Mussel levels put jobs at risk

PUBLISHED: 07:53 29 June 2006 | UPDATED: 11:06 22 October 2010

A public inquiry into whether fishermen should be allowed to scare eider duck away from their mussel beds was branded a waste of public money last night.

A public inquiry into whether fishermen should be allowed to scare eider duck away from their mussel beds was branded a waste of public money last night.

North West Norfolk MP Henry Bellingham hit out as it emerged that up to 100 jobs were at risk in the Wash shellfish industry.

The stark warning came as the boss of a fishing firm took the stand to outline the consequences of English Nature's refusal to licence them to protect their shellfish.

Neil Lake, director of King's Lynn-based John Lake Shellfish, told the inquiry in Boston that eider were eating a large proportion of the estuary's commercial mussel stocks.

He warned that if the fishermen could not deter the birds, than mussel farming in The Wash would stop.

Mr Bellingham said the four-day public inquiry, being heard in Boston, was "an appalling waste of public money".

He went on: "The fishermen in King's Lynn have overwhelming public support.

"We are not talking about mussels which are naturally there, they are on lays which are being planted and harvested by the fishermen.

"Just as farmers are allowed to protect their crops, the fishermen should be allowed to protect their shellfish."

"I think English Nature have behaved disgracefully in all this. They are sitting there in their comfortable armchairs, unelected and unaccountable, making decisions which are going to destroy jobs in King's Lynn."

Earlier, Mr Lake told the inquiry numbers of eider duck had increased in recent years.

"In the last couple of seasons, large numbers have arrived in the season and have taken a large proportion of the mussel stocks," he said.

Mr Lake said fishermen had seen entire beds stripped of shellfish by the ducks, which first began over-wintering on the estuary in 1965.

As he addressed the inquiry, it also emerged that fishermen had also applied for licences to shoot the birds.

"The position is very simple," he said. "If lay-holders cannot have eiders scared by regular wildfowling and/or electronic scaring 24/7 during the eider season backed up with a licence from DEFRA to shoot eider on the lay, I will not re-lay more mussel.

"The risk of further major losses is one which simply can't be taken. The consequences of refusals of these license will be serious.

"There will be up to 100 jobs lost in the industry in The Wash, that work the mussel beds and process and distribute the mussels."

Fourteen fishermen from Norfolk and Lincolnshire have appealed the decision by English Nature to refuse them permission to use electronic bird scaring devices.

English Nature and the RSPB argue that the Wash is a key site for waterbirds, and claim scarers would also affect other species.

The Government inspector, Graham Cundale, will take part in a site visit today to see the commercial mussel lays in The Wash for himself.

Fishermen plant tiny seed mussels in The Wash on allotted plots close to the low tide mark and harvest them when they reach maturity.

Up to 90pc of the mussels laid down each year are eaten by predators, mainly birds.

Unlike other species, eider can dive far enough beneath the surface to feed to reach the lays when they are sub-merged, whereas wading birds can only reach the shellfish for brief periods when the tides are at their lowest.

Fishermen argue this means they inflict far greater losses than other species.

The hearing is expected to conclude tomorrow.

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