Cockle-picking gangs face fresh crackdown; Permanent ban planned on illegal activity.
GANGS of migrants are continuing to pose a serious risk to the public's health by illegal cockle picking on Teesside.
Temporary emergency laws were rushed through last July to halt the potentially lethal practice after it emerged unregulated Middlesbrough-based pickers were backdoor-selling to restaurants.
Government regulators today confirmed they plan to impose a permanent ban to crack down on the gangs.
The North Eastern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (NEIFCA) imposed a temporary ban amid fears that the gangs were peddling potentially lethal seafood to restaurants and other food outlets.
NEIFCA chief officer David Mc-Candless said that a tougher new bylaw is proposed as the temporary legislation can only last for up to 18 months.
The temporary ban has curbed illegal cockle picking, but not stopped the gangs completely, he said.
So authority chiefs are now pushing through fresh bylaw legislation to renew measures permanently which could close illegal beds in the Teesside area, or provide a permanent management scheme run by NEIFCA.
Mr McCandless warns that cockles picked by unlicensed gangs could contain e-coli and other bugs. And as the Morecambe Bay tragedy of 2004 highlighted, when at least 21 cockle pickers drowned in an incoming tide off the Lancashire/Cumbrian coast, it's potentially a very dangerous activity for those involved.
Mr McCandless said: "Gangs have again been collecting from the rear of Hartlepool Marina for unauthorised sale to Teesside restaurants. It's not known how many residents may have eaten the cockles.
"But we warn that the quality of water at Hartlepool has not been established and that eating cockles gathered from the Tees estuary could result in serious stomach problems - which can be fatal in children and the elderly.
"The cockle picking in Hartlepool marina consists of four or five individuals from the Middlesbrough area, all of Chinese or Asian origin - usually young men in their 20s and 30s.
"We are now close to imposing a new bylaw to stop this unregulated activity in the Teesside and Humber areas."
Cockling is not illegal for personal use in the UK. But the proposed bylaw would halt all unregulated cockling in from South Tyneside right down to Lincolnshire.
This will include illegal cockling from Hartlepool, Redcar and Cleveland and adjacent areas.
Anyone breaching the bylaw could, on conviction, be fined up to pounds 50,000.
Mr McCandless said the authority's investigations have not unearthed the existence of a gang leader on Teesside.
He added: "On various occasions, these cocklers have been told in no uncertain terms of the penalty involved but have returned to Hartlepool."
The proposed new bylaw is also designed to protect cockle stocks and the environment as gang activities have damaged sensitive habitats.
NEIFCA was established in April last year under the 2009 Act to manage and conserve sea fisheries resources. Government agency the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) protects shellfish gatherers from exploitation.
Intelligence chiefs there have also been alerted to the issue concern-ing "predominantly Chinese persons gathering shellfish" in the Hartlepool area, Mr McCandless said.
Other local authorities have been liaised with on the latest move for new bylaw regulations.
The Gangmasters Licensing Act 2004 makes it a criminal offence for anyone in the UK to use a worker - or supply a worker to gather, process, or pack shellfish - without a GLA licence.
Anyone doing so may be committing a criminal offence which carries a maximum 10-year jail term.
Middlesbrough, Redcar and Cleveland and Stockton councils say they are not aware of any sales of suspect cockles in their area.
RISKS: The Middleton Basin area of Hartlepool's coastline, above and right, where gangs have been collecting cockles, and a Gazette front page story from July last year, left when the health alert was first sounded. Inset below is NEIFCA chief officer David McCandless Pictures by IAN COOPER