Marine scientists in Galway have found a major new area of deepwater coral reefs off the west coast.

The reefs cover 200sq.km of the seabed on the Porcupine Bank, an area on the seabed around 320km west of Ireland.

There are calls to protect it because scientists have said the area could benefit fish stocks and medical research.

The area contains 40 coral underwater hills, some of them rising to 100m high, according to chief scientist Dr Anthony Grehan, who led the team of researchers from the earth and ocean sciences section of NUI Galway.

Dr Grehan said they were the most pristine, thriving and spectacular examples of coldwater reefs that he had encountered and the team was amazed that they were in Irish waters.

Using the new national underwater research vessel from the Marine Institute aboard their research ship, Celtic Explorer, the new coral area was found on the southern end of the Porcupine Bank.

It is on rugged terrain, unsuitable for trawling and Dr Grehan said it should be protected because coral areas provide habitats for fish stocks and represent one of the last untapped reservoirs of bio-compounds that can be used in pharmaceuticals.