On the Norfolk coast, the North Sea is a constant companion, sometimes serene and benign, at other moments a fierce threat to homes and livelihoods. At all times though the sea has been inextricably bound with the county’s history: from the importance of King’s Lynn as a Hanseatic trading port, to the heroic Horatio Nelson, and later to the importance of Great Yarmouth’s now-vanished herring industry.
Today, the sea plays an important cultural and leisure role in the county. Norfolk’s seas are a vital draw for tourists and a great leisure resource for residents of the county. Thousands of visitors enjoy taking boat trips to see the grey and common seals that occur in internationally important numbers around the county, while large numbers of birdwatchers spend huge amounts of time scanning through the flocks of sea ducks – eiders and scoters – that winter off the coast, or the pelagic seabirds that pass close to our coastline in suitably windy weather.
Economically the sea is still important too. For instance, new offshore windfarm developments have sprung up off Great Yarmouth and Wells, while commercial fishing still plays an important role in coastal life – the Cromer crab, for instance, is justifiably famous around the world.
Yet, these very same opportunities also threaten the life teeming under the murky North Sea waters. Our seas, and their precious resources, require support and protection from our elected officials, to ensure that our unique marine habitats and wildlife can thrive, from their offshore depths right into the coastal shallows.
NWT envisages and strives for Living Seas in which:
Marine wildlife and habitats are recovering from past declines as our use of the seas’ resources becomes environmentally sustainable.
The natural environment is adapting well to a changing climate, with ocean processes helping to slow down climate change.
People are inspired by marine wildlife and value the sea for the many ways in which it supports our quality of life.
Research from around the world shows now is a critical moment for marine conservation, with extinction rates at an all-time high. Key scientists have published a report recommending the creation of MPAs for restoring and protecting significantly damaged marine ecosystems.
As a result, a century on from the Wildlife Trusts’ groundbreaking Rothschild list of 284 wildlife sites
round the UK deemed ‘worthy of protection’, the first national network of potential marine protected areas (MPAs) was identified and recommended to the Government for protection: a list of 127 Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs), located in English and offshore Welsh waters.
Based on the best possible scientific evidence, and after consultation with more than a million stakeholders, recommendations were initially put forward in 2011, with their designation originally expected in 2012. However, the Government stalled, and following a consultation in 2013, just 27 sites were designated, with lack of evidence and cost concerns given as reasons for not proceeding.
However, a further 23 sites were designated at the start of 2016, bringing us up to 50 MCZs in English and waters.
Finally, in June 2018 the Government announced its ambition to create 41 more conservation zones in the seas around England and a consultation took place asking the public to share views on these new sites. The Wildlife Trusts launched the Wave of Support campaign to encourage people to have their say and received over 22,000 responses calling for better protection of our seas!
The result of this action by The Wildlife Trusts and others has been the designation of a third round of Marine Conservation Zones in 2019 consisting of 39 MCZs in English waters and further 2 sites designated in Northern Ireland.
Taken together this network of MCZs around the UK will go a long way in helping to protect and conserve important marine habitats and wildlife for the future. However, we need to make sure that these sites are managed correctly, to give our ocean wildlife the best possible chance of recovery.
What is a Marine Conservation Zone?
A Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) is an area of sea where highly damaging activities are prevented or managed in order to keep marine ecosystems in a healthy state.
Highly damaging activities, such as bottom trawling and scallop dredging, will be more controlled. Less damaging fishing methods, such as potting and hand diving for scallops, will be unaffected as long as they are not at such a high level that they have an environmental impact.
What do MCZs actually protect?
MCZs will protect areas that are important for conservation, such vulnerable or rare habitats and species. Things like seahorses in seagrass meadows, or fragile mussel beds. All MCZs specifically aim to protect specific habitats and species.
Can I still swim in an MCZ?
If a site becomes a MCZ, it does not mean all activities will be banned in the area. You’d still be able to swim, walk your dog, go angling, all those things. It just means that highly damaging activities are prevented or managed.
Is it just fishing that’s restricted within MCZs?
Our seas are becoming an increasingly busy place, with wind farms, oil and gas extraction, aggregate dredging and so on. By creating MCZs, we are ensuring that all of these growing pressures won’t cause excessive and irreversible damage to our marine environment.
The North Sea waters have drastically changed. Hundreds of years of intense fishing, along with port developments, boat traffic, and offshore construction have greatly changed the way our seas function.
Why do we need MCZs in the North Sea?
In the 1930’s fishermen could catch ginormous blue fin tuna off the Scarborough coast, and huge skates, turbot and cod were all landed by the bucket load in ports all over then east coast. Many of these fisheries are a shadow of their former selves as we have simply fished for too long, at too an intense level. The effects of overfishing, coupled with offshore construction, aggregate dredging and pollution, we have inadvertently changed the ways are sea function.
What are the benefits of creating MCZs?
Creating marine conservation zones will benefit all of society.
For fisheries to be sustainable, key areas of their habitat need to be protected. Places where fish congregate to spawn, places where young fish shelter and grow to old age and larger sizes.
Economies will also benefit through continued or increased tourism. You might not know, but you can go out on a boat from Yorkshire or Northumberland and come face to face with whales, porpoise and dolphins and hundreds of species of seabird. These animals are here because they feed and reproduce in our waters. So it makes sense to protect them.
And not only that, society as whole will benefit from all the services marine ecosystems provide. Services such as water filtration and quality, coastal protection, flood protection, carbon storage, climate regulation and air quality. All these are controlled by the sea, and protecting it will help ensure the oceans keep sustaining our way of life.
Will creating MCZs cost us anything?
All costs, if any, are short-term. Tax payers money fund the consultation process, data collection and data analysis. Also, creating MCZs will likely prevent the most damaging fishing methods occurring within their boundaries, meaning some fishermen won’t be able to fish in these sites.
Then again, the benefits far outweigh the costs. Healthy marine ecosystems and seafloors benefit fisheries by providing nursery grounds and spawning grounds for fish. Also, protecting the sea helps restore marine ecosystems, which means they can keep protecting our coasts, and regulating our water, air and climate.
If anything, we can’t afford not to create MCZs. The future of marine conservation and our marine industry depend on them.
Do they have any opposition?
The consultation process was very thorough. It was done in such a way that everyone had a voice. Fishermen, port developers, scientists and the public, all agreed that these specific rMCZs in these specific locations should be created in order to conserve our marine wildlife.
Let’s be honest, the sea off Norfolk’s coast usually looks rather grey and uninviting. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine there’s very much happening below the surface. However, if you are thinking this – and we can’t blame you – you’d be very wrong.
Located just 200 metres from the Norfolk coast is the start of a hugely impressive chalk reef, ranging from 0-20 metres in depth. This unique reef comprises boulders, stacks and arches and is likely to be Europe’s largest chalk reef – running for 30km from Cley to Trimingham. Alongside chalk, the seabed is composed of a mixture of rock, sediment, peat and clay. At certain places during low tide, such as West Runton, exposed chalk can be clearly seen, hinting at the wider chalk treasure lying a little further offshore.
Norfolk’s chalk reef started to be formed around 100 million years ago, in the Cretaceous period. The Earth then was very different, and the warm waters were home to huge populations of minute, floating algae. This phytoplankton harvested carbon from the atmosphere and shed it as tiny plates (called coccoliths). These built up over millions of years into a thick layer of chalk. Not only did this lead to the creation of the reef, but the huge amount of carbon that was captured and locked away resulted in the (sometimes!) comfortable climate we now have.
Today, through the efforts of researchers such as Seasearch East
, we are just beginning to learn about geography of the reef, and the huge variety of marine life that makes a home around its chalk arches and stacks. Indeed, a mysterious type of purple Hymedesmia
sponge discovered in the summer of 2011 has now been confirmed as a species entirely new to science. Many more interesting discoveries are sure to follow.
To find out more about the reef and its amazing, colourful marine life, click here to download our PDF book
So, what can you do to help Norfolk’s Living Seas? One of the most important things is to simply get out to the coast and explore the county’s fantastic marine environment, learn more about its wildlife and, above all, have fun!
Each year during July and August, the Wildlife Trusts celebrate the UK's amazing sea animals and plants during National Marine Week (even though we call it National Marine Week, it’s actually so good we make it last a fortnight!). This is your chance to explore the seashore, discover dunes and wade among whelks – however you don't have to wait for National Marine Week, as NWT runs a number of coastal events throughout the year.
There are also several other steps you can take which will have a positive impact on our Living Seas:
- Join Norfolk Wildlife Trust. Becoming a member will help support our work, and will add your voice when we campaign for better marine conservation.
- Join the Wildlife Trusts’ SOS (Save our Seas) team, our online campaigners’ network, to find out how you can support and take part in our marine campaigns.
- Report your sightings of marine life such as dolphins and porpoises.
- Share Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s vision. Tell your friends, family and colleagues about Living Seas, and ask them to help us too.
- Use environmentally friendly detergents.
- Where possible, avoid toxic chemicals in your home and garden.
- Reduce, recycle and reuse as much as possible, and dispose of rubbish carefully including taking old engine oil to a recycling centre.
- Buy seasonal and locally caught fish if possible, and avoid deepwater fish such as the orange roughy. Look out for fish that carries the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) blue certified seafood label, which supports sustainable fisheries.
- Don’t buy ornaments or jewellery made from marine creatures.
- Ensure any creatures you buy for marine aquaria are bred in captivity.
- Volunteer for NWT. Occasionally we may run marine projects that need your help.
With your help, Norfolk’s seas and the wealth of marine life that inhabits them will continue to thrive.