Cromer’s chalk reef, thought to be Europe’s largest, is now a protected area

Edible crab on the shoal chalk bed

Edible crab on the shoal chalk bed - Credit: Archant

It is one of our region's most diverse wildlife habitats, home to hundreds of species from the common to the incredibly rare - but only the most intrepid among us will ever get to see it.

Creature on the sea bed

Creature on the sea bed - Credit: Archant

Found just off the north Norfolk coast and around 20m below the waves, the Cromer shoal chalk beds are recognised internationally for their environmental significance.

Now, the area - thought to be Europe's largest chalk reef - has been officially designated as a Marine Conservation Zone, as part of a government announcement creating 23 such sites around the country.

Twenty seven MCZs had already been established in UK waters, but this is the first for our region. The status is intended to protect the chalk reef and its habitats, and give added protection from future developments, such as wind farms and cable laying.

Fishing will continue in the area, but will be subject to another layer of regulation. The site is already covered by other bylaws - including the prevention of trawling, for instance - and the exact impact on the fishing industry is not yet known. However, it is possible the new status could lead to the prevention of crab and lobster potters coming from outside the area.

Fish at Cromer shoal chalk bed

Fish at Cromer shoal chalk bed - Credit: Archant

The new Norfolk zone covers an area 200m off the north Norfolk Coast to a distance of almost 10km. It begins just west of Weybourne and ends at Happisburgh, covering 321 square km.

The area is popular with divers and also supports the small-scale crab and lobster fishery vital to the character and economy of the area.

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James Lingwood, a crab and lobster fisherman from Sheringham, said he was waiting to learn more about the impact: 'If I have to move where I fish, it wouldn't be viable and can't be a fisherman. The impact of fishing over the last 200 years on the chalk beds hasn't affected it – it's still here. If it doesn't have an adverse affect on me, then I support what they are doing for the environment.'

David North, from the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, said: 'We've been wanting this for a while, we were hoping it would come in the first phase, but it is just really good news that it has now come through. If you head to West Runton on low tide, you can see some chalk is exposed, that is the start of the shoal.'

The 'blue belt' protection now means that 8,000 square miles of waters off the UK, in 50 zones, are now covered by the environmental protection.

George Eustice, marine environment minister, said: 'It's vital that we protect our marine environment to ensure our seas remain healthy, our fishing industry remains prosperous and future generations can enjoy our beautiful beaches, coastline and waters.'

The 23 new sites are the second of three planned phases of the MCZ scheme. The first phase covered 3,731 square miles of water over 27 sites, while a third phase of proposed MCZs will be put out to wider public consultation in 2017, and designated in 2018.

The government are also expected to launch new Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) for harbour porpoise, and Special Protection Areas (SPA) to protect feeding and bathing areas used by birds such as puffins. This will add to those already designated, including at Cley and Holkham.