You're wrecking our wrecks! Experts warn of damage trawlers are doing to maritime history

Archaeologists want sunken vessels to be given the same levels of protection as threatened marine ecosystems

International action is urgently required to save the world's historic shipwrecks from the ravages of commercial fishing, experts say.

Industrial trawling, capable of destroying fragile underwater heritage, is occurring on a scale that is creating an archaeological catastrophe comparable to the looting of the National Museum in Baghdad or the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, they warn. The seabed is often described as the world's greatest museum but it is estimated that 42 per cent of the globe's three million wrecks may have been damaged by trawling.

The scale of the devastation means the chances of repeating the recovery of vessels such as the Mary Rose are decreasing, while there are fears that HMS Victory – the 1737 predecessor to Nelson's flagship – has already been damaged by trawlers in the English Channel and is at risk of total destruction.

Dr Sean Kingsley of Wreck Watch International is calling for the creation of national "red lists" for shipwrecks of major international importance similar to those created by the International Council of Museums (Icom) for cultural objects.

But he said attempts to safeguard sunken vessels, some dating back to the earliest civilisations, were being hampered by a lack of political will and a shortage of funds.

"Thousands of shipwrecks worldwide lie in the path of fishing trawlers, but governments are failing to find even small change to require the damaging effects of a multibillion-dollar industry to be monitored," Dr Kingsley said. "The struggle to save even a small percentage of the world's most important shipwrecks is a fight over funds. Compared to marine ecosystems, from kelp to sharks, archaeology cuts an isolated figure in marine science. For a hugely romantic and adventurous field we are failing to get the message across that the sunken past matters."

It is estimated that an area of seabed the size of Brazil, Congo and India is trawled each year, disrupting sediment and causing potential damage to submerged wrecks. Recent research has suggested that more than half of the North Sea is at risk from beam trawling – one of the most damaging types of fishing – while in the North Adriatic it is believed that every square metre of the seabed has been swept by trawlers three times.

Unlike offshore dredging or pipeline cutting, fishing has no legal obligation to mitigate its impact on marine archaeology.

There are no laws or even best-practice initiatives on avoiding snagging or on reporting finds in international waters. The continued presence of trawlers in archaeologically rich waters has been compared to the ploughing of ancient battle sites by farmers, but marine finds often tell archaeologists much more about what life was like than those on land.

Experts call it the "Pompeii effect", when a culture and its artefacts are freeze-framed in a moment of calamity. Organic matter can be preserved for hundreds of years under mud and sand, and large objects on the seabed are much less likely to be looted or melted down.

However Dr Kingsley said he was realistic about the problems of enforcing exclusion zones on commercial fisheries which are already struggling with catastrophic rates of species decline.

Barrie Deas, the chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, said modern GPS and chart plotting technology meant fishermen were able to avoid wrecks more easily than ever before, and it was in their interests to do so because they were a danger to their gear and crew.

"Protecting shipwrecks for historical and aesthetic reasons is a concern shared in the fishing industry as well," he added.

Over the centuries fishing has been a fertile source of marine archaeology. In the 18th century, oyster dredgers off Whitstable in Kent began recovering the first of hundreds of pots later identified as belonging to a Roman vessel sunk in the mouth of the Thames. Over the past decade Dutch trawlers have recovered 50 cannon weighing up to 2.3 tonnes.

But many such artefacts end up in London antiques shops and the location of the wreck remains unknown.

Sunken treasure: historic finds

The 465kg bronze Athlit Ram, the largest ballistic weapon known from the ancient world, lost in the 2nd century BC and found in 1980 off the coast of Israel. Archaeologists saved the ram from being melted down, but the wreck of the oared warship still awaits discovery.

HMS Victory, the 1737 predecessor to Nelson's flagship, was lost with all hands in 1744 in the English Channel. Armed with 100 bronze cannon, it was found in 2008, damaged by trawlers and still at risk.

A Victorious Youth, a life-size bronze statue made in Greece between 300-100 BC and caught in a trawler's nets off eastern Italy in 1964. The wreck and its contents await discovery.

The Eendracht, a 74-gun Dutch flagship sunk in the Battle of Lowestoft in 1665. Around 20 cannon have been snagged by trawlers, but the exact wreck site is unknown.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk