is the same across the water in Merseyside and the Wirral which has 'chronic problems' with illegal harvesting. ‘We’ve had 80 people out there, with 4x4’s and quads,’ a spokesman for the Mersey Port Health Authority said. ‘We get reports of between 10 and 15 tonnes [of cockles] being carted off the beach in one go.’

In one particularly audacious 'harvest', a gang of more than 50 people in a convey of 4x4 vehicles carted off more than 10 tonnes of cockles from Wirral in August 2010. It is believed the haul was transported to Lincolnshire for processing.

In Teeside, gangs of Chinese migrants have regularly been digging large quantities of cockles from unclassified waters around Hartlepool Marina and nearby areas. Much of the shellfish is believed to have been sold 'through the back door' to local restaurants. The size of the problem has prompted fisheries officials to rush through emergency bylaws to try and thwart the trade.

Last autumn, dozens of illegal cockle pickers targeted Morecambe Bay, scene of the 2004 tragedy which saw 23 Chinese migrants drown, prompting fears of another disaster. In Lytham, in Lancashire, a 'gold rush' followed the reopening of the area's abundant shellfish beds, with many harvesters having to be rescued after getting into difficulties.

The Gangmasters Licensing Authority this month warned it remained 'active' in targeting illegal gangmasters working in the shellfish sector. The move follows two separate prosecutions.

Peter Lackey, of Ulverston, was found guilty of acting as a gangmaster without a licence at Wirral Magistrates Court. Lackey was found to have been controlling a number of Chinese workers harvesting shellfish in the Dee Estuary in December 2010 and February 2011. On one occasion his vehicle, used to transport Chinese workers, became stranded in incoming waters and was later wrecked by seawater.

Margaret McKinlay, GLA Chair said: 'The GLA is active in this industry, and will continue to be so. This is essential because those who break the law place the lives of individuals at risk. The evidence of Mr Lackey’s Land Rover speaks for itself; any worker transported in it was at risk. Mr Lackey knew he needed a licence. He took a risk that he would not be caught. It has cost him more to evade the law than be compliant. This is a lesson to all those gangmasters in the shellfish industry that think they can flout the law.'

In a separate case, Vitalie Cacicovschi, from Portree, pleaded guilty to trading as an unlicensed gangmaster on the Isle of Skye. The prosecution was brought after 16 migrant workers, many of them Romanian, complained about their treatment whilst working as shellfish pickers.

Enforcement bodies are increasingly concerned about the rise of illegal shellfish harvesting in Scotland. Cockle poaching on the Solway has recently been described as being 'out of control', prompting calls from Alex Fergusson, MSP for Galloway and West Dumfries, for urgent government action to tackle the problem:

'There's a huge public health issue here,' he told the Ecologist. 'This is organised at a fairly high level, you have gangs being dropped off [to harvest cockles], and a reluctance on the part of locals to report the problem.'

He said there appeared to be a lack of pro-active action by the government, the marine authorities and the police to tackle the gangs involved. 'There's dozens of people involved, so [the shellfish] are getting into the food chain somehow,' he said.


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