WASHINGTON (AP) – Fishing nations led by Iceland and Russia have blocked U.N. negotiators from imposing a full-fledged ban against destructive bottom trawling on the high seas.

After weeks of talks in New York, a United Nations committee that oversees high seas fisheries failed to gain unanimous support this week for ending unregulated bottom trawling.

Fishing boats that drag giant nets along the sea floor can be as destructive as they are effective, wiping out creatures and habitats while scooping up everything in their path, according to a National Academy of Sciences report in 2002.

Iceland and Russia, along with China and South Korea, resisted a proposed ban that had the backing of President Bush and U.S. allies such as Britain, Norway, Australia and New Zealand.

“There were several countries that really didn’t want any controls at all,” Assistant Secretary of State Claudia McMurray said in an interview Friday. “Unfortunately, the resolution comes up short. We’re very disappointed that this is the result we ended up with.”

Any one country can hold up the committee’s closed-door negotiations. Because of the impasse, the proposed ban probably won’t be considered at a plenary meeting of the 192-nation U.N. assembly next month in New York.

A draft resolution privately adopted by the committee – a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press – recommends that nations either ensure boats aren’t causing harm or “cease to authorize fishing vessels flying their flag to conduct bottom fisheries” on the high seas.

The draft resolution also asks fishery management organizations to help reduce damage from bottom trawling. Such organizations exist in the North Atlantic, the Southeast Atlantic, the Southern Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. The remaining 75 percent of the high seas has no regulations for bottom trawling.

More than 60 conservation groups that campaigned for more than two years for a ban on unregulated high seas bottom trawling are discouraged, but not giving up.

Joshua Reichert, director of the private Pew Charitable Trusts’ environment division, which coordinated the groups’ campaign, called the rejection of the ban “a stunning example of dysfunctional decision-making and the unwillingness of the world’s nations to stand up and just say ‘no’ to activity that is destroying the global marine environment.”

Conservationists say nations are letting fishing boats destroy a resource before its true worth is even known. They say the committee’s alternative measures keep in place the status quo, by leaving it to countries to decide whether and when and where to use the fishing gear.

“It’s exactly what states are supposed to be doing anyway. It’s nothing new,” said Karen Sack, oceans policy adviser to Greenpeace International. “Our real concern is for those states that don’t do it – that allow their vessels to fish in any way they want.”

But McMurray said the resolution at least kick-starts the process of establishing more regulatory bodies to determine where bottom trawling is most harmful. “We have a lot of work to do but this at least moves us a few steps forward,” she said. “We’re going to keep the pressure on.”

A U.N. draft environmental report this month labeled bottom trawling a danger to unique and unexplored ecological systems. It said slightly more than half the underwater mountain and coral ecosystems in the world can be found beyond the protection of national boundaries.

Bottom trawling catches orange roughy, blue ling and other fish. But it smashes coral and stirs clouds of sediment that smother sea life, the U.N. report said, inflicting the worst damage on underwater seamounts that are home to thousands of species of coral and fish.

Earlier this month, a new major study predicted a “global collapse” of the populations of just about all seafood by 2048, if fishing around the world continues at its present pace.

Only about 200 to 300 fishing vessels, operated by Iceland, Russia and nine other nations, are estimated to use bottom trawling on the high seas. The other nations are Denmark, Estonia, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal and Spain.

Bush said last month the United States would work to eliminate or better regulate practices such as bottom trawling, which devastate fish populations and the ocean floor. The U.S. allows but regulates bottom trawling in U.S. waters.



On the Net:

United Nations: http://www.un.org

Deep Sea Conservation Coalition: www.savethehighseas.org


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