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Background to the project

Why we are undertaking this review

Cockle stocks within the KEIFCA District are currently managed under two different legislative management regimes. The cockle stocks in the majority of the District are managed under a KEIFCA byelaw called the Cockle Fishery Flexible Permit Byelaw (CFFPB). However, the main production beds contained within a specific area of the Thames Estuary are managed by KEIFCA under a Statutory Instrument called the Thames Estuary Cockle Fishery Order 1994 (TECFO).

On 28 September 2024 the Thames Estuary Cockle Fishery Order 1994 (TECFO), which started in 1994, will end. Although this is three years away, the ending of the TECFO provides an opportunity to review how cockle stocks are managed, not only this area but across the whole KEIFCA district.

Reviewing and developing new management and legislation will not be easy as the cockle fisheries are one of the most important but complex fisheries in the KEIFCA District. The cockle fisheries provide income and jobs for a large number of fishermen and, with coastal towns like Leigh-on-Sea and Whitstable, provide tourism, cultural and historic links between the cockle fisheries and wider society. The fisheries also take place with a complex mosaic of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and the cockle stocks provide food for a wide range of bird and fish species, whist also providing other wider environmental benefits such as filtering seawater and CO 2 capture.

Balancing the needs of different stakeholders; be it local community needs, current cockle permit holders, current TECFO licence holders, other fishers working within the cockle industry, cocklers working in the Wash, environmental NGOs, or other commercial fishermen from the Thames and beyond, will be difficult and there are likely to be a wide range of views. The significant financial value of the cockle fisheries and the historic access to the KEIFCA cockle fisheries are likely to significantly influence how different people view the current and future management of the fisheries.

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How the fisheries are currently run

Cockle Production Areas in the Kent & Essex district


This chart shows the cockle production areas within the Kent and Essex IFCA district.

The hashed areas are the extent of the Thames Estuary Cockle Fishery Order.  All other areas are managed by the Cockle Fishery Flexible Permit Byelaw

Cockle fishing in KEIFCA District

The cockle fisheries within the Kent and Essex IFCA District are some of the oldest and most important cockle fisheries in Europe, and cockle harvesting has been a mainstay in the Thames Estuary for centuries providing a key industry for the local coastal fishing community.  Due to the proximity to London, Thames cockles have long been associated with day trips to the seaside, be it from paddle steamers in the 19th Century to modern day family trips to ports like Leigh-on-Sea or Whitstable.  The modern-day cockle fisheries provide income and jobs for a large number of fishermen, local processors and wider support companies, and cockles are sold into national and international markets usually as a canned product.

Historically, the cockle fishery was a year-round hand-raked fishery, focused on South Essex and North Kent beaches.  Local fishermen would sail to the main harvesting grounds, allow their vessels to dry out on the beach and then hand-rake cockles into small net bags which were then transferred to baskets. The fishing vessels would then re-float on the flood tide, travel back to their home ports, and cook the cockles in shore-side sheds before selling them direct to the public.  Over time, the industry became more mechanised and hydraulic suction dredges began to be used by the industry in the 1960s. The development of new harvesting systems saw the introduction of the solids handling pump in the early 1990s which have been further developed into the suction dredges used by the fleet today.

Biology and ecology of the cockle fisheries

The cockle (Cerastoderma edule) is a common shallow-burrowing bivalve that is usually found in the middle to low shore areas of beaches and mudflats.  Cockles are generalist, opportunistic filter feeders; they have very short siphons and generally live within the top 5 cm of the surface of the beach so that they can reach the overlying water for feeding and respiration. 

Spawning normally occurs in the summer, and individuals can produce between 200,000 - 700,000 eggs per animal. Cockle larvae are planktonic, and typically spend around 3-5 weeks floating in the sea before they start to settle. At many locations, settlement of small cockles, known as spat, may initially occur low on the shore, followed a few weeks later by movement to a secondary settlement higher on the shore.  Most cockles live for between 2-4 years, but some individuals have been found to be over 10 years old. Cockles have many predators at different stages in their life history, including brown shrimp, shore crabs, starfish, snails, worms, fish (flounder, plaice) and a variety of birds particularly oystercatchers and knots.

TECFO annual management process

The annual cockle fishery cycle starts in late March (usually over the Easter weekend) with a 5-7 day quadbike survey of the Maplin Sands cockle stocks. Working over a low tide window officers complete a quadrat survey where cockles from each quadrat are counted, aged and weighed to provide data on the condition of the stock. Areas within the TECFO area that can’t be reached by quadbike are surveyed by sea using a day grab deployed by either FPV Tamesis or FPV Nerissa and collect the same data. Overall, 1200 samples are taken over a 4 week period and this helps officers calculate a Total Allowable Catch (TAC) and develop annual management measures including temporal and spatial restrictions such as closed areas, open/close times and trips per week etc.

By the beginning of May, the surveys and the analysis have been completed, and a management meeting is held (usually at Leigh-on-sea) with the TECFO licence holders and their representatives. Officers outline the TAC for the year and run through the proposed management measures, there is then a discussion about the proposals, and where possible, officers will answer questions.  Running in conjunction with this KEIFCA officers complete an annual HRA for the fishery and submit it to Natural England.

Using the results from the survey, the HRA requirements and the feedback from the industry, officers then finalise the management papers and recommendations that are put before the Authority at the May quarterly meeting.  Stakeholders including members of the industry can attend the public quarterly meeting and (following standing orders) can comment on the proposals and suggest different alternatives. KEIFCA members then discuss the management paper and vote on the recommendations. 

Once the management measures have been agreed, the fleet prepares for the upcoming fishery and KEIFCA officers start inspecting the gear that will be used in the fishery (including biosecurity inspections).  The TECFO fishery usually starts in late June and, following the agreed schedule of fishing trips per week, each vessel can land 13.6m3 of cockles per trip.

Cockle vessels are inspected on a very regular weekly/biweekly basis by officers and fishing gear is inspected at the start of the season in-situ to make sure it is working within legal limits. Each vessel operating within the TECFO fishery is required have a Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) which reports the location of the vessel every 5 minutes. Data from this VMS system, when analysed at the end of the fishing season, can be used to calculate the physical impact of the cockle dredges on the seabed. This information is used to provide information regarding the impact and sustainability of the cockle fishery which occurs within a complex mosaic of MPAs. 

The second annual cockle survey takes place in mid-September and repeats the quadbike survey on the Maplin Sands but only samples every other survey point. Information from this survey feeds into the management process and is used to adapt management measures if required.  A report on the cockle fishery is then presented to the Authority at the September quarterly meeting with any additional recommendations if required.  The TEFCO fishery usually ends in October and an annual cockle report is completed prior to the January Authority meeting.

CFFPB fishery annual management process

As with the TECFO fishery, the annual management cycle starts with a spring survey where cockle stock data (numbers, density, age and weight) are collected in exactly the same way as within the TECFO area.  As the cockle stocks outside the TECFO area are more discrete and less consistent, the stocks need to be above levels agreed in the management plan that accompanies the byelaw.

Management papers with recommendations are presented to the Authority at the May quarterly meeting.  Due to the nature of the distribution and amount of stock available, only one area in the last 10 years has met the criteria for the cockles to be fished.  This means the decisions and recommendations to manage this fishery are historically very limited and have been to allow either 1 trip or very occasionally 2 trips within a 1-2 week window in early October.  As with the fishery within the TECFO, a HRA is completed and agreed before the fishery is opened.

If the fishery is opened, a significant enforcement operation swings into action, with biosecurity and gear checks being undertaken in-situ before the fishery starts.  Unlike the TECFO fishery, VMS tracking is not universally available and so a significant sea-based enforcement presence is deployed to ensure that fishing takes place as per the agreed management measures.

How licences are issued under the current TECFO system

The Thames Estuary Cockle Fishery Order was set-up in 1994 and issued licences under the Regulating Order legislation.  Licenses were issued to people that could provide written evidence (in the form of sales notes) of commercially fishing for cockles in the then proposed TECFO area.  Twelve licences were initially issued and as the cockle stocks increased two more licences were issued under a temporary licence in 1997 following an assessment of the activities of all persons who demonstrated an interest. When stocks fell and the temporary licences were not issued, the temporary licence holders took Kent and Essex Sea Fisheries Committee (KESFC) (KEIFCA’s predecessor) to Judicial Review.  KESFC lost the Judicial Review which in effect meant that temporary licences had the same legal standing as standard licences. 

KESFC sought extensive legal advice  concerning the process and legal consequence of issuing new licences, as well as the legitimate expectation of the licence holders.  The practical consequence of that legal advice meant that for the last 23 years KEIFCA has issued 14 licences to fish in the TECFO and the annual TAC has been divided evenly between the licence holders.

How permits are issued under the KEIFCA cockle fishery flexible permit byelaw (CFFPB).

The KEIFCA cockle fishery flexible permit byelaw (CFFPB) was confirmed in 2014 and brought together a number of different byelaws that had been used to manage the cockle fishery outside the TECFO area.  To gain access to the fishery and become a permit holder, applicants need to provide identification and vessel details as well as pay a permit fee by the 31 March. 

If the survey data indicates that the available stock is in excess of the criteria in the management plan, and the authority decides to open the fishery, then the available TAC is equally divided by the number of permit holders. Permits are issued on a yearly basis and if the fishery is not opened the licence fee is returned to the applicant.

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How decisions are made

The members of Kent & Essex IFCA contribute their knowledge and experience to provide sustainable management of the inshore marine area of their IFCA district. They guide the IFCA to deliver its mandate under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 and in line with Defra guidance.

Members of the IFCA  help to ensure that:

• the exploitation of sea fisheries resources is carried out in a sustainable way

• the social and economic benefits of exploiting the sea fisheries resources is balanced with the need to protect the marine environment from, or promote its recovery from, the effects of exploitation

• other steps are taken which, in the IFCA's opinion, are necessary to achieve sustainable development

• the different needs of those engaged in the exploitation of sea fisheries and marine resources are balanced

• the conservation objectives of marine conservation zones are achieved

Section 153 of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 sets out KEIFCA's duty to manage the exploitation of the cockle fisheries in a sustainable way, whilst seeking to balance the social and economic benefits of exploitation with the need to protect the marine environment. Section 153(d) also highlights the duty of the IFCA to seek to balance the different needs of persons engaged in the exploitation of the cockle fishery

Authority meetings follow standing orders and are supported by a Clerk from Kent County Council Democratic Services. 




Ensure that the Authority is able to carry out the business at its meetings efficiently, in line with its plans and policies, legal duties, Constitution and standing orders

Enable members to participate fully in discussions and decisions so that the Authority can benefit from their experience and expertise, and their knowledge of the interests of the Kent & Essex IFCA’s communities and stakeholders.


To attend, or ensure representation, at all meetings of the Kent and Essex Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority, Technical Panels and any special meetings and to advise such meetings on constitutional and procedural issues

KEIFCA member (MMO appointee)

Appointees to IFCAs are legally required to represent all the local fishing and marine environmental interests in the waters of the IFCA district, in a balanced way, taking full account of all the economic, social and environmental needs of that district. Appointees should recognise that they are part of a committee and should not regard themselves as representing solely one particular interest within the IFCA district.

KEIFCA member (Local Authority appointed)

Local Authority appointees to outside bodies (i.e., IFCAs) should:

• Act according to the rules, constitution and framework set by the outside body.

• Make independent personal judgements in line with their duty of care to the outside body.

• Behave ethically and comply with the Code of Conduct for Councillors except and insofar as it conflicts with any other lawful obligations to which that outside body may be subject.

• Take an active and informed role in the management of the outside body’s affairs.

They should not:

• Represent the political party to which the Councillor owes their political loyalty.

• Look at things simply from the Council’s perspective.

KEIFCA Chief Officer & Assistant Chief Officer

Ensure that all matters within the decision-making powers of the full Authority are brought forward to the relevant forum in a timely manner and with all information necessary for a robust and lawful decision.


Members meet regularly and are provided with briefing papers to assist them in their role. Copies of the papers provided to Members in respect of the review of the cockle fishery can be found below

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