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.