updated 11/18/2004 9:29:51 AM ET 2004-11-18T14:29:51

The U.N. General Assembly urged nations Wednesday to consider temporary bans on high seas bottom trawling, disappointing scientists and some countries seeking an immediate halt to the destructive fishing practice.

Environmental groups say bottom trawling is killing little-known coral ecosystems and the species that dwell in them, and must be suspended so the remote areas can be studied.

“I’m disappointed to be honest, because bottom trawling is the world’s most destructive method of fishing and we have documented this beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Elliott Norse, president of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute.

Bottom trawlers rake giant nets equipped with wheels, chains and metal doors across the sea floor to scoop up fish. The contraptions bulldoze everything in their path, shattering corals and churning up huge clouds of sediment that choke any life that escapes.

Seamounts threatened
Their main targets are the teeming deep-sea mountains called seamounts, home to thousands of species of corals and fish, some of which have never been identified. Many of the seamounts are as much as a mile deep on the edge of the continental shelf, outside national waters and thus largely free of national regulation.

Compare your thoughts with U.S. surveyLike all General Assembly resolutions, the moratorium would not have been legally binding but would have had the weight of international opinion behind it.

In February, 1,136 biologists, including Norse, signed a statement urging the United Nations and national governments to ban the practice.

Among the leading opponents of a ban were Japan and Iceland. They are two of 11 countries whose fisheries accounted for 95 percent of the high seas bottom trawling catch in 2001, according to the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition.

Two resolutions passed
The General Assembly passed two resolutions that skirted a moratorium. The first expressed concern about damage to marine environments and called on states to address destructive fishing practices. That passed 141-1 with two abstentions. Turkey cast the lone vote against.

Guide lists seafood by abundance and scarcityThe other resolution asks nations to consider an interim ban on bottom trawling. The resolution was passed orally.

Environmental groups say an area twice the size of Europe has already been destroyed by high seas bottom trawling.

“They can have as many conferences as they want in 2006 to discuss biodiversity and areas beyond national jurisdiction, there just won’t be that much left by the time they finish discussing to actually protect it,” said Karen Sack, oceans policy adviser at Greenpeace International.

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