ILLEGAL oyster pickers were spotted in Leigh sparking an urgent health warning amid fears Southend Council’s environmental officers are “being overwhelmed”.

Leigh fisherman Paul Gilson has raised concerns that there has been a rise in illegal oyster pickers targeting the area, and warned the public could become ill if the shellfish make their way into the food chain.

Southend’s Coastguard team spotted two suspected oyster pickers on Sunday, however one managed to flee before being confronted and the other did not speak English.

Mr Gilson, who has spent more than 50 years fishing in the area, praised the Council’s environmental team for cracking down on illegal oyster pickers, but fears they are “overwhelmed and many take quite a lot of oysters away”.

He said: “It is not just the fact of them being taken away, but if anyone gets ill from it not being done properly it is not good. That is the fear, that someone gets ill from eating it. I fear it will get worse. It is a case of protecting the public and protection of the industry.

“It could have a such an impact on the industry. It is heavily regulated and working reasonably well, but it needs protecting. Professionals picking them, knowing where they are going, what they are doing, and that they are good to eat. That is what we need and aspire too.”

Back in 2020, Essex Police seized 810kg of illegally gathered shellfish during a week long crack down on gangs of pickers off the coastline of Southend. At the time, concerns were raised they had been forced to work by organised crime groups.

Alan Richards, executive director for environment and place, added: “We commend HM Coastguard Southend and our environmental health officers for their swift response to the incident near the Gypsy Bridge, in Leigh.

“The safety of all individuals, including those involved in illegal activities, is paramount, and we appreciate the coastguard’s careful handling of the situation.

“Illegal oyster harvesting poses significant risks to public health and undermines our local shellfish industry.

“Oysters must be collected with proper registration and documentation, followed by purification to avoid serious health issues.”

On Sunday, the suspected oyster pickers were spotted in the mud near the Gypsy Bridge.