IT is not every day one gets an invite to jump in a land rover and be driven out to the horizon line from Llanelli Beach.

Today, Wednesday (Jul 11) was an exception. The Chairman of the Burry Inlet cockle Hand Gatherers Hayden Hughes had arranged to meet us outside the Discovery Centre at North Dock to give us a tour of the cockle beds.

Mr Hughes was not the jovial tour guide most would benefit from and this was no jolly outing. The cockle beds at Laugharne were due to be opened up for gathering but Mr Hughes said, he had received a call from the Laugharne cockle gatherers to say that the cockles in those beds had died.

Over the years Laugharne has seen a cockle gathering frenzy when the beds have been opened up with migrant workers roaming the sands and loading boats from as far off as Boston in Lincolnshire with the jewels of the estuary to be sold in far flung shops in Spain. There is says Mr Hughes a very lucrative living to be made for some.

Here in Llanelli the story was much the same as we surveyed the expanse of sands as far as the trusty land rover would take us. Masses of dead cockles littered the beds. A green algae covered the area. There was a definite whiff of ‘sewage’ in the air. Mr Hughes claims to have seen a large amount of the same stuff flowing down a tributary near Marsh Road in Loughor over the last few days.

Sands of death: Nothing alive to harvest

In years gone by this would have been teaming with life” said Mr Hughes pointing to the vast open sands. He continued: “The whole floor would be alive with cockles spitting, bubbles of oxygen rising up. Look at it now. It is dead, the whole area is decimated.”

The tale was the same wherever we drove. Dead cockles, seabirds scavenging on what was left. Three vehicles veered off towards Penclawdd. “They are just scraping a few cockles together when they should be harvesting tonnes” said Mr Hughes. “There are nearly 40 license holders but there are hardly any out today. It is just not worth it for a handful of cockles” he continued.

We were soon joined by another two vehicles containing hardened cockle gatherers. Men who have been farming the beds man and boy. Joe, a local man said: “No one cares what happens here. If we were farmers they would be throwing money at us. We are seeing the end of this industry and everyone has stood by and watched it happen.”

The beds have been decimated: Hayden Hughes

The cockle gatherers blame pollution levels although as they say, there has been no conclusive research or report to confirm that despite they say, our universities having the expertise to research it properly.

Mr Hughes claims that the author of the most recent report in 2012 Mike Elliott, refused to answer any questions from the gatherers and mussel growers when they met after the publication of the report. Mr Hughes alleges that Mr Elliot got up and left claiming that he had not seen his wife for two days.

Since 2012 the European Courts of Justice found in favour of the cockle gatherers and issued a directive to the UK government to clean up the Burry Inlet by 2020 or face millions of pounds worth of fines, which the gatherers claim will be handed down to the Welsh Government and subsequently householders.

Miniature cockles: Their quantity and size has reduced over the years

Dwr Cymru are working on a Rainscape project to try to separate surface water from sewerage in an attempt to reduce the volume of liquid being released out into the estuary. They claim that the water in the area is cleaner than ever. Many in the cockle gathering industry believe it is a losing battle and that as fast as Dwr Cymru try to remedy the problem, the local authority grants planning permission for thousands of more homes putting more strain on the sewer system.

Mr Hughes points along the coast from Burry Port to Loughor. “Look at all that lot” he said. The system just cannot cope with that and all Dwr Cymru can do is say to the council and the European Courts is ‘we told you so’, you shouldn’t have built when the system was not able to cope.”

Mr Hughes claims that tankers have been arriving at Laugharne and offloading sewerage to a plant, where there is no processing facility. In effect it is alleged that it is being pumped out into the Taf Estuary where the latest mortalities have been discovered. Asked where he believed the tankers were coming from he said that he thought they were coming from another new housing development at ‘The Genwen’ where promises were made to put in holding tanks. Mr Hughes said: “People have already moved in to Stradey and other new homes, where the infrastucture does not support the disposal and treatment of raw seweage.”

The cockle gatherers are organised. They have a network of spotters. People who care about the estuary and people who know what to look for and when. They recently claimed that contaminated material was being dumped in the Millennium Coastal Park, which in turn was being washed into the estuary.

As we drove towards the area in question Mr Hughes pointed out the man made mounds. “Look at that lot” he said. “This is owned by the Crown. If we move one cockle we have to show documents. How can they move all that contaminated material and not have to show any documents?”

A dying breed: the cockle gatherers are diminishing in numbers

When asked if they were receiving any help from politicians Mr Hughes and the other gatherers said that they had spoken to Rebecca Evans AM recently and that she had referred them to the report of 2012. They claimed that they had spoken with Nia Griffith MP and Lee Waters AM but were no further forward to finding an answer to their question. It is a big question. What is killing the cockles?

We contacted Lee Waters AM. He issued the following statement:

“I fully support the cocklers and I share their frustration that we can’t pin point a clear cause of the premature death of the cockles. Rebecca Evans, Nia Griffiths and I met the Cabinet Secretary, Lesley Griffiths, to discuss this and the three of us have met with the cocklers on many occasions. I have spoken in favour of compensation in the Senedd and I have recently written to NRW about the concerns around Burry Port Inlet. Rebecca Evans and I are trying to arrange a meeting for a delegation of cocklers with Lesley Griffiths”

We contacted Dwr Cymru for a statement.

Have any tankers containing treated or untreated sewage been entering Laugharne to offload at the centre there?  

A spokesperson for Welsh Water said:

“We have not had any tankers containing treated or untreated sewage entering Laugharne to offload at the centre there.

“We routinely take sludge away in sealed tankers from Laugharne works to be treated at a different plant. Tankers are required to visit the site more frequently on weekends and during the summer months in order to facilitate the increase in visitor numbers to the area.

Have you had any reports of raw sewage entering the tributaries at Marsh Road?

A spokesperson for Welsh Water said:

“We have not had any reports of raw sewage entering the tributaries at Marsh Road.

“Our wastewater network and treatment works are monitored closely to ensure they comply with strict environmental regulations. All of our assets are operating as we would expect them to.”

Have you had any vehicles and personnel in the Marsh Road area recently and if so what was the purpose?

A spokesperson for Welsh Water said:

“We are not undertaking any work in the Marsh Road area. Customers should not be seeing an increase in Welsh Water vehicles or staff in this area other than routine, ‘business as usual’ activity.”

Have you issued any advice to either Carmarthenshire County Council or property developers regarding what they need to do to reduce the impact on the local sewer system?

A spokesperson for Welsh Water said:

“We are working closely with both Carmarthenshire and Swansea Council to ensure that any increase in the volume of sewage entering the sewerage network, resulting from new developments, will be compensated for by the removal of twice the volume of rainfall run-off elsewhere in the system.”

Are you on schedule to meet the requirements of the EU Courts of Justice directives?

 A spokesperson for Welsh Water said:

 Safeguarding our coastal waters and rivers from pollution is one of our top priorities and most important responsibilities.

“We have met the legal permits for water quality in the Loughor estuary and aware of ever increasing environmental standards and the need to manage long-term challenges, such as climate change, in a truly sustainable away.

“As already recognised by the European Commission in 2015 and again in the ECJ’s judgement in May 2017, we are investing £115 million in our innovative RainScape solution to protect the local environment and communities in the Llanelli and Gowerton areas from flooding.

“We are achieving this by creating extra capacity in our sewer network and accommodate more extreme weather conditions and limit their impact on customers and the wider environment. Managing the rainwater by keeping it out of the sewers protects homes and businesses and protects the environment.”

Do you make any correlation between the mass mortalities and sewage being let out into the Burry Estuary and the Taf Estuary?

A spokesperson for Welsh Water said:

“An independent report, commissioned by Welsh Government that looked at the cockle mortalities in the Burry Inlet, was published in 2012 and concluded that there is no evidence at all  of a link between cockle deaths and water quality in the Burry Inlet*. This report looked at a wide variety of factors including any impact Welsh Water’s wastewater discharges may have on the area.

“Research has continued and in a 2015 publication on the UK Government’s Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (https://marinescience.blog.gov.uk/2015/08/14/unusual-cockle-mortalities-burry-inlet/) identified parasites that have been introduced to the estuary since 1999 as the probable cause of the mortality issues.  Similar mortality problems have been reported in number of other cockle fisheries across Europe and the lack of biosecurity measures for the estuary means that the infection was probably introduced from a fishery elsewhere.  The weight of this evidence continues to show that the cockle mortality issues have not been caused by sewage discharges.

“However, we want to play our part in helping to restore a sustainable cockle fishery in the Loughor Estuary and will continue to support NRW’s who are responsible for the management of the Burry Inlet shellfish waters.”

* The report states, “There is no evidence to show that pollution in the water or sediment is a cause of mortalities but the nutrient and organic conditions in the Burry Inlet are producing good growth of young cockles.”

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