Wash Cockle Fishery 2022 – update 23rd June 2022
A Working Group of Wash fishermen and Eastern IFCA members and officers met again on 22nd June 2022 to discuss prospects for a cockle fishery in The Wash this summer. Officers reported on updated conservation advice they have received, relating to the amount of shellfish stocks needed to support protected birds in The Wash, and presented the findings from additional stock surveys conducted between 15th-17th June 2022. The revised advice and additional stocks identified meant that previous concerns about bird food requirements had been resolved. However, concerns remain over the sustainability of the fishery, because of low levels of adult stocks in low densities and risks to future fisheries if small cockles are targeted in 2022.
It was agreed that Eastern IFCA officers would assess the option of opening a limited cockle fishery with measures in place to protect juvenile cockles. The group proposed areas of The Wash to remain closed to fishing, to reserve stocks for next year. They discussed the importance of minimising landings of small cockles, and the shared responsibility between Eastern IFCA, fishermen and processors in protecting small cockles to preserve prospects for future fisheries.
Before a final decision is made over a 2022 cockle fishery, Eastern IFCA will risk assess the proposal, consult with the wider fishing industry, and the proposal will be assessed against the full suite of conservation targets for The Wash, via a Habitats Regulations assessment. This work is underway.
It was recognised that this working group provides an important face-to-face forum for fishing stakeholders, Eastern IFCA members and officers to discuss fishery management considerations. It was therefore agreed to hold future meetings of this working group as necessary to discuss Wash cockle and mussel fishery related matters. The group would not replace the wider, written consultations already undertaken by Eastern IFCA, but would, if acceptable to wider industry, complement them by allowing for more detailed discussions.
At the Eastern IFCA Authority meeting on 8th June 2022, officers had recommended the cockle fishery should not be opened in 2022. This was based on Eastern IFCA’s recent surveys finding insufficient stocks to support protected bird species, and concern that a fishery this summer could excessively impact juvenile cockle stocks, damaging prospects for a cockle fishery in 2023 and 2024.
Wash fishermen expressed their concerns that the lack of a cockle fishery and restrictions on other fishing opportunities this year could put many of them out of business. Hearing these concerns, Eastern IFCA members agreed to form a working group to try to find a way forward that would offer some opportunity for fishing whilst meeting the legal conservation requirements. That working group comprised of fishermen, Eastern IFCA members and officers, met on 13th June and again on 22nd June 2022.
Conservation advice: Bird numbers and prey size
The Wash is a highly designated conservation site, primarily because it supports vast populations of wading birds and wildfowl that feed in and around its rich estuarine habitats. Regulators have legal duties to protect these species and habitats. Natural England provides formal conservation advice to regulators who manage activities. Regulators must take this advice into account when making management decisions.
One part of this advice relates to the number of over-wintering birds in The Wash that feed on cockles and mussels. Each year, Natural England advises how many birds need to be supported, based on the peak numbers of birds recorded in The Wash averaged over the previous five years. Eastern IFCA ensures sufficient stocks are “reserved” for this target number of dependent birds by limiting the fishing quota.
The target number of oystercatchers in Natural England’s 2022 advice was higher than usual, because the bird count for 2019-20 (the latest available data) was significantly higher than the previous year. After Eastern IFCA, Natural England and fishermen queried this high bird count figure with the RSPB, it was found that an error had been made in one of the recorded counts for The Wash in 2019-20. Unfortunately, this error had not been identified by the bird survey co-ordinators, so the high figure had been published in the annual Wetland Bird Survey report and provided to Natural England and subsequently to Eastern IFCA in the conservation advice. Once the figure was queried, the error was identified, the report corrected, and Natural England revised their advice accordingly.
Natural England’s conservation advice includes use of a Bird Food Model that enables Eastern IFCA to calculate whether cockle and mussel stocks are sufficient to support dependent birds. As well as the number of birds, the model takes into account the size of shellfish that birds eat. Previously, Eastern IFCA were advised that only cockles over 15mm length should be included in the calculations. However, ornithologists have now advised that cockles over 10mm can be predated by oystercatchers if larger cockles are scarce. This new advice has meant that the youngest (year-0) cohort of cockles identified in Eastern IFCA’s annual spring cockle surveys can now be added to the figure of food available for birds.
Eastern IFCA, Natural England and the bird food modellers have committed to considering the seasonality of bird population dynamics in The Wash and will continue to collaborate to ensure the model is fit-for-purpose.
Additional stock data
Eastern IFCA officers have collaborated with fishermen to inspect additional areas of The Wash outside Eastern IFCA’s survey areas, to ascertain whether there are more stocks potentially available to be fished. This has resulted in a modest increase in the amount of cockles, and a notable increase in mussel stocks with the identification of a newly-formed mussel bed near the mouth of the River Great Ouse. Further collaborative surveys are planned for the coming week.
The two amendments to the conservation advice, and the identification of additional cockle and mussel stocks outside of Eastern IFCA’s survey areas, mean officers are now confident that there are sufficient cockles and mussels in The Wash this year to support dependent bird populations. Concerns remain however that a fishery this summer could seriously jeopardise prospects for a cockle fishery in 2023 and 2024 unless collaborative efforts are made to prevent fishing of juvenile cockles.