A PAIR of cocklers were handed £5,000 fines after being caught illegally gathering the molluscs two miles off the coast at Morecambe Bay.

Lee Harmes and Hayden Russell, both of Flintshire in Wales, were picked up by officers at the Flookburgh cockle fishery on September 25, 2019. They received their sentences on Wednesday.

Joseph Moulton, head of enforcement at the North Western Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (NWIFCA), said the ‘high level of fines’ reflected the ‘seriousness of this case’. He said cockle poaching undermined ‘the livelihoods of legitimate fishers’.

Anthony Graham, from NWIFCA, said Harmes, of Birch Ridge, Flint, and Russell, of Maxwell Close, Buckley, had gone out into the bay in a four-by-four vehicle. They were found to be in possession of commercial cockling equipment and, after being questioned, Harmes provided a false name and address.

At Liverpool magistrates’ court, the pair were found guilty in their absence of going equipped to gather cockles without a permit.

Harmes was fined £5,000 for a breach of NWIFCA bye-law 3 and £500 for providing false details. Mr Russell was fined £5,000 for a breach of NWIFCA bye-law 3. Both were ordered to pay costs of £1,050 and a victim surcharge of £181.

Mr Graham said: “Back in the early 2000s, there were thousands of people cockling in Morecambe Bay; we’ve got a lot of protected features within our district.

“It’s essential that the fishing is sustainable. By having a permit scheme we can effectively limit numbers. The way it works at the minute, we give 10 new permits a year. It’s reduced the numbers down to a core group of fishermen who regularly fish for cockles there.

“Illegal cockling is not a problem like it used to be. If it does happen it tends to be like this - a couple of people, going out, trying their chances like that.”

Mr Graham said permits were needed for cockling in ‘commercial quantities’ and that there were 140 individuals, many self-employed, that possessed permits within the NWIFCA district. Permits have to be renewed every year and cost £500.