updated 5/7/2007 12:35:46 PM ET 2007-05-07T16:35:46

More than 20 nations agreed Friday to discourage unregulated and destructive bottom trawling on the South Pacific high seas, a victory for environmental groups.

The agreement, which takes effect Sept. 30, is intended to protect about a quarter of the world's high seas, a vast area extending roughly from the Equator to the Antarctic Circle and from Australia and New Zealand to the west coast of South America.

Observers and ship locator monitoring systems are to be used, and vessels must remain at least five nautical miles from deep-water corals and other vulnerable marine ecosystems.

The agreement reached in Chile, follows a United Nations General Assembly resolution in December aimed at getting tough on high seas bottom trawling, which involves fishing boats that drag giant nets along the sea floor.

Enormously effective at catching fish, the nets also wipe out almost everything in their path, smash coral and stir clouds of sediment that smother sea life, marine experts say.

Orange roughy is the main commercial fish in the South Pacific high seas, mainly caught by New Zealand fishing vessels. Estimates of the fishing trade range up to about $10 million.

New Zealand officials agreed to the voluntary restrictions in the South Pacific high seas, but they said the restrictions could "severely constrain" its fishing vessels. The ecological costs of the huge nets are far higher, environmental groups said.

"This area contains thousands of these underwater sea mountains, or seamounts, that are considered to be some of the most ecologically rich habitats in the world," said Joshua Reichert, director of the private Pew Charitable Trusts' environment division, which coordinated the groups' campaign. "For all of us, this really represents a major step forward for marine conservation."

A U.N. report last year called 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.

The new agreement is among members of the fledgling South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization: Australia, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Cook Islands, Ecuador, the European Commission, Federated States of Micronesia, France, Japan, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Russia, South Korea, Ukraine, the United States and Vanuatu.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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