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Informal consultations to begin in the General Assembly tomorrow concerning the conservation of fish stocks, under provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, were the subject of a Headquarters press conference today, sponsored by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and given by the Permanent Representatives of three Member States and officials of marine-related environmental groups.

Also attending was the actress Sigourney Weaver who said tomorrow’s discussions would go on behind closed doors and members of the public would not be allowed in, but the eyes of the world would be watching.  She joined the other panellists in urging, in particular, that countries should set a near date for banning a kind of high-seas fishing known as “bottom trawling” –- a practice said to be like “strip-mining the ocean floor” in pursuit of fish, and damaging to ecosystems.

She said millions of people around the world felt very strongly, and there were millions more who depended on the oceans for food and their livelihood.  “You don’t have to be a math genius to see that the world’s oceans are facing a crisis of unprecedented proportions”, she added.  By the very remoteness of the deep oceans, they had been protected from the onslaught of human activity, “The coldwater coral reefs, sponges, and an amazing diversity of deep sea fish have flourished in glorious isolation for centuries,” she continued, “but now with these new technologies they are within reach of these powerful industrial fishing fleets.  And today, bottom trawlers operating on the high seas are devastating the ocean’s last frontier.  Now, the high seas belong to no single country and they most certainly do not belong to these owners of large industrial fishing corporations.  They belong to all of us and it is time for us to take them back.”

Also attending the briefing were Lisa Speer, Natural Resources Defence Council for the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition; Ellen Pikitch, Executive Director at the Pew Institute for Ocean Science, University of Miami; Robert Hill, Permanent Representative of Australia; Stuart Beck, Permanent Representative of Palau, and Rosemary Banks, Permanent Representative of New Zealand.

Ms. Speer said the United Nations was entering the endgame of a three year-long set of discussions on what to do about bottom trawling.  Tomorrow, the General Assembly would begin debating how to proceed, and whether to ban this practice where it was unregulated on the high seas.

When asked by a correspondent what was different now from three years ago, when the issue was first taken up, the panellists cited a number of factors that had given momentum to the matter -- the new support of such key players as Australia and the United States; developments in technology that were capable of causing greater damage; and evidence of the damage and its longer term consequences now becoming known and more public.

What had been studied about the deep sea was dwarfed by what was not known, Ms. Pikitch said, citing as an example the recent discovery off the coast of Indonesia of almost 60 previously unknown species of fish, including a shark that walks on its fins.  “It’s incredible what we have left to learn.  We still don’t even have a good estimate of how many sea mounts there are.  These are deep sea volcanoes that come up from the abyssal plains and have a flora and fauna so unique that each could be considered a world unto itself,” she said, adding that estimates of sea mounts ranged from 50,000 to 100,000.  Out of those, only 400 had been studied at all and only 100 in detail.  “Inevitably, what happens is that when scientists get to these sea mounts they find that bottom trawlers have beaten them to the punch.  What they find is an area strewn with broken coral, basically a devastated ecosystem.”

Mr. Hill said the global picture in terms of marine conservation was a “dismal” one.  The ecosystems of the high seas had largely been protected before, because of their isolation, but advances in new technologies now threatened those ecosystems and could easily and rapidly destroy them.  However, there was still time, because of that isolation, to take decisions that could preserve a considerable portion.  The Assembly resolution could provide the mechanism.   Australia supported an immediate ban on deep sea trawling, with the only exception being on a regional basis where the fishing could be regulated on a sound conservation basis.

Many countries had banned bottom trawling within their exclusive economic zones, said Mr. Beck.  “We can’t police our waters and not care about that which exists beyond our own boundaries,” he added.  “This is where the United Nations comes in.”  The Pacific Forum was standing up to protect itself and the high seas, and he called for other countries who also understood the damage caused by bottom trawling to stand up as well.  He added that attention should be paid to the language used in a resolution, and if a date for stopping bottom trawling was actually specified in the text.

Ms. Banks said States needed to act urgently to protect biodiversity in the high seas.  It was time to move from analysis -- there was plenty of that -- to action.

When asked what countries were on the other side of the issue, Iceland and Spain were mentioned.  Mathew Gianni of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition said European Union fleets, partly from Eastern European countries, but primarily from Spain, took the highest volume of catches from bottom trawling fishing.  Therefore, the position that the European Union took in these negotiations would be absolutely critical.  There was a tremendous amount of debate within the European Union at the moment, between countries that wanted the Union to get behind a strong conservation position -- countries such as the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden -- and countries such as Spain, which wanted to keep the freedom to fish on the high seas as the fundamental principle by which their fleets could continue to fish unregulated in international waters.

Answering a question about a report on certain boats that had been bottom trawling and changing flags, a representative from Greenpeace said she had just received information that the five ships in question had just been found by Greenpeace in a Russian port.  The Russian authorities had refused to resupply the vessels and were confiscating their gear and asking them to leave the Russia Federation immediately.  The vessels had been fishing in the North Atlantic, both in the Northeast and the Northwest, and although it was not confirmed whether the ships had bottom trawl gear aboard, it was known that they were fishing for red fish, a deep sea species.

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For information media. Not an official record.