It’s known as Britain’s Great Barrier Reef and is the home of Norfolk’s famous Cromer crabs.

The Cromer Shoal Chalk Bed is the world’s longest chalk reef, stretching more than 20 miles along the coast from Weybourne to Happisburgh, and has provided a living for generations of fishermen.

But there are now fears for the future of this centuries-old industry.

This is because three sections of the reef have now become 'no fishing zones' as part of a study to compare the damage being caused to the chalk bed by natural causes and potting – the traditional method of using pots to catch crabs and lobsters.

The ‘natural disturbance study’ is being carried out by the Eastern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (EIFCA) and comes after a report by Natural England found fishermen dropping pots on the seabed was damaging the chalk.

Eastern Daily Press: The Cromer Shoal Chalk BedThe Cromer Shoal Chalk Bed (Image: Rob Spray)

But it has angered fishermen, who say the restrictions represent another threat to their industry and will make it harder to keep the fleet viable.

“All of a sudden we’re the bad guys and our industry is under threat,” John Davies, chairman of the North Norfolk Fishermen’s Society, who has been a fisherman in Cromer for 50 years, said.

"We’re confident we’re not damaging the chalk any more than the natural environment.

"I’m an eighth-generation fisherman and I know it’s changed very little, if at all, over the years.

“I’m not saying we don’t impact on it at all, but it’s a drop in the ocean compared to that caused by the ferocity of the sea.”

Eastern Daily Press: Cromer fisherman John DaviesCromer fisherman John Davies (Image: Archant Norfolk 2014)

The Cromer Shoal Chalk Bed extends six miles out to sea and covers an area of almost 80,000 acres.

Its rugged chalk bed makes it a unique environment and a habitat teeming with crab and lobster.

In 2016 it was designated a Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ).

As part of the study, fishermen are no longer permitted to fish at three 150 x 150-metre sites off the coasts of Sheringham, West Runton and East Runton, which will remain closed off until November 2026.

Each has a 40m buffer to ensure fishing gear does not accidentally move into the zones.Eastern Daily Press: Crab fishing at the Cromer Shoal Chalk Bed Crab fishing at the Cromer Shoal Chalk Bed (Image: PA)

“The underlying fact is we’re getting more and more rules and regulations which are going to make it more difficult for the next generation of fishermen to come into the industry,” Mr Davies, who represents fishermen on several EIFCA committees, said.

“As fishermen we’re conservationists. We’re proud of our fishery and we’ve looked after it for generations. We know how special an environment it is.

“Fishing is an important local industry and part of Cromer’s DNA.”

Eastern Daily Press: Crab fishing at the Cromer Shoal Chalk Bed

But conservationists, like Rob Spray, chairman of the Marine Conservation for Norfolk Action Group (MCNAG), want EIFCA to do more to protect the reef – accusing the authority of “a decade of inaction”.  

“If you drop a pot on chalk it will break on impact,” he said.

“A line of pots pulled across the chalk and into its ridges work like the teeth of a saw against the grain of wood, and the ropes which are pulled through act like cheese wire.

“Chalk is soft enough that you can break it with your hands or drill through it with your finger, and it’s the same as a sandcastle that’s firm but can’t take impact.

Eastern Daily Press: Rob Spray, who has been diving on the Cromer Shoal Chalk beds for more than 20-yearsRob Spray, who has been diving on the Cromer Shoal Chalk beds for more than 20-years (Image: Rob Spray)

“Also, when fishing gear is lost it bundles up and becomes tangled, causing damage forever until it’s removed.

“EIFKA need to bridge the gap between fisherman and conservationists because we as conservationists can’t get a seat at the table.

“It’s an industry and government cartel trying to stifle those trying to protect it.”