There are calls to ban cockle picking on a stretch of Gwynedd coastline due to concers over the potential harm to biodiversity as well as fears about possible labour abuse.

Local birdwatcher and nature guide, Alan Davies, told The National that in recent days he has witnessed an “industrial” cockle picking operation taking place on Traeth Lafan, which is a nature reserve between Bangor and Llanfairfechan on the Menai Strait. The mudflats are home to a large variety of bird species. 

The National Wales: Traeth Lafan is home to the Eurasian oystercatcherTraeth Lafan is home to the Eurasian oystercatcher

“It has come as a real shock to me,” says Alan. “The sheer number of cockle pickers there was absolutely extraordinary. They were quite a far way out on the mudflats too. 

“In the car park on the first day I was there were two huge lorries with cranes on the back to take the cockles away. It was jam packed with mini buses for the workers, as well as trailers and quad bikes. It was an industrial operation. 

“They were taking away tonnes of cockles. It was the same on subsequent days. To me, it’s absolute insanity to be ripping out so much of our natural environment in an area that's allegedly protected for its bird life.

“There were no controls over how many tonnes were being taken away. There were no authorities there monitoring the operation these people were conducting. How can that be right? How could anybody possibly say this is sustainable if they’re not there checking?”

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Traeth Lafan is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) due to it being the habitat for large numbers of Eurasian oystercatchers, as well as other notable bird species. Despite its name, cockles are one of the oystercatcher’s prime food sources, which it probes the mud for. 

The television presenter and naturalist, Iolo Williams, told The National that cockle picking on Traeth Lafan should be banned immediately: “I'm utterly shocked by it.

“You cannot tell me that this type of industrial cockle picking operation doesn't have a negative effect. It's a prime feeding area and for most of the time the birds are being kept away because of human activity on the mudflats. 

The National Wales: TV presenter Iolo Williams supports a ban on cockle picking on Traeth LafanTV presenter Iolo Williams supports a ban on cockle picking on Traeth Lafan

“In the winter in particular, these birds need to be left alone. They need peace and quiet to feed. 

“I've been up to Traeth Lafan several times. There are thousands of birds there. And not just oystercatchers but also curlew, and ducks like wigeon and teal. The disturbance that's caused there is phenomenal.

“Cockle picking should be banned outright. Are we talking about a biodiversity emergency and a climate emergency or not? Here is yet another example of great words, but no action.”

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The National contacted Natural Resources Wales (NRW) but were told the site is managed by the Welsh Government and not NRW. However, NRW is the body responsible for the condition of all SSSIs across Wales, of which Traeth Lafan is one. 

When The National approached the Welsh Government, a spokesperson said: “SSSIs such as the one covering Traeth Lafan are managed carefully and closely monitored.  

“The Welsh Government, Natural Resources Wales (NRW) and Gwynedd County Council have conservation duties at Traeth Lafan, and regular monitoring is carried out by our Marine Enforcement Officers to ensure any commercial gathering is carried out legally. 

“Recent assessments of biodiversity, including the bird population, have found the site to be in a favourable condition.”

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Mr Davies, who worked as a manager for the RSPB in Conwy, maintains that there were no officials present at Traeth Lafan on any of the days he was there, and that the men running the cockle picking operations were loud and intimidating: “The guys in charge were not locals, they had Liverpool accents. They were using absolutely foul language in front of everyone in the car park. 

“So firstly, there are no checks and balances on what’s being removed, and on top of that, there seems to be nobody monitoring how these gangs are operating, who they’re employing or whether the workers are being well treated.”

Last year, coastal authorities across England reported that gangs were travelling to seaside destinations and flouting regulations set up to protect sea-life as well as food safety standards.

In July 2020, more than 810kg of shellfish was seized in Essex from gangs of illegal pickers who were suspected of being forced to work by organised crime groups. While in Redcar near Middlesbrough, dozens of people were stopped from illegally harvesting shellfish on a beach where cockles had been deemed to be unsafe for human consumption. 

The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) was established in 2005 in the aftermath of the 2004 Morecambe Bay cockle picking disaster, in which 23 Chinese people lost their lives.

The Welsh Government told The National that Marine Enforcement Officers work closely with the GLAA. However, attempts to contact the GLAA directly to enquire about labour monitoring operations on Traeth Lafan were unsuccessful.

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