The Pacific island nation of Kiribati announced the creation of a vast protected area Tuesday at a U.N-sponsored environmental conference in Brazil, officials said.

The protected area at the Phoenix Islands, located about half way between Fiji and Hawaii, places some 73,800 sq. miles off limits for commercial fishing, protecting precious coral reefs and undersea mountains.

The restrictions, covering an area the size of Washington, were announced by Kiribati's environment minister at the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biodiversity in Curitiba, 400 miles southwest of Rio de Janeiro.

"If the coral and reefs are protected, then the fish will thrive and grow and bring us benefit," Kiribati's President Anote Tong said in a statement.

The government of Kiribati would be compensated for the loss of fishing revenue with funds from a special endowment, conservation groups said.

At the same conference, the European Union called for a global moratorium on deep-sea trawling, labeling the random fishing practice harmful to the biodiversity of oceans.

Bottom trawling is blamed for depleting the world's deep-sea fish stocks, threatening many species with extinction and radically altering undersea habitats.

Environmentalists praised the two moves as indicative of a growing trend toward protecting the world's oceans.

"These are very positive signs," said Arlo Hemphill, Conservation International's manager of marine strategy.

"Bottom trawling is like trying to capture songbirds in the forest with bulldozers," he said.

Environmentalists said the European Union's support for a moratorium on bottom trawling was important, but it was too early to say whether the ban would be approved by the full convention, which acts by consensus and runs until Friday.