* French, Spanish, Portuguese vessels most affected
* EU funding available to finance transition
* Environmentalists welcome the proposals
By Barbara Lewis
BRUSSELS, July 19 Ancient, little-known species of fish, living deep in Atlantic waters, could gain protection from EU proposals published on Thursday to phase out certain kinds of deep-water fishing.
The Commission, the European Union's executive arm, proposes phasing out licences for deep-sea fishing using methods known as bottom trawls and bottom-sea gillnets.
Conservationists and environmentalists welcomed the proposals, which cover the European waters and high seas of the Northeast Atlantic and outermost regions of Spain and Portugal.
The vessels that would be affected by the proposals are chiefly French, Spanish and Portuguese.
"They are a milestone because the EU has never tried to stop bottom fishing in its own waters before," said Stephan Lutter, international marine policy officer at WWF.
To become law, the proposal would have to be adopted by EU member states in a long legislative process, which judging from previous fishing debates could be heated.
"If the Commission proposal is adopted, it would transform the EU into a global defender of deep-sea marine life by protecting vulnerable deep-sea species and ecosystems from the harmful impacts of destructive bottom fishing," said Matthew Gianni, policy adviser to the Pew Environment Group and the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition.
The fishing methods the Commission aims to phase out can result in large numbers of fish (between 20 and 40 percent of a catch) being discarded as uncommercial, inflicting rapid damage on stocks that reproduce slowly.
The European Union has long imposed limits on fishing but this is the first time it has tried to protect deep-sea fish.
Some species, such as deep water sharks, are now seriously depleted.
Deep sea fisheries account for only about 1 percent of fish landed from the Northeast Atlantic, the Commission said, as catches and the related jobs have declined over the years.
Pew Environment Group gave different figures, saying the EU's deep-sea fishing fleet was responsible for 75 percent of the total catch of deep-sea species.
Even though the number of jobs has shrunk, some communities depend on deep-sea fishing, and EU funding could be available to help them adjust, the Commission said.
It has also financed a study into less harmful fishing gear and a switch to techniques and strategies that have less impact on fragile ecosystems.
While deep sea fish can be caught accidentally by many vessels, the Commission is targeting boats that specifically fish for deep-sea species, whose habitats and ecosystems are largely unknown, using particular types of gear.
Some species live on coral reefs, which are up to 8,500 years old, and other ancient habitats that, if damaged, are unlikely to recover. (Additional reporting by Stephanie Ebbs; editing by Tim Pearce)