The Morecambe Bay Cockling Disaster of 2004

Posted on February 5, 2023

This month marks 19 years since the shocking deaths on Morecambe Bay of more than twenty undocumented workers trafficked from China. On February 5th, 2004, they set out on the treacherous sands for their night of cockle picking, led by gangmasters either ignorant of, or untroubled by, their lack of safety precautions or knowledge of the tides. Around 9.30pm the group of 30 were cut off by fast incoming tides; most would not survive. The disaster was covered for the Guardian by Hsiao-Hung Pai, whose research was the basis of the 2006 film Ghosts. You can read one of the early articles in the Guardian’s investigation here.

When Karen Lloyd wrote The Gathering Tide, her critically acclaimed book on walking the edgelands of Morecambe Bay,  she included a chapter on the disaster. She recalled:

“I too remembered the news breaking. I knew about the cockling gangs fishing the bay – it was hard not to know about them. On any trip to the Morecambe area when the tide was out, you’d see gangs digging on the sands; cockling had become an industrial operation on an unprecedented scale. The indigenous, small scale and sustainable cockling families were forced to stand back and watch their livelihoods being dug out of existence. Even allowing for all this, I had no idea that workers were being sent out onto the sands in darkness. That was madness.

In the aftermath of the disaster, information and recrimination flew backwards and forwards with the frequency of the tides. Local people – amongst them the fishermen and sand-pilots, who act as guides across the treacherous sands – had been warning of an impending disaster for years. … In the previous year a local fisherman, Harold Benson, rescued a group of around 55 Chinese workers from the incoming tide. In the background the regulators apparently struggled to come up with a workable solution. In December 2003, just eight weeks before the disaster, the cockle permit scheme was introduced that included a safety training course. In the event it [proved to be] far too little, and far too late.”