Cockle fishermen stand up to water giant that's pumped sewage into sea

Waves of anger: Meet the Lancashire cockle fishermen who are standing up to the water giant that’s pumped a tsunami of filth into the sea

  • An untapped bed of cockles worth £10 million was found off Southport’s coast
  • Cockle fishermen Simon Ward and Terry Davies looked forward to harvesting
  • However their hopes were dashed and they believe raw sewage is to blame

At low tide, the mudflats off Southport unfold like a rippled brown carpet stretching to the far horizon. Apart from the circling seabirds, this vast expanse of the North-West coastline looks empty — but just beneath the sand there lies a silver lining.

Exploring an area known as Penfold South, a few hundred yards from the shore, shellfishermen recently discovered a vast, untapped cockle bed.

According to Simon Ward and Terry Davies, who have been harvesting cockles for many years, it contains about 5,000 tons of the highly prized molluscs, which could be worth as much as £10 million on the open market.

On September 1, the cockle-picking season started in these parts, and by mid-October, when the cockles will have grown big enough, they hope to begin gathering them in the time-honoured manner.

A wooden board with goalpost-like handles, called a tamp, is laid down flat and rocked from side to side, liquifying the mud. This is thought to trick the cockles into sensing that the tide is advancing, so they rise to the surface, whereupon they are raked into netted sacks.

The industry is now strictly regulated (a legacy of the tragic drowning of at least 21 Chinese pickers working illegally for a ruthless gangmaster in Morecambe Bay in 2004) and the spoils would be shared with other accredited fishermen possessing a licence that costs £500.

Even so, if the bed can be farmed, Mr Ward, 39, and Mr Davies, 57 — for whom times have been tough in recent years — stand to rake in a very tidy sum.

Terry Davies (pictured), 57, a fisherman and cockler cannot fish as raw sewage, he believes, has been released in the areas where the cockle beds are situated

A few days ago, however, their chances of cashing in on this bounteous Merseyside beach suffered an unexpected hammer blow — a setback they suspect to have been caused by raw sewage pumped into the nearby estuary by United Utilities (UU).

Along with other English water companies, the North-West firm has come under heavy fire in recent weeks following the revelation that it discharges vast amounts of untreated household and industrial sewage into seas and rivers.

And having investigated this unfolding scandal, the villains of which are widely portrayed as greedy monopolies with monstrously overpaid bosses (UU’s yacht-owning chief executive Steve Mogford was reportedly paid almost £3 million in salary and bonuses last year) and opportunistic foreign stakeholders, one can understand their suspicion.

In many ways, the story of two enterprising cockle fishermen — fighting for their livelihoods against a big corporation that routinely pollutes the environment on a shocking scale — encapsulates the criticism levelled at the privatised water industry.

It has overtones of the 2000 movie Erin Brockovich, for which Julia Roberts won an Oscar. The film recreates a lowly legal clerk’s true-life struggle to prove that a huge power company contaminated the drinking water in her obscure Californian town. But that landmark case was settled with a record $333 million payout from the accused firm. It won’t happen here.

Steve Mogford, 61, and daughter Claire, 32, drinking cocktails at Aqua Shard in London. Steve Mogford, 61, is boss of UK’s largest listed water firm United Utilities, which serves three million homes in the North West

The story begins out on the mudflats. Before shellfish beds can be harvested, their healthiness must be assessed by the Food Standards Agency.

They are categorised as A, B, or C, depending on the level of E.coli bacteria (which are found in human and animal faeces and cause illness) detected in samples taken from the crustaceans.

Those which can be eaten fresh from the water are Class A, and must contain less than 230 E. coli per 100 grams of flesh.

However, just seven English shellfish grounds currently meet this standard — itself a damning indictment against the water firms, according to critics, though hardly surprising given the torrent of raw sewage dumped into inshore fishing grounds.

Last year, their storm overflows — an outdated and overworked network of underground tanks and pipes that pump untreated household and industrial waste mingled with rainwater into the waterways after heavy downpours — discharged their foul broth on a staggering 372,500 occasions.

The total amount of time they were activated exceeded 2.7 million hours. But the precise figure is unknown as many of the sensors monitoring them don’t work.

This tsunami of filth, which has been pumped out for decades but has only come to national attention in recent days, shames not only the water companies.

It also embarrasses the Government, which has cut funding for surveillance of these companies’ activities and voted down an amendment to the Environment Bill that would have made it their legal duty to cease dumping.

A serious sewage spill at Morecambe in 2011 shut down mussel grounds (pictured: disused sewage pipes at Morecambe)

But back to the cockles. Those rated as Class B can be sold, but only after purification — a process that reduces their value.

To achieve this grade they must be sampled eight times, usually at weekly intervals, and have E.coli levels no greater than 4,600 per 100 grams in 90 per cent of the samples. Otherwise, they are deemed as Class C and must be further treated before sale.

Until this week, it was broadly expected that the new Southport cockle bed would be Class B, the classification commonly awarded in England (though not on the continent, where the coastal waters are generally cleaner).

This would have given them a wholesale value of about £2 per kilo. Mr Davies and Mr Ward supply dealers selling mainly to British restaurants and shellfish stalls, but some export to Scandinavia, France and Spain, where English cockles are much in demand.

A reading taken at Penfold South on August 15 was highly encouraging, showing 1,700 E.coli per 100 grams — well within the permitted limit.

When the latest result was posted online, however, the shellfishermen were horrified.

Though the cockles were collected on August 24, yards from the previous batch, the bacteria level had mysteriously soared to 35,000 — more than 20 times higher than it had been nine days earlier.

Over the coming weeks, more specimens will be analysed. Should they exceed the upper level again, the bed will be rated as Class C, slashing the cockles’ value to 80p a kilo, and making the laborious job of farming them hardly worth it.

Harvesting could even be banned altogether, in which case £10 million worth of cockles will stay stuck in the polluted mud.

Harvesting could even be banned altogether, in which case £10 million worth of cockles will stay stuck in the polluted mud

So, what caused this dramatic spike? As United Utilities points out — and Mr Davies accepts — it could have been down to cattle droppings being washed onto the sands by the rain that belatedly fell in mid-August, for sizeable herds graze on the salt marshes around Southport.

Yet was it by pure coincidence that the abnormally high faecal bacteria reading came within days of the revelation that coastal waters all around the country had been deluged by sewage from storm overflows? One disturbing picture showed a huge slick of brown sludge discolouring the sea at Seaford, East Sussex.

On several days last month virtually every West Coast beach, from Cornwall to the Solway Firth, was rendered unfit for bathing, according to data aggregated by the campaign group Surfers Against Sewage.

And was it by chance that, just ten days before the rogue sample was taken at Southport, people bathing in Morecambe Bay, 50 miles to the north, scrambled out of the water in disgust, claiming to have encountered a tide of floating stools?

(UU insists it didn’t release any sewage into the bay at that time, and there are suggestions that globules of algae might have been mistaken for faeces, though one local swimmer, Chris Caton, told me indignantly that, as a hospital nurse, she ‘knows a human t***’ when she sees one).

Whatever the truth, an eye-opening interactive map produced by The Rivers Trust reveals that the company regularly sends raw sewage into the River Ribble and its tributaries, which flow into the Irish Sea at Southport.

Inspecting the records of UU facilities situated close to the cockle bed, the possibility that these caused the contamination becomes more compelling.

Last year, one wastewater treatment works pumped sludge into Crossens Pool — which empties into the Ribble Estuary — 43 times for a total of 207 hours.

On Balmoral Drive, a couple of miles away, the sewage storm overflow kicked into action 58 times for 693 hours, and another, on Rufford Road, spewed into the Three Pools Waterway 36 times for 183 hours.

This will doubtless appal the many nature enthusiasts who visit the mudflats, an important breeding ground for wildfowl.

If UU was responsible for the 20-fold E.coli increase, Mr Davies claims it won’t be the first time it has despoiled shellfish beds.

Some five years ago, he says, a mussel ground at Lytham St Annes was closed by contamination, just days after the firm admitted to discharging sewage in that area.

UU says it ‘doesn’t have any details’ about this alleged incident. But it does own up to a serious sewage spill at Morecambe in 2011, which shut down mussel grounds. It describes this as a ‘rare operational incident’ and says problems at the site have been solved by ‘significant investment’.

When I ask Mr Davies whether the shellfishermen sought compensation for loss of earnings after these incidents he gives a hollow laugh. He is clearly not about to emulate Erin Brockovich.

‘We have tried in the past, but it’s hopeless,’ he tells me. ‘The firm is too rich and powerful for us. How could I afford to take a huge company like UU to court?

‘It is a law unto itself. The local councils and the Food Standards Agency won’t stand up to it, either. They are frightened of it. It’s easier to just put a few fishermen out of work. We can only pray there’s not much rain before the remaining samples are taken at Penfold South (so that no more sewage — or cattle run-off — floods the sands).’

Mr Davies plays down the chances of him having an ‘Erin Brockovich'(pictured)  moment

In response, a UU spokesperson said the company had recently completed a £164 million upgrade at its Blackburn treatment works to improve the condition of the River Ribble. Further investment by 2030 is planned.

Currents and tides around the estuary are complex, however, and water quality could be affected in various ways.

While storm overflows were ‘a contributing factor’, livestock grazing on the salt marshes, private septic tanks and urban run-off had ‘a combined greater impact’.

Perhaps so. Some independent experts would doubtless take a different view.

Yet even if the mudflats off Southport — or indeed any other English waterway — are polluted by sewage again this autumn, little or nothing is likely to be done.

Last year, Southern Water was fined a record £90 million after a dogged environment officer discovered that the company had illegally discharged raw sewage into the waterways more than 6,900 times between 2010 and 2015. This was to get rid of waste as cheaply as possible.

Yet, last week, an investigation by Channel 4’s Dispatches programme revealed that 870 sewage overflow pipes are still operating without permits.

Of these, 420 belong to Severn Trent, 184 to Welsh Water (now a not-for-profit company) and 61 to Northumbrian Water.

These companies said they were ‘working with the Environment Agency’ to get licences.

Abhorrent though it may be, releasing untreated effluent into rivers and seas to avoid a backup of sewage when rainfall overloads the system is perfectly lawful.

Morecambe happens to be my hometown and, revisiting the resort this week, I found storm overflow pipes hidden away at several nearby beauty spots.

Oblivious to the potential hazards, children hunted for crabs in a rockpool at the mouth of one outfall pipe — which, according to residents, empties a few yards offshore at times of heavy rain, though it was clearly marked as dangerous.

It grieved me to learn that in 2021 this bay — the second biggest in England, and to my mind the most beautiful — was exposed to the longest continuous discharge of untreated sewage. It went on for 5,000 hours.

However, it was equally shocking to discover that untreated sewage gushed into a brook near my home in Surrey for 1,778 hours — the equivalent of 74 days — last year. No longer will my grandchildren be taken to play there.

We must hope matters improve. Yet according to Helen Nightingale, who spent many of her 31 years with the Environment Agency (EA) investigating pollution incidents in Lancashire and North Yorkshire rivers, the prognosis is grim.

Morecombe Bay was exposed to the longest continuous discharge of untreated sewage, 5,000 hours, in 2021 (stock image)

Moved to speak out by her love of the countryside and respect for her hard-pressed former colleagues, the recently retired officer told me how understaffing at the EA, and a system that allows water companies to police themselves, undermines efforts to keep waterways clean.

Where once she headed a team of nine officers — a number that allowed them to inspect sites of reported pollution — now there are only four.

Vacancies are being advertised, but as fully trained officers are paid £24,000 a year for a tough job that can involve nasty confrontations, they are proving hard to fill.

Swamped with calls, she says, EA officers are instructed to report only serious incidents, categorised as 1 and 2, where fish and wildlife have been killed, for example, or people’s health is threatened. Lesser events are ignored.

Worse, the shortage of EA officers means that when the public report concerns about the condition of a waterway, a member of the water firm’s staff usually looks into it, and Mrs Nightingale says they sometimes prioritise the company’s reputation and profit margin over environmental protection.

‘It has happened where a water company says an incident is a category 3 when it’s really a 2,’ she says. ‘And yes, they would know the difference. But then, if you were working for a private firm and you were asked to investigate yourself, would you always tell the truth? Particularly when the boss is putting pressure on you to maintain a five-star rating.

‘It’s a bit like the police asking you whether you have been speeding. You’re hardly likely to admit it.’ By the same token, she adds, the public don’t always act responsibly. During her long career, she saw sewage pipes clogged by all manner of objects, from sanitary towels to a toy truck. An abattoir

even flushed away a whole sheep’s head causing a blockage.

But these transgressions were relatively minor compared with the billions of gallons of germ-laden sewage that gush from the pipes of water companies.

What can be done to stop the practice? The debate is complex. Suffice to say that the industry is at odds with just about every environmental group, and a good many academics.

Water companies claim it could cost £660 billion to replace the antiquated, 21,000-mile sewage network, increasing water bills and causing disruption to towns and cities.

Organisations such as The Rivers Trust and Surfers Against Sewage insist that sewage overflows could be drastically reduced for a fraction of that.

United Utilities, for its part, points to the £1.25 billion it has invested on the North-West coastline over the past 30 years, and the £230 million it will spend to reduce the impact of storm overflows by 2025.

The company boasts that the region’s bathing and shellfish waters are ‘cleaner than they have ever been.’

However, the alarming E.coli reading from Southport’s cockle bed paints a rather different picture.

And until the stinking-rich water barons rein themselves in — slashing bonuses and dividends and spending far bigger sums to abate the tidal wave of filth — they will never be the fishermen’s friend.

  • Additional reporting: Tim Stewart 

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