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Southend fishermen worry about reputation over oyster pickers on seafront
11:00am Thursday 2nd August 2012 in News
WORRIED residents fear unlicensed oyster pickers may be putting lives at risk by not cleaning their catch.
There are also concerns about the way they are removing the oysters and leaving sharp shells littering the beach. A number of bathers have cut their feet.
Groups of up to 40 Asians have been spotted regularly working on Chalkwell beach. They have even been risking their lives in stormy conditions to collect the shellfish.
Oysters picked from the Thames Estuary need purifying before being sold as “fresh”, or there is a risk of food poisoning. Yet workers are opening the shells on the beach and keeping the meat in anything from empty cooking oil containers to ice cream cartons.
It is not clear where the delicacies are being taken or whose plates they end up on.
Peter Wexham, Southend Council Lib Dem councillor for Leigh ward, said: “The pickers go out at low tide in all weathers.
“Even in Sunday’s storms and squalls, they were out picking.
“Nobody knows if they’re illegal immigrants or not, but they are working for peanuts. It’s all a black market trade.
“They’ve been using plastic tubs which hold up to five gallons and they leave the broken shells behind.
“I’ve been on to the council to do something. The council, pier and foreshore and environmental health all refer you on to somebody else.”
Leigh fisherman Paul Gilson is also concerned about the health risks and knock-on effect to the Southend fishing and cockling community.
He said: “They are taking thousands of oysters.
“If oysters are being offered for sale, they have to go through the purifying system. I don’t want to see some sort of health scare.
“Looking at the pots the pickers are using to collect the meat, it’s a recipe for disaster. “If it leaves the town and people get unwell, it’ll come back to Southend and will give the area a bad name. Our cocklers go to a great deal of expense to make sure cockles are safe for us to eat.’’ He said the black market oyster trade “could damage our whole fishing industry.”
His fears were echoed by Martin Terry, independent Southend councillor. He said: “I reported seeing some of these pickers a month ago. I’m angry about the inaction and bureaucractic nonsense, where the authorities say it’s not their responsibility. “We had a problem previously with gang masters sending pickers from Lon- don. “We cannot afford this risk to our fishing industry, jobs and local economy.”
Five Asian oyster pickers were harvesting along the shoreline yesterday, including a boy of about six.
A teenage girl, who did not want to be identified, said: “We have come here for the day from central London to have fun and pick oysters.”
A man, said to be from the same family group, was seen wheeling a sack of oysters on a barrow.
When asked what the oysters would be used, for the teenaged girl said: “We boil them for soup and food, but for ourselves only.”
Older members would not answer questions and indicated the younger ones should not divulge any further information.