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WASHINGTON - President Bush called for a halt to destructive fishing on the high seas Tuesday and said the United States will work to eliminate or better regulate practices such as bottom trawling that devastate fish populations and the ocean floor.
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Bush directed the State and Commerce departments to promote "sustainable" fisheries and to oppose any fishing practices that destroy the long-term natural productivity of fish stocks or habitats such as seamounts, corals and sponge fields for short-term gain.
He said the U.S. would work with other nations and international groups to change fishing practices and create international fishery regulatory groups if needed.
The memo was issued a day before United Nations negotiations open in New York on an effort to ban bottom fishing anywhere it's unregulated. While Brazil, Chile, Germany, the Netherlands, South Africa and, now, the U.S. have expressed support for regulating bottom trawling on the high seas, Spain, Russia and Iceland are among those that oppose it.
The U.S. allows but regulates bottom fishing in U.S. waters. The practice involves boats dragging huge nets along the sea floor scooping up orange roughy, blue ling and other fish while bulldozing nearly everything else in their path.
"It's like clear-cutting the forest to catch a squirrel," said Joshua Reichert, head of the private Pew Charitable Trusts' environment program, which has been leading an international coalition of more than 60 conservation groups against the practice.
Bush's position on high-seas fishing represents a last-minute shift going into an election, in part due to mounting pressure from the conservation groups, key Republican senators such as Ted Stevens of Alaska, Richard Lugar of Indiana and John Warner of Virginia, and U.S. allies such as Britain, Norway, Australia and New Zealand.
"The White House ... has once again come out strongly in support of ocean conservation, proving that there is bipartisan support for ending the destruction of the worlds oceans," Reichert said.
Bush created a national monument in June to protect the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and surrounding waters, an archipelago 1,400 miles long and 100 miles wide in the Pacific Ocean.
On the Net:
Deep Sea Conservation Coalition: www.savethehighseas.org
National Fisheries Institute: www.aboutseafood.com
A State Department document prepared in recent months for the eyes of foreign diplomats only had suggested that nations impose a ban on bottom trawling by 2009 - but provided an easy out for any nation whose fleets want to continue using the gear.
The U.S. negotiating "non-paper," a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, unofficially proposed a ban on bottom trawling unless any nation "determines that its continuation in an area would not cause significant adverse harm."
The high seas - which extend beyond nations' 200-mile offshore exclusive economic zones - cover nearly two-thirds of the planet, yet only about 25 percent of it is subject to international treaties.
Stevens and Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, tried to get the Senate to toughen up the U.S. stance, but they couldn't muster sufficient support for it last week. Along with conservation groups, they want the U.N. to create regional fisheries management organizations to impose restrictions in the Pacific, Indian and Central Atlantic and Southwest Atlantic oceans.
"The United Nations must put an end to unregulated fishing practices on the high seas and call on nations to stop their vessels from conducting illegal, unreported, and unregulated high-seas bottom trawling, until measures to regulate this practice are adopted," Stevens said Tuesday.
Reichert and groups such as Greenpeace, Conservation International and the Natural Resources Defense Council have waged a two-year global campaign costing an estimated $5 million lobbying for action by the U.N. this fall.
"We're not saying no bottom trawling ever. We're saying unregulated bottom trawling ought not to occur," said Lisa Speer, a New York-based senior policy analyst at NRDC.
The National Academy of Sciences said in a 2002 report that bottom trawling can wipe creatures and seafloor habitats, particularly gravelly, muddy spots. "Many experimental studies have documented the acute, gear-specific effects of trawling and dredging on various types of habitat," it said.
The report recommended doing less such fishing, changing the gear and closing off some areas to fishing.
The fishing industry fears a "potential spillover effect" of any high-seas ban into U.S. waters, said Stacey Viera, a spokeswoman for the National Fisheries Institute, representing the $29 billion-a-year seafood industry.
"If we call bottom trawling an activity that should not be done in the high seas, then why would it be done anywhere else? That's the concern here," she said. "Don't demonize one type of fishing gear."
Viera said the industry would support limited closures in places where the United States worked closely with other nations to identify sensitive marine ecosystems.
That would be impossible, said marine biologist Sylvia Earle, who recently helped persuade Bush to protect the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Earle, an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, said bottom trawling is unquestionably destructive, like "bulldozers that go in the sea."