Leading marine conservationist says Norfolk no-go areas could boost tourism

A leading marine conservationist has staunchly defended proposed 'no-go' conservation areas along the Norfolk coastline claiming they are tiny and likely to boost tourism.

Rob Spray has dismissed as 'absurd' claims that the stretches, known as Reference Areas (RAs), could have a devastating impact on the local economy because human activity would either be banned or strictly controlled within them so that they could return to a natural state.

Diver and photographer Mr Spray, a volunteer with the Marine Conservation Society, says the six RAs recommended for Norfolk are 'ridiculously small' and would definitely not interfere with activities such as seal boat-trips.

He believes that if the RAs were established, they would actually boost the tourism economy by enhancing Norfolk's reputation as an unspoilt place of natural beauty.

Mr Spray voiced his views ahead of an invitees-only meeting tomorrow evening called by Blakeney Parish Council to discuss two of the RAs which affect Blakeney and neighbouring Morston.

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Representatives from coastline user groups and other interested parties have been asked to attend, along with officers from Natural England, one of the key organisations involved in the government Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) Project.

The project aims to enhance and conserve the UK's marine environment through the creation of MCZs and smaller RAs.

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Mr Spray has been involved in two years of detailed talks among many interested bodies which have resulted in final RA recommendations being made, through a regional sea-users' group called Net Gain, to Natural England, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and an independent science advisory panel, who will advise the government.

The other Norfolk recommended RAs are close to the Seahenge site at Holme-next-the-Sea, off the Cromer coast and two sites at Cley.

Speaking to the EDP last month, Blakeney Parish Council chairman Tony Faulkner said a recommended Blakeney Seagrass RA, including a surrounding 10m buffer zone, could potentially see seal-boat trips banned while the many users of the popular Agar Creek could also be barred.

And fellow Blakeney parish councillor, fisherman Willie Weston said he feared visitors would be put off coming to north Norfolk because of the restrictions.

But Mr Spray said their worries were 'completely unfounded.' He added: 'The areas are small. They are not where people arrange commercial trips from and they are not where people go to watch seals.'

Mr Spray, 44, who lives between Framlingham and Bungay in Suffolk, has been diving off the north Norfolk coast for 13 years. He and his partner Dawn Watson co-ordinate the marine wildlife survey project Seasearch East and are mapping the 20-mile chalk reef off the north Norfolk coastline.

He considers the recommended RAs to be disappointingly small - ranging from 0.04sq km within Norfolk Wildlife Trust's Cley Marshes Reserve to one sq km of salt marsh between Morston and Blakeney - but said they were the 'first real step into conservation'.

He added: 'They allow nature to re-establish itself and show how habitats would appear if there was no human influence.'

'One of the key attractions is the coastline and its wildlife and these areas will enhance that. I would hope that people would appreciate that these areas are special and want them saved.

'Humans don't have a great track record in looking after natural resources - witness the collapse of the North Sea fisheries.'

For the past two or three years Mr Spray said the income of New Zealand's Goat Island marine reserve had been measured at $1 million per km and restrictions there were seen as a tourism benefit.

He added; 'Across the world, conservation makes people money.'

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