FIVE illegal Chinese immigrants have been arrested after they were caught picking oysters without a licence.

Police arrested three women and two men on the beach off Marine Parade, Southend, and they are now facing deportation.

Picking oysters is legal for personal use, but environmental health officers will take action if they are taken for commercial venture.

The arrests have raised concerns about the illegal trade, as oysters can be dangerous if not treated properly.

Oysters must be put under ultraviolet light to purify them and make them safe for human consumption.

Fisherman Michael Bates, who runs the cockle boat Charlotte Joan, in Old Leigh, regularly sees people collecting oysters.

He called environmental health officers at Southend Council about the problem, but he fears it is not being taken seriously.

He said: “It has been going on for years.

“I think the people I saw recently looked Filipino or Malaysian. I saw them off Barge Pier.”

Mr Bates said the major concern over illegal oyster picking is that oysters can easily make people ill if they are not treated.

As oysters pass gallons of water through their system to get the nutrients they need, they retain bacteria, which, left untreated, can be dangerous for humans.

Mr Bates said fish sold on the black market is often delivered to restaurants having been transported by car, without refrigeration.

He said: “There’s no refrigeration in their vehicle and it’s not been purified. Oysters have to be purified under ultraviolet light.”

The arrests have parallels with the 16 Chinese cockle-pickers who died off Morecambe Bay, in Lancashire, in 2004, after they were caught out by the tide.

Mr Bates said there was a danger inexperienced people could easily find themselves cut off from the land.

He added: “They wouldn’t have a clue about the tide. People walk out to the Ray, the deep channel a mile off Westcliff seafront, or the Mulberry Harbour, without taking into consideration where the tide is.

“The tide comes in quite quickly and, at Mulberry Harbour, it comes in round the back of you.”

Three women, aged 39, 38 and 30, and two men, aged 41 and 38, are being questioned by immigration officials.

Southend Council had not commented by the time we went to press.