A GROUP of people illegally filling black bags with shellfish have prompted concerns about exploitation of workers and low-quality shellfish entering the food supply.

A large group of up to 17 people harvesting shellfish, including mussels and cockles, were spotted from Eastern Esplanade at around 8am Sunday.

The group were reportedly split into two teams who swept an area over five hours, approximately 200 metres from the beach opposite the Castle pub.

In order to harvest oysters commercially, collectors need an official registration document – a movement order – which allows for the removal of oysters, which are issued by the Port of London Authority. Collection for personal consumption is legal.

Peter Sanders, 73, who witnessed the operation from his home in Eastern Esplanade, said: “They were collecting black sacks full – surely many more than you could possibly need for personal consumption. We have reported similar incidents to the police before, and they have attended, but this time we didn’t get the same response.”

Leigh fisherman Paul Gilson, 64, of Undercliff Gardens, stated that unlicensed groups had previously caused problems in the Thames Estuary.

He said: “The last thing we want as an industry is a greedy, selfish person from outside the community coming to the estuary, collecting the shellfish from our shore in a careless manner, and contaminating the food supply.”

A spokesperson from Southend Council said: “Illegal oyster picking often involves exploitation of undocumented workers, with many being subjected to bonded labour – living in substandard accommodation and being paid very little for a highly dangerous job.

“What’s more, illegal harvesting undermines and undercuts the borough’s legitimate shellfish harvesters and any subsequent food poisoning outbreak could severely damage our international reputation for quality.

“We have a duty to protect public health, protect our shellfish industry and protect the reputation of Southend and Essex as a whole.

“We work closely with the police, Food Standards Agency and Home Office to tackle illegal shellfish harvesting. Indeed, so far this year we have already seized two consignments of illegally harvested oysters and given public health advice to groups who appeared to be collecting for non-commercial activity.

“We strongly urge anyone who sees suspicious harvesting activity to report it immediately on 01702 215005 or, if the incident has stopped, raise it on southend.gov.uk/mysouthend so the Council Environmental Health Section still receives the information.”