Westcountry scientists are calling for the urgent introduction of marine protected areas after producing evidence of long-term damage to deep-sea coral reefs.
Using underwater robotic vehicles, researchers from Plymouth University recorded a diverse abundance of fish at several coral sites in the North East Atlantic – but there were also signs that reefs were being smashed by modern fishing gear.
They documented more than 30 varieties of fish, including codling and northern cut-throat eels, at coral reef sites 300km (186 miles) off the coast of Ireland.
Diving to depths of one kilometre, the vehicles took pictures of thousands of fish, and thriving ecosystems, dependent upon the reef.
But the project, led by Dr Jason Hall-Spencer, of the school of marine sciences and engineering, also found evidence of damage caused by "rockhopper" trawls, which allow fishing nets to be dragged along the seabed even in rough seas.
Images of abandoned fishing gear strewn over the seabed, which would have the potential to kill wildlife, were also captured.
Dr Hall-Spencer said: "European coral reefs take thousands of years to form, and we now have ample evidence that bottom-trawling is causing long-term damage to fish habitat.
"This highlights the need to introduce protected areas as soon as possible, where destructive types of fishing are outlawed."