After years of overexploitation, the Dee Estuary is back producing cockles – sustainably this time. We meet the veteran fisherman who has helped return the estuary’s mudflats to production.
On the banks of estuaries and bays up and down the UK, hundreds of people still walk out at low tide to collect cockles, using methods that have remained unchanged for centuries. Keith Marland is one of 53 licence holders for the Dee Estuary, and has been a fisherman and cockle picker for 37 years. He tells us about the battle to keep cockling sustainable.
How did you start cockle picking?
When I was a youngster I’d go down to the banks to get a feed with my dad. All you need is a rake and a riddle [sieve] and a sack to put them into. My dad worked at the local steelworks, but it’s one of those things that starts as a hobby and then you get the bug.
I started part-time as a fisherman, and then in 1977 I went full-time. Fishing is a natural thing, and there’s a lot of satisfaction in catching your wages. Every time you leave the dock you don’t know what you’re coming back with. Some days you get a bonanza and you forget the times you came back with nothing. There were not much fish that year, and cockles was all there was to be had, so I started cockling as part of my living.
What were the banks like then?
On the Welsh side of the Dee Estuary, no one was cockling except a couple of families. We had to establish a market, and we found a small processor in Liverpool who potted shrimps and cockles in jars to sell them to. We were getting paid the princely sum of 90p for a 25kg bag. In the winter it wasn’t great money, but it was part of the job and that was it. In them days, the size of cockles you picked was left to the fishermen, so you didn’t pick the small ones, only good-sized ones, and it was more sustainable that way.
Have the banks on the Dee Estuary always been worked sustainably then?
Sadly not. After about three years we’d got the price up to £1.20, and we had 12 people cockling with us. I was asked to give a sample to one of the shellfish buyers, and word got out as far as Holland that the cockles in the Dee Estuary were enormous. When companies saw that, they wanted a piece of the action. A processing factory was built in Birkenhead, and the cockles were graded by size, so you would get paid more for the large ones, but you’d get paid for the little ones, too. You can imagine what happened: there were around 500 people on the bank because you needed lots of pickers to supply as many cockles as you could. Eventually, the Environment Agency had to step in and close the banks entirely.
How long has it taken the banks to recover?
They kept them closed for 14 years, because the banks couldn’t stand that level of exploitation. For 10 years I was the person who sent samples of water and cockles to Lowestoft for the Environment Agency to decide whether the bank could be opened or not each season. For the past five years it has been open every season – the first time this has happened in a long time. We have a sustainable fishery now and we’re accredited by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).
There are 53 of us who have licenses and we have strict rules to stick to. Even so, I don’t think we’ll ever see the huge cockles I used to pick when I first started. In a takeable amount of 150kg, you might get three kilos of big cockles, but they have to be five or six years old to become enormous, and they’re not allowed to get that old any more.
What does the MSC accreditation mean to the fishery?
It’s the first step, and it opens all kinds of avenues. We want to start grading, processing and marketing what we collect ourselves, so that we can work together to keep it sustainable and to get a fair price. It’s hard work with your back bent for six hours every day, so we want to make sure it’s worth the pickers’ efforts, and that the bank stays open and there’s cockles to pick every season.
Is it every man for himself, or do you work together?
Fishermen can be very independent and don’t want people to know what they’re doing. But when it comes to cockle picking, we’ve all had to come together. We look after each other. When you’re out in the middle of the estuary, with the bed drying out, waiting for the tide to come in, you’ve got to help each other.
Read this article as it originally appeared on Flavour