Sunday, 17 January 2016

Norfolk’s first marine conservation zone: a glimmer of hope in troubled waters

David North, Head of People and Wildlife

Today Defra announced the designation of 23 new Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs). The welcome and long-awaited inclusion of Norfolk’s chalk reef, the Cromer Shoal Chalk Beds as it’s more properly known, means that Norfolk now has its first MCZ. But what does this actually mean? And will it really bring benefits for wildlife or local people?

On hearing the news that our chalk reef, perhaps the longest such area in Europe, was to gain recognition in this way I am feeling buoyed up with hope. It’s a great feeling! For anyone working in conservation, hope is more than important, it’s an absolute essential.  Hope that we can make a difference. Hope that beautiful places can be saved. Hope that threatened species can become just a bit less threatened and hope that enough people will care to make our politicians and decision makers understand that wildlife matters and protecting wild places is an essential, not a luxury. 

Hope is what keeps me fired up to work for wildlife and fortunately working for NWT, though we all know how horrendously daunting the global issues and threats facing wildlife are, there are always things happening, places protected and species helped that bring glimmers of hope. For me, and I’m sure for many others who have supported our Living Seas campaigns, signed fish scale petitions, and attended our marine events, our first Norfolk MCZ is also a symbol of hope. Hope that the tide is changing for marine conservation and that the future may bring wiser and more sustainable use and better protection for marine wildlife. What also brings hope is that so many people care, and care deeply, about an environment which they may never see, about wildlife which for most of us can only be experienced through images and film taken by divers.

Yet so many of us do care. So many joined together as Friends of Marine Conservation Zones, to campaign for these MCZ designations. Let’s all feel a little bit more hopeful today and celebrate the recognition of yet another wonderful Norfolk wildlife habitat or national and international importance. Hope is a good thing it gives us the energy to do even more for wildlife.

Tompot Blenny, photo by Rob Spray
But what will this new designation really achieve? What will it mean for the colourful sea slugs (nubdibranchs), the extraordinary anemones that wave their tentacles in the current, the smiling tompot blenny in its chalk lair, and the shoals of bib that dart in and out of white chalk arches and seaweed encrusted crannies. Though of course blissfully unaware of our human designations, of Defra, or even of NWT, will this MCZ in anyway affect their lives? 

The designation will at minimum mean that the chalk reef area is better protected against any future damaging developments. And that the area’s wildlife is better monitored ensuring that existing activities are sustainable and cause no harm to the reef’s stunning and diverse wildlife. Eastern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority, which monitors activities in other areas of the Wash and Norfolk coast, will be responsible for ensuring that the MCZ is managed sustainably The designation will certainly encourage further studies of the reef’s wildlife which can only help as currently we know so little about the species that live there. Divers have already discovered a species of purple sponge new to science and unknown anywhere else in the world and doubtless there are many more exciting discoveries still to be made.

However what we already know demonstrates just how special Norfolk’s marine reef is for wildlife, supporting  an incredible diversity of species, including endangered European eels and species such as bass which are in decline in the North Sea. Just imagine. If the chalk reef and its wildlife were on land, easy to explore and view then without doubt not only would the area have been protected long ago but it would be a major attraction to visitors, a place of wonder and awe and extraordinary beauty.  One of the wonders of Norfolk and at last, though out of sight it’s no longer out of mind.

So what about people? Will this MCZ designation make any difference? The politicians answer would  be, ‘that depends’. It depends on ensuring that MCZs are not just ‘paper parks’, a line on the marine map that is largely ignored. There is of course still much work to be done. Marine wildlife, just like wildlife on land, needs enough protected areas to thrive in and more sustainable use of the wider environment. In the jargon this is what is meant by ‘an ecologically coherent network’ or MCZs. There are now 50  MCZs nationally and just six in the North Sea. All will contribute towards a network of areas which is urgently needed to ensure a healthy future for our seas. But we need more to complete the network, and not just the current  handful in the North Sea.

As Joan Edwards, head of Living Seas at The Wildlife Trusts has said: "We are pleased by this Government’s commitment to addressing the decimation of our seabed over the past century, and to delivering an ecologically coherent network of Marine Protected Areas. This second step towards the completion of a ‘blue belt’ in UK seas is crucial in turning the tide on the state of our seas but there’s still work to be done. We look forward to working with Government and stakeholders to ensure these 50 MCZs are properly managed and to achieve the much-needed ambitious and comprehensive third and final tranche. This will be the start of turning our over-fished, over-exploited and currently under-protected waters back into a healthy and sustainable environment.”

I do hope that like me you will feel joy in this glimmer of hope in the troubled global waters of marine conservation. So, yes let’s celebrate Norfolk’s  first MCZ, but let’s also use our glimmer of hope to inspire us to increase our efforts to secure Living Seas.

If you would like to find out more about what you can do to help then please go to . to sign up as a Friend of Marine Conservation Zones.  It’s free and your details will never be used by anyone else, or for any other purpose. Or to learn more about the Cromer Chalk Shoal visit to explore how  we are working to protect North Sea wildlife.

Photos by Rob Spray

1 comment:

  1. Great news and long overdue. I thought the coverage on local TV was good and your message even better. Looks like we won one!