A series of ``hotspots'' which are important sites for dolphins, whales and basking sharks in English and Welsh waters should be protected, conservationists have urged.

The 17 sites, ranging from off the north east coast of England to Anglesey and the Irish Sea's ``Celtic Deep'', are places where large marine wildlife, known as ``megafauna'', gather to feed, breed and raise their young, the Wildlife Trusts said.

The UK's waters are home to 29 species of whale, dolphin, porpoise and the world's second largest shark, the basking shark.

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Along with harbour porpoises and common and bottlenose dolphins, species including humpback whales, killer whales and sperm whales are seen in the UK's waters.

But these species, which are long-lived and reproduce only slowly, are ``acutely vulnerable'' to pollution, commercial fishing and other human activities, the Wildlife Trusts warned.

The Government is creating ``marine protected areas'' to secure the future of habitats and wildlife on the seabed, but the trusts are concerned that there are no protected areas for dolphins, whales and sharks in England and only one in Wales.

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They are calling for the series of ``hotspots'' - highly productive areas which produce plenty of food - to be protected especially for whales, basking sharks and dolphins, to secure the ``missing link'' in marine conservation in English and Welsh waters.

The trusts propose creating new marine protected areas, extending the boundaries of ones that are already proposed, adding protection of dolphin, whale and shark species and undertaking more research to establish the importance of sites.

Joan Edwards, the Wildlife Trusts' head of living seas, said: ``Many people are surprised to discover that in the waters surrounding our shores you could encounter 29 different species of whale, dolphin and porpoise and the second largest shark in the world - the basking shark.

``However there's an urgent need to create protected areas at sea for our ocean giants and ensure a network of sites to safeguard these species for generations to come.

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``The UK has made huge advances in marine conservation in recent years but there is still a significant job to do. Our marine megafauna - whales, dolphins, porpoises and basking sharks - are still under threat.

``Many are suffering from the impacts, whether direct or indirect, increased boat traffic, marine developments and the more persistent effects of pollution.''

She said not all of the impacts could be tackled through protected areas but ``by designating areas of the sea which are known hotspots, we can provide safe havens for these species and some impacts can be limited or removed altogether''.

The proposals include creating a new marine protected area in the south west part of Lyme Bay, which is an important foraging area for white-beaked dolphins as well as hosting important numbers of harbour porpoises.

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They also include creating a protected area for common dolphins in the North of Celtic Deep, off the Welsh coast. The food-rich area is a critical habitat for the common dolphin, which gathers in large numbers in the summer to feed and calve, the trusts said.

Areas in Cardigan Bay, off the Northumberland coast and off the southern tip of the Cornish coast are all among the hotspots that the Wildlife Trusts want to see protected for dolphins, whales and basking sharks.