A report from UNEP due to be formally released this weekend warns that some of the world’s cold-water reefs – which exist in almost all the planet’s oceans but are much lesser known than tropical reefs – have already been destroyed or badly damaged by the effects of trawling. This problem will be discussed at this week’s 10th International Coral Reef Symposium, a gathering of reef experts, government officials and representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) being held in Okinawa. UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer described the cold-water reefs as “life-support systems” that must be preserved and protected because of the role they play in sustaining marine life. Generally found at lower depths than tropical reefs, cold-water reefs can appear along the edge of continental shelves, in fjords and around offshore submarine banks and vents. Studies show that many cold-water coral reefs, which have been spotted in the waters of 41 countries around the world, are up to 8,000 years old. The UNEP report, Cold-water coral reefs: out of sight – no longer out of mind, documents damage from fishing, oil and gas production and exploration, and the placement of under-sea pipelines and cables. In the northeast of the Atlantic Ocean, the fishing industry’s bottom-trawling practice can wipe out an entire ancient ecosystem in just 15 minutes, according to the report. UNEP officials say the international community has to cooperate so that cold-water reefs can be identified, assessed and then preserved. The report calls for more research on reefs and the setting up of global regulations to help protect them.