A unique area of cold water coral reefs off the north west coast of Scotland has been given permanent protection by EU fisheries ministers.
Cold water coral underpins a unique marine environment (Pic by Erling Svensen)
The reefs, known as the Darwin Mounds, lie 185km off Cape Wrath, have been described as Scotland's equivalent of the Great Barrier Reef.
The Mounds are at a depth of 1,000m and were only discovered in 1998.
Ministers have made permanent a ban on deepwater bottom trawling in the area.
The move has won the approval of WWF Scotland, which has been campaigning for over three years for legal safeguards for the coral.
Its marine policy officer Helen McLachlan said: "We welcome the protection of this incredible piece of Scottish marine life - a beautiful deepwater habitat rich in wildlife such as sponges, starfish and deepwater fish.
"This is our equivalent of the Great Barrier Reef and it was vital that it was protected before it was destroyed forever by deepwater trawling."
The Darwin Mounds cover an area of approximately 100 sq km and are made up of hundreds of coral reefs up to 5m high and 100m wide.
The fish species supported by them include the blue ling, the round-nosed grenadier and the orange roughy.
Environmentalists had drawn attention to the danger of fishing activities leaving this area of seabed dredged and scarred.
The WWF believes the decision by ministers is an unprecedented step by EU countries to protect the environment.
Ms McLachlan said: "These ancient and fragile coral mounds that have taken thousands of years to grow have been saved from further destruction with the banning of deepwater trawling.
"We welcome this decision as the first real commitment by member states to reduce the impacts that fisheries have on our wider marine environment."
The measure has also been given the support of the Scottish Executive.
A spokeswoman said: "The new Council Regulation will provide vital, long-term protection to Britain's best known cold water corals, making permanent the temporary emergency measures first set in place at the UK's request in August last year.
"The executive is fully committed to integrating environmental protection into fisheries policy and has worked closely with the UK government to ensure that necessary measures are in place to safeguard this unique habitat."