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Mussel farming vital, fishermen claim

PUBLISHED: 10:20 27 June 2006 | UPDATED: 11:06 22 October 2010

CHRIS BISHOP

Norfolk fishermen are warning the ecology of The Wash will be damaged if mussel farming in the estuary is curtailed.

Shellfish growers want the right to protect their mussel beds from Eider ducks, by using bird scarers to drive them away.

Norfolk fishermen are warning the ecology of The Wash will be damaged if mussel farming in the estuary is curtailed.

Shellfish growers want the right to protect their mussel beds from Eider ducks, by using bird scarers to drive them away.

But the RSPB claims shellfishing must return to a sustainable level to protect the long term future of both birds and fishermen.

A four-day public inquiry, sitting in Boston, will today begin considering the issue.

Fishermen say 90 per cent of the seed mussels they lay in The Wash are eaten by predators, mainly birds, before they grow large enough to harvest for the table.

While the artificial fishery now provides the bulk of the mussel crop, they believe spawn carried out to sea from their shellfish beds is helping natural stocks recover, so providing more food for the birds.

Neil Lake, director of King's Lynn-based John Lake Shellfish, said: "Eider duck can feed 24/7, whereas wading birds can only feed at low tide. They're eating on average 2.5kg a day per bird.

"It's a lose-lose situation if we stop cultivating. Because the lays are getting used more, they're producing more spat (mussel spawn), which is helping repopulate the wild fishery."

Steven Williamson, director of Lynn Shellfish, said: "There are more birds on The Wash than there have ever been, there's massive recruitment of cockles and mussel stocks are increasing dramatically.

"But they'd rather just get rid of every industry, let's just save the birds.

"We're not against them, so why are they against us. We don't mind the birds, they can have their share but we just want our share."

The RSPB claims shellfishing has now grown beyond being sustainable.

Mark Avery, its conservation director, said: "Shellfishing is now far more intensive and far more mechanised and thousands of birds are struggling to survive the winter as a result.

"The area will soon become an intensively farmed patch of water if shellfishing is not curbed. Industrial farming on land has devastated wildlife and the same is happening on The Wash."

The RSPB said that despite its numerous designations - it is also classified as a 'Ramsar' wetland under international law and a UK Site of Special Scientific Interest - many parts of the site are in poor condition.

The Ramsar convention was signed in Ramsar in Iran in 1971 to provide a framework for international wetland protection.

The RSPB claims birds that eat shellfish, including oystercatchers, knots, shelducks and pintail ducks, have dropped in number by more than 100,000 on The Wash. The eider has declined across northern Europe. In the UK it is amber listed which means that it is of moderate conservation concern.

Mechanised shellfishing takes the food on which birds such as oystercatcher depend. It also harms the invertebrate prey sought by dunlin, redshank and other species.

Dr Avery added: "The intensity of shellfishing is now greater than ever and far beyond what the area can sustain. Many of the birds for which the site is so valued are already declining and scaring them off would put them at even greater risk."

The public enquiry will hear evidence from both sides. A ruling is expected later this year.


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