CHINESE cockle pickers were caught harvesting shellfish in Hartlepool – prompting officials to impose an emergency ban over health fears.
A gang of six workers were stopped after they had collected 11 bags of cockles from “unclassified” beds near Hartlepool Marina.
It is believed they had travelled to town from Middlesbrough where the harvest was expected to be sold to restaurants.
But a ban was issued because the waters have not been declared safe and could pose a risk to anyone eating the shellfish.
Fishing conservation chiefs say it posed a “significant” risk from diseases including the potentially deadly e-coli.
The ban was issued on June 28 – but Chinese workers were caught flouting the ban in Middleton basin, behind Hartlepool Marina on the same day.
The North Eastern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority imposed the ban after similar incidents up and down the coast.
David McCandless, chief inshore fisheries and conservation officer, said: “In Hartlepool, six gatherers had harvested 11 bags of cockles in about half an hour, so it was fairly intensive.”
They were found to be in the country legally by the UK Border Agency which also attended, but the cockles were returned to the sea.
Mr McCandless added: “These activities were damaging sensitive intertidal habitat areas and, given that the cockles were being harvested from unclassified beds with uncertain water quality standards, could have caused a serious food safety risks.
“It required urgent action to protect both the marine environment and reduced any health risks to the local populous.”
It is only the second time in England that the emergency powers have been used under the new 2009 Act to manage fisheries activities.
It prevents the collection and removal of all cockles from Crimdon to Satithes, in North Yorkshire, until August 31, but Mr McCandless said it is likely to be extended.
Anyone breaching the conditions of the bylaw could face a fine up to £50,000.
l The Government has altered its plans to drastically reduce the number of coastguard centres that are open 24-hours-a-day.
The original proposals were to cut the centres from 19 to nine, with three remaining open round the clock.
Transport Secretary Philip Hammond announced that 11 centres would remain, including the facility on the Humber that covers Hartlepool and east Durham, and that they would all be 24-hour operational.
The centres that will be closed over the period from 2012 to 2014-15 are at Swansea, Portland, in Dorset, Clyde and Forth, in Scotland, Liverpool, Great Yarmouth, Brixham, in Devon, and Walton on the Naze, in Essex.