Morecambe Bay cockling disaster 15 years on: Lost lives remain "great regret" for lifeboat volunteers

Today marks 15 years since 23 people died in the Morecambe Bay cockling disaster.

By Matthew Calderbank
Tuesday, 5th February 2019, 12:13 pm
Updated Thursday, 7th February 2019, 5:49 pm
The Chinese cocklers who died in Morecambe Bay. Photo by Lancashire Police.
The Chinese cocklers who died in Morecambe Bay. Photo by Lancashire Police.

On the anniversary of the tragedy, Morecambe RNLI volunteers have revealed that the deaths of those they could not save remains a "source of deep regret".

Morecambe's lifeboat crew said that the anniversary of the disaster should serve as a solemn reminder of the continuing dangers posed by the Bay's treacherous tide and mudflats.

In an online tribute to those who died, the Morecambe Lifeboat crew said the search for the 23 Chinese cockle pickers on the evening of February 5, 2004, was one of the "most distressing and demanding" rescue missions in their history.

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The Chinese cocklers who died in Morecambe Bay. Photo by Lancashire Police.

The immigrant labourers drowned after being cut off by an incoming tide around 9.30pm after picking cockles off the Lancashire coast.

"The search for the 23 Chinese cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay was one of the most distressing and demanding that any of our volunteers have ever had to take part in", said the team.

"And it is still felt today, even though only a handful of the present crew were involved at the time."

Fifteen years ago, volunteer RNLI crews boarded the Morecambe inshore rescue hovercraft and D-class inshore lifeboat and spent nearly 24 hours searching for and recovering casualties.

The treacherous mudflats of Morecambe Bay.

The team added: "RNLI volunteers train hard to deal with every sort of rescue incident but nothing could have prepared them for that night and the awful tragedy they witnessed.

"That they were unable to save those who lost their lives remains a source of great regret.

"As on every anniversary of this terrible incident, our thoughts are with the families and friends of those who were lost that night."

But the volunteers said they also regret that the 2004 cockling disaster has not prevented people from venturing out into the Bay, which is notorious for its quicksand and fast moving tides.

"Disappointingly, in spite of all the publicity the tragedy received at the time, and for numerous other incidents since, many people still seem unaware that Morecambe Bay can be a treacherous place", said the Morecambe RNLI team.

Morecambe RNLI said its volunteers were tasked to go to the aid of people who had got into difficulty at least once a week in 2018.

The team added: "We would ask anyone intending to go out into the Bay to check the weather forecast and, critically, the time and height of the tide (the latter will give an indication of how fast the tide will come in) before setting out.

"We also strongly advise that they carry a mobile phone or some other means of summoning assistance in the event that they get into difficulty."

Lancaster City Council said that stricter regulation introduced after the 2004 tragedy has led to a reduction in the number of illegal cockle pickers in the Bay.

Coun Andrew Warriner, cabinet member with responsibility for environmental health, said: “This is the 15 year anniversary of the tragic deaths in the Bay of the Chinese cocklers, and we are reminded that the risk to life remains just as real for those unfamiliar with the sands of Morecambe Bay.

“At the time of the tragedy, the council called for the introduction of a national licensing scheme to help regulate the harvesting of shellfish from the Bay, and we welcomed the introduction of new laws through the Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Authority. Thankfully, we have not seen a repeat of the 2004 tragedy that claimed so many lives.

“Although the introduction of more robust controls and regulation has helped to reduce the number of people venturing out onto the beaches around the country to harvest shellfish, we still hear reports from time to time of gangs attempting the illegal harvesting of shellfish.

"Authorities, including the police, Inshore Fisheries & Conservation Authority, the council and Food Standards Agency will continue to work closely together where necessary to help disrupt such activity.

“Commercial harvesting of shellfish is tightly controlled to help conserve stocks, and it is reassuring that the majority of people continue to abide by the rules and act safely, within the law.”