Cockles – a small, meaty bivalve found in inter-tidal zones along the UK coast – are quite the delicacy! Loved by many in Leigh-on-Sea – where they’re best enjoyed fresh, steamed, and with lashings of vinegar – the cockle’s bizarre appearance and relative obscurity on the seafood scene as a whole has left them woefully underrepresented further inland!
The North Thames Cockle Fishery is one of the oldest and most important fisheries in Europe. As a cooperative of 14 cockle fishermen, the fishery operates its licensed vessels on a seasonal basis, supplying cockles throughout the UK and Europe. Although the fishery lands a variety of local species, cockles have been the prized catch since the early 1900s. Since then, the traditional method of hand-raking cockles from mudflats at low tide has been replaced by efficient hydraulic dredges which allow for low-impact collection on a large but sustainable scale.
The mud- and sandflats of the Thames estuary provide an important source of food and habitat for thousands of wild birds and, through careful management, the cockle fishery prioritises environmental protection, sustainable stock levels, and low-impact fishing methods, to ensure that the area remains a thriving environment for both marine and terrestrial wildlife. In addition, the cooperative established Total Allowable Catch levels, and operates seasonally in order to allow the cockle population ample time to recover and repopulate.
In December 2019 the North Thames Cockle Fishery was certified as sustainable to the Marine Stewardship Council’s Fisheries Standard, acknowledging efforts to fish within sustainable limits, minimise environmental damage, and effectively manage the stocks and environment. Going forward, the fishery will undergo annual MSC audits, with a more extensive review every five years, to ensure that it continually improves upon its commitment to sustainability.
From July 2020 all cockles caught at Leigh-on-Sea can bear the MSC blue fish eco-label, and can be enjoyed with the knowledge that they are sustainably sourced. There’s never been a better time to dive into the delicious world of cockles!