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We just want our share, say fishermen

PUBLISHED: 20:05 27 June 2006 | UPDATED: 11:06 22 October 2010

It began as a row over whether shellfish farmers could scare birds away from their mussel beds. Now fishermen are fighting to save their livelihoods, while the RSPB says it is fighting for one of Europe's most important sites for water birds.

It began as a row over whether shellfish farmers could scare birds away from their mussel beds. Now fishermen are fighting to save their livelihoods, while the RSPB says it is fighting for one of Europe's most important sites for water birds. CHRIS BISHOP reports as a public inquiry opens into the clash between Norfolk's fishing industry and Britain's most powerful conservation groups.

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It all seemed simple enough to the fishermen whose forefathers had fished The Wash from King's Lynn and Boston for centuries. While they did not mind losing some of their shellfish to the birds, the estuary's increasing numbers of more recently-arrived eider ducks were abusing their hospitality.

Calling for a cull would not win them any friends with the powerful conservation lobbies which have declared the area of international importance.

So why not just scare them away from their lays - artificial mussel beds where the shellfish are sown and harvested like a farmer cultivates his fields?

It sounds innocuous enough.

In 63,000 hectares, the fishermen would probably argue, you would think there would be plenty of other places birds could find food.

But English Nature turned them down, claiming other species would be affected.

And the RSPB isn't just opposed to the idea.

It has gone on the counter attack with allegations that “industrial scale” mussel fishing is damaging The Wash and should be curtailed.

An appeal by the fishermen has sparked an almost unprecedented public inquiry, which is expected to last four days.

The Wash supports more than 400,000 birds, from 30 different species at different times of the year.

They range from long-legged waders which daintily pick and fuss along the shoreline, to the great skeins of pink foot geese which squeal like pigs as they fly inland in V-formation to feed.

Dr Mark Avery, conservation director at the RSPB, said: “The Wash is the UK's most important site for water birds in winter and migrating birds in spring and autumn.

“It is protected by international, European and UK law because of its value to wildlife.

“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.”

Industrial or not, shellfish cultivation is a simple process. Mussel seed - juvenile shellfish - are imported by the tonne, taken out into The Wash and planted on designated lays.

When the mussels reach their minimum size limit of 4.5cm, after a year to 18 months, up to 4,000kg of them can be removed a day.

Demand is booming as local pubs and restaurants heavily slant their menus towards local coastal produce.

Mussel farming already takes birds into the equation.

Indigenous wading and diving birds that is.

Both can only reach the mussel lays for a brief window at the bottom of a spring tide, when the waters are at their lowest ebb, so the damage they do is minimal.

But eider duck, which the RSPB admits first overwintered on The Wash in 1965, are larger, stronger and capable of diving to greater depths.

This gives them a larger period in which they can feed on the mussel beds and each adult bird - of which the Wash is now reckoned to be home to 3,000 - can eat a couple of kilos a day.

The RSPB claims birds that eat shellfish, including oystercatchers, knots, shelduck and pintails, have dropped in number by more than 100,000 on The Wash.

It points the finger at fisheries, particularly dredging for cockles, shrimp and mussel fishing, and the failure to allow natural mussel beds time to recover after extensive over-fishing.

Dr Avery said: “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 over exploitation of wild shellfish has already lead to the site being classified as being in unfavourable condition by English Nature, the government's nature conservation advisor. To allow the fishermen to scare birds simply to protect their commercial interests would make that status even worse.”

But Neil Lake, director of John Lake Shellfish, which runs 10 boats, said: “I wish they'd get their facts straight. Wild shellfish stocks have increased because the lays are getting used there's much more spat [spawn] in the water, which is helping repopulate the wild fishery.

“Ninety per cent of mussels we put down are eaten by predators, mostly birds, so it's a lose-lose situation if we stop cultivating.”

Steven Williamson, director of Williamson Shellfish, said: There has been a massive recruitment of cockles and mussel stocks are increasing dramatically, but they'd rather get rid of every industry. Let's just save the birds never mind the fishermen.

“We're not against the birds so why are they so against us? They can have their share, we just want our share.”


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