Norfolk Wildlife Trust has high hopes that the Cromer Shoal Chalk Beds in Norfolk will be one of the sites included in the Government’s next round of consultation for marine conservation zones (MCZs).
DEFRA will decide - hopefully this month - which sites will ultimately go forward in the next round of consultation. We know that the Environment Agency is currently carrying out surveys at the chalk beds on behalf of DEFRA in order to establish the presence and extent of habitats.
Marine Conservation Zones are vital to protect and restore the marine environment. Such areas 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.
The chalk beds, located just 200 metres from the Norfolk coast, range from 0 – 20 metres in depth. This unique reef comprises boulders, stacks and arches and is most likely to be Europe’s largest chalk reef. Alongside chalk, the seabed is composed of a mixture of rock, sediment, peat and clay.
Marine life is abundant here, including blue mussel beds, over 30 species of sea slug, harbour porpoises, grey and harbour seals, alongside occasional sightings of sunfish and basking sharks.
The chalk habitat hosts large communities of crustaceans, burrowing piddocks, sea squirts, anemones and sponges; the purple sponge found here is a species new to science and was only discovered in 2011 by Dr Claire Goodwin. Shoaling fish are also a common sight and provide food for many seabirds, including common, little and Sandwich tern.
Chief Executive of Norfolk Wildlife Trust, Brendan Joyce said: “We are pleased by the Government’s commitment to a second tranche of Marine Conservation Zones. The 27 areas designated at the end of last year were the first step towards an ecologically coherent network. We are buoyed by progress being made towards the next step in its creation.
“There is huge public support for greater protection of our seas using Marine Protected Areas. 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.”
Some local fishermen are worried that there will be restrictions if the chalk reef becomes an MCZ. It is very unlikely that there would be any restriction on potting if the chalk reef were to become an MCZ. Nationally, Natural England considers crab and lobster pots as a low impact activity, and research by the Eastern Inshore Fishing and Conservation Authority has shown that crab and lobster stocks are being fished sustainably. We believe that there is great potential for conservationists and fishermen to work together; protecting both the reef and those who make their livelihood from crab and lobster potting, from outside threats.
When the consultation does take place, it is important that DEFRA receives as many well-argued responses as possible. To help with this, the North Sea Wildlife Trusts have set up a Friends of MCZ website
In November 2013, Marine Environment Minister George Eustice announced plans to designate two more phases of MCZs over the next three years to complete the Government’s contribution to a network of marine protected areas. He said: “This is just the beginning, we plan two further phases over the next three years and work to identify these will begin shortly.” A consultation on the second phase is expected to be launched in early 2015.