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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Mock the tweet: Ukip leader Nigel Farage and comedian Frankie Boyle
peopleIt was a polite exchange of words, as you can imagine
Life and Style
fashion
Life and Style
Britons buy more than 30 million handsets each year, keeping them for an average of 18 months
tech
Arts and Entertainment
TV Presenters Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly. Winners of the 'Entertainment Programme' award for 'Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway'
musicAnt and Dec confirmed as hosts of next year's Brit Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
film
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

Humanities and Economics Teacher - January 2015 - Malaysia

£18000 - £20400 per annum + Accommodation, Flights, Medical Cover: Randstad Ed...

SEN Teaching Assistant needed for long term assignment

£45 - £55 per day: Randstad Education Preston: We are looking for an experienc...

Primary Teachers Required in King's Lynn

Negotiable: Randstad Education Cambridge: Primary Teachers needed in King's Ly...

Primary Teachers needed in Ely

Negotiable: Randstad Education Cambridge: Primary Teacher needed in the Ely ar...

Day In a Page

Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

"I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

The school that means business

Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
10 best tablets

The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

Pete Jenson's a Different League

Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

The killer instinct

Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

Clothing the gap

A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain