Shellharbour residents have been warned not to take matters into their own hands when it comes to policing the illegal fishing of cockles in Lake Illawarra.
In a long debate on Tuesday night over the growing issue for the area, councillors voted not to lobby the NSW Government to reduce the bag limit for cockles from 50 to 20.
Instead, they called for greater regulation and an evidence-based review of the current bag limit.
Cockle collecting has been an issue at Lake Illawarra in recent years, as residents report seeing people wading out in the water taking more than the 50 allowed under NSW regulations.
Several Facebook groups now exist to monitor this behaviour, and - with cockle grabbing increasing as the weather warms up - talk has turned to whether a lower bag limit or all out ban is needed to limit this behaviour.
On Tuesday, Crs Kellie Marsh and Peter Moran raised a motion to get the council to push for the former, after it unsuccessfully lobbied the government for a complete ban last year.
However, the lower limit was voted down by Labor councillors, who instead said there should be extra enforcement of the current limit by state fisheries staff.
Mayor Marianne Saliba argued enforcement was the best strategy against overfishing as she was worried about Shellharbour residents sparking physical confrontation with cockle fishers.
"Changing the limit from 50 to 20 is not going to make any difference without the staff to monitor it," she said.
"Out in the community people are saying there is no difference having a bag limit if there is nobody monitoring it. We need to have action taken."
She said she was increasingly concerned about the "anger that is building within our community".
"I do not want people to take this into their own hands on this," she said.
"By all means, gather the information and take a record of what's happening, but do not approach people. Don't take action on your own, it is dangerous and somebody may get hurt."
She said she had heard of residents approaching fishers and demanding to count the number of cockles in their bags, or verbally confronting them.
"There's always the possibility it could get physical, and people who fish quite often have fishing knives - I would hate to see anger boil over," she said.
She also said she had heard of picnickers being confronted by residents about cockle fishing because of their ethnicity.
Councillor Peter Moran shared concerns about vigilanteism, saying there were a number of people in the community - and especially on Facebook groups - who were angry about cockle collecting.
"People on Facebook seem to think it's their lake, but it's a natural resource that should be available to everyone," he said.
"It's good that the community feels ownership of the lake, but we have to temper that with the knowledge that it's there for everyone, no matter where you come from."
"I would be fearful of the consequences if people take matters into their own hands."
He said having "real processes" in place from state authorities to monitor the collection of cockles would help to manage the anger growing within the community.
Both Cr Marsh and Cr Moran said they would continue to push for a bag limit of 20, and would write to the NSW Government to ask that this be enforced this summer.
"I know the community do not want to go through a summer season like we just had," Cr Marsh said, saying a review of the bag limit would take too much time and she was also worried about "vigilanteism".
"Even if the minister approves a study it's all going to take time - so what that means in reality is you can kiss this summer season goodbye."
"We don't have time at the moment - we've raised this issues in early 2019... and I do feel we have much more chance of the minister consenting to limiting the amount of cockles to send a message."