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It boasts burrowing piddocks and sea squirts - spectacular undersea world off Cromer may be given special protection as a Marine Conservation Zone

PUBLISHED: 10:04 06 March 2014 | UPDATED: 10:04 06 March 2014

Cromer Shoal Chalk Beds. Picture: ROB SPRAY.

Cromer Shoal Chalk Beds. Picture: ROB SPRAY.

Archant

A spectacular north Norfolk chalk reef, teeming with marine life, may be given special government protection.

Cromer Shoal Chalk Beds, believed to be the largest chalk reef in Europe, has been included among 37 consultation sites for possible designation as Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs).

The news has been welcomed by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust (NWT) which believes MCZs are vital to protect and restore the marine environment. But a leading Cromer fisherman said he feared designation could mean the “thin end of the wedge” with future fishing restrictions.

At the end of last year Defra - the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs - designated the UK’s first 27 MCZs and has now announced the second tranche, including the chalk beds.

If designated, the chalk beds would be the first MCZ off Norfolk or Suffolk.

The area, 200 metres from the coast, includes boulders, stacks and arches.

Among its marine life are blue mussel beds, more than 30 species of sea slug, harbour porpoises, seals, plus occasional sightings of sunfish and basking sharks.

It is also home to crustaceans, burrowing piddocks, sea squirts, anemones and sponges, including a new purple variety discovered in 2011.

NWT chief executive Brendan Joyce said the 27 designated MCZs were the first step towards an “ecologically coherent network.”

There was huge public support for greater protection of Britain’s seas.

He added: “They are one of the best tools to protect marine wildlife effectively and restore our seas to their full potential, following decades of neglect and decline.”

John Lee, chairman of North Norfolk Fisheries Local Action Group (Flag), said fishermen would not object to the designation as long as no “management measures” were introduced.

The area was a prime fishing ground for fishermen from Wells to Sea Palling. There was a trawling ban in place and it had been fished without damage to the reef for more than 200 years.

He added: “We’re worried that it could be the thin end of the wedge. Once it was designated, it could make it easier to introduce measures like banning crab and lobster pots.”

Consultation on the 37 sites will be held next year.

■ Do you have strong views on MCZs? Contact alex.hurrell@archant.co.uk

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