Sustainable Thames Estuary Cockles

An independent assessment of the Leigh Port Partnership cockle fishery has found it meets the Marine Stewardship Council’s internationally recognised standard for sustainable fishing. The fishery can sell cockles marked with the MSC blue label from the next cockling season, which begins in July 2020. 

The strict science-based criteria of the MSC Fishery Standard include ensuring sustainable fish stocks, minimising environmental impacts and effectively managing their fishery. Independent assessor, Lloyd’s Register, noted good management of the cockle fishery has resulted in consistent productivity as well as low environmental impact. 

Limiting the catch to specific months of the year and for cockles of a minimum size up to a scientifically set total allowable catch makes sure the shellfish have time to reach maturity and reproduce, a key part of fishing sustainably. It also factors in the needs of estuary wildlife such as wading birds that overwinter on the tidal banks where cockles are found. 

Fourteen licensed cockle vessels share the total allowable catch between them, fishing off the coast of Essex during July-Sept and at one site off the coast of Kent during October only. The fishery operates out of three ports in England – Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, and Whitstable and Queenborough, Kent.

Once certified, MSC fisheries undergo annual audits, demonstrating improvements on conditions, and are reassessed every five years. A condition set for this fishery is for cockle stock levels to be peer reviewed. This is in addition to the current practise of stock levels being independently checked by Natural England along with Kent and Essex Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority. 

Leigh Port Partnership spokesperson Andrew Rattley, said:

“Cockling has been an important part of our local community for hundreds of years. This certification proves our fishers continue to be committed to the sustainability of the fishery into the future.

“As a collective of cockle fishermen working across areas of natural importance and outstanding beauty, alongside many important wildlife species, this is an achievement that we are all personally very proud of.

“MSC certification provides consumers with the certainty the seafood they buy is sourced and harvested sustainably from a well-managed fishery – we are proud our North Thames cockles are now a part of this scheme.”

Marine Stewardship Council UK spokesperson Katie Keay, said:

“This is a great success story, and we recognise the fishery has worked hard to reach our world-class fisheries standard. Customers who buy any fish, seafood and seaweed products marked with our blue fish eco-label are rewarding fisheries like Leigh Port Partnership for fishing sustainably and demonstrating improvements.”

Thames Estuary cockle facts:

  • up to the late 1960s cockles were collected by hand-raking them out of the sand at low-tide. 
  • part of the fishery is alongside a site that has belonged to the Ministry of Defence since Napoleonic times. It is still used as a firing range. 
  • local by-laws in Kent and Essex aim to prevent overfishing cockles in the Thames Estuary, including a scientifically assessed total allowable catch. 
  • most cockles caught in the Thames Estuary are exported to the European Union. 
  • in 2017, the fishery caught 3,800 tonnes of cockles. 
  • the mudflats and sandflats in the fishery are a rich food source for thousands of wild birds that overwinter there

The Thames Estuary cockle fishery is the sixth MSC certified cockle fishery in the North Atlantic and is one of four based in the UK.