New protection for marine wildlife

Wildlife bosses last night hailed a new dawn of legal protection for Norfolk's 'magnificent' marine species and habitats, which to date have been poorly safeguarded.

Wildlife bosses have hailed a new dawn of legal protection for Norfolk's 'magnificent' marine species and habitats, which to date have been poorly safeguarded.

Royal assent for the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, creating the Marine and Coastal Access Act, was achieved last week and will have many implications for the English and Welsh coastal zone.

Not all elements of the bill have been welcomed, with the plans to create a footpath along the entire coastline causing anger among land owners, land managers and lobby groups.

The concept of marine conservation areas appears to have been widely welcomed, although there have been some concerns from fishermen concerned about the limits it might put on their activities. And other critics feel the bill's contents don't go far enough in terms of levels of protection.

Norfolk Wildlife Trust said the success of the bill followed 10 years of campaigning both by them and many other conservation organisations.

'Our seas are home to over 44,000 different animals and plants, many of which are declining, and yet until now there has been little protection for marine habitats and species,' said trust director Brendan Joyce.

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'In Norfolk, coastal waters are important for much wildlife, including common scoters and red-throated divers in winter time.

'In summer they are the feeding grounds for species including sandwich, little and common terns which nest around Norfolk shores.'

For the last 20 years the marine environment had not been sustainably managed, but the new legislation would ensure that these feeding grounds were more rigorously protected, said Mr Joyce.

'Norfolk's marine wildlife is magnificent but for most marine species living just offshore, there has been both a lack of public awareness and little protection for even endangered species.

'This new act is a fantastic step in the right direction!

'We will continue to press for strengthened provisions for marine wildlife conservation as our challenge now is to achieve real change. New legislation is only the beginning. The decisions made, and actions taken, over the next five years will determine the future of the UK's seas. This is a unique opportunity and we must seize it.'

Stephanie Hilborne, chief executive of the Royal Society for Wildlife Trusts, added: 'We have a vision for the future of the UK's seas - living seas where wildlife thrives from the depths of the ocean to the coastal shallows, where wildlife recovers from past declines and adapts to climate change and where people feel inspired by marine wildlife and the value the sea has on their quality of life.'

In 2007, the wildlife trusts gathered more than 170,000 petition signatures in support of a Marine Bill.

And 12 wildlife trusts along the east coast are promoting protection of the North Sea's marine wildlife by helping to create a network of marine protected areas to safeguard wildlife and their habitats from damaging activities.

Marine wildlife examples in Norfolk:

The north and northeast coasts of Norfolk hold some 225 wrecks, including the wreck of the Vera which is visible from the beach at Cley and the wreck of the Rosalie at Weybourne.

Here divers have found the tompot blenny, a fish that is not normally found in the southern North Sea. Although these sites are not currently threatened, official protection could protect them from future damage caused by collecting of specimens and disturbance of the site itself, perhaps associated with offshore industries.

Another very different type of site is the offshore chalk gullies or reefs between Sheringham and Cromer. These occur where the sea has cut into the seabed chalk and have a sand and gravel bottom, interspersed with boulders and flints.

The inshore extent of these reefs can be seen on the beach at Sheringham and at West Runton, where they represent the only rock pools between Flamborough Head in Yorkshire and Thanet in Kent. Offshore, they are home to a rich variety of undersea life and provide a habitat for the famous Cromer crabs and lobsters - making them important for the local fishing industry.

The herring industry, once centred on Great Yarmouth, provides a classic example of how in the past misuse of our seas has decimated its wildlife. Many once common fish are now endangered and the fishing industries they once supported long gone.