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Claire Nouvian, Guardian of the Deep

By Irene Pedruelo, Claire Nouvian | February 22, 2016

Claire Nouvian. Credit: © BLOOM

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

It's often said that we know more about the geography of the moon than the depths of the ocean. The invention of submarine vessels and submersibles at the beginning of the 20th century has enabled us to explore and research the deep as never before, yet our understanding of marine habitats remains sketchy and incomplete. Meanwhile, for decades now the fishing industry has exploited the deep oceans with impunity, as there is little or no effective regulation. In 2005, French journalist, documentarian, and environmentalist Claire Nouvian, founded BLOOM to combat the destruction of our common maritime heritage.

IRENE PEDRUELO: You have devoted your life to protecting a resource that is largely a mystery to most of the general public. What is "the deep sea"?

CLAIRE NOUVIAN: The deep sea is the biggest ecosystem on the planet. In volume it occupies 98 percent of the Earth. We're talking about waters which are below 200 meters of depth. The average depth of the ocean is 3,800 meters, but in some locations the ocean goes all the way down to 11 kilometers. We've only sampled with accuracy about 1 percent of the deep ocean. There is still a lot to be discovered and that is subject to a lot of unknowns, but we know that life first appeared in the water, and that the phenomenon of speciation (i.e. the creation of species) has been more tremendous in the water than anywhere else.

IRENE PEDRUELO: When did deep sea fishing start? When did humans start thinking that throwing giant nets all the way down to continental shelves and oceanic mountain ridges was okay? Richard Branson wrote a couple of years ago that deep sea fishing is "like clear cutting an ancient forest to catch a few mammals."

CLAIRE NOUVIAN: I want to make sure we correct the vision that this is some sort of ancient fishing technique. Deep sea fishing is a very recent phenomenon. The first deep sea fishing ventures really only started in the 1960s, and then in the 1980s in Europe. At first it was mostly Japanese, Korean, and Soviet fleets targeting deep sea corals in the Northern Pacific. They started with searching for coral to make into jewelry and then they went on to discovering other fish bio-mass that could be marketed. Of course, industrial fleets discovered that they could make money by fishing just the next abundant location in the deep ocean and they went in three directions: further out into the ocean, deeper down, and they also went for new species.

IRENE PEDRUELO: Those involved in the fishing sector usually make an economic argument to support deep sea fishing. They talk about the number of jobs that this industry supports. In the case of the European Union, they say that farming and fishing subsidies are key for Europe's food security and they also argue that without it, Europe would be "dangerously dependent" on fluctuating imports. Is this a valid argument for you?

CLAIRE NOUVIAN: These are just recurrent arguments that industrial lobbyists use when they're completely devoid of any kind of serious argumentation to make their case. They go for jobs because it always sounds good and it always weighs in in a political debate. We've found the evidence that shows that there are very few jobs which are implicated in this deep sea fishing pattern, and that actually, deep sea fishing and deep sea bottom trawling produces the least amount of jobs compared to any other technique. They would get at least six times more jobs if they changed to more selective gear like long lines. The reality of the industrial fishing fleets and their lobbyists is that they refuse to expand on social expenses. They absolutely do not want to produce jobs. Increasing jobs would mean increasing costs and diminishing profit margins. They're in this for the money that can be made. There is absolutely no food security issue.

From the perspective of jeopardizing our common heritage, deep sea fishing is the most rapid and destructive way [of fishing] that's ever been invented by mankind. Preserving ecosystems and their functionality for the future and for resilience of the oceans is key for food security. And what do we do as industrialized rich nations? We've developed massive overcapacity. Our fishing capacity absolutely exceeds the biological capacity of fish populations themselves and that is true of all fishing. Because we've developed such fishing overcapacity, we are sending our fleets to developing countries and we're basically reaping their resources and jeopardizing their livelihoods. Somalia is a good example. We sent our fishing boats to these waters, we caught their fish, we jeopardized local artisanal fishermen who've become desperate economically, and we've made these people poor. We've pushed them into the corner of brutality and violence, turning to illegal activities when they had a proper livelihood in the first place.

I think industrial fishing power is the one that really jeopardizes food security in the world and actually, not just food security but also political stability. Time has come to really become responsible and to be accountable for what we've done and what we're doing.

IRENE PEDRUELO: What legislation does currently exist to protect international waters?

CLAIRE NOUVIAN: International waters lie beyond national jurisdiction, i.e. beyond economic exclusive zones, which extend 200 nautical miles from shore. The high seas or the international waters are managed by the UN bodies called Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs). RFMOs by and large (with the exception of Antarctica, where we have an RFMO which is a little more functional than others) are really well-known for being dysfunctional and very late for what it has to do with picking up on emergencies and ecological issues. They are also known for being quite heavily lobbied by industry representatives. I don't know any country that is an industrialized country with a fleet, which would go against the interests of its fishing sector. At the end of the day, those that are in the worst spot to protect the environment, the common interest, and our common heritage are the ones that actually design the laws for the fleets to operate. So, we're not in a very good place.

IRENE PEDRUELO: Do you believe in the power of international governance bodies to address this issue?

CLAIRE NOUVIAN: There are things being done. No question. But the slowness of those bodies (although headed the right way) makes them sometimes too dysfunctional to be good or efficient bodies to manage our common heritage. But you can't let go of international governance, because it's useful, it's necessary, it's indispensable. You can't go around it. At the same time, if you're only relying on international governance to solve the world's problems, then you might as well just shoot yourself in the foot because it's just not going to happen. At the same time, you need national governance and collaboration with brands.

IRENE PEDRUELO: Brands?

CLAIRE NOUVIAN: Retailers are the ones that can actually change what is going on out there, because they're the ones who are buying the fish. If they tell their suppliers that they don't want anything coming from, let's say, destructive fishing gear, then that is an incentive for the fishing fleets to go the sustainable route. Otherwise, they're just going make sure that they make the maximum amount of money out of the investment that they've made in the first place constructing a huge fishing ship.

IRENE PEDRUELO: Where are Spain, Portugal, and France on their road towards more sustainable fishing practices?

CLAIRE NOUVIAN: Portugal has a bit of a schizophrenic approach to this. They do have some industrial fleets based off the mainland, but especially in Madeira and in the Azores, they've outlawed deep sea bottom trawling as a fishing technique. So, deep sea bottom trawling is forbidden below 200 meters, which is quite shallow compared to what we're talking about right now in Europe, which is 800 meters. They've gone way beyond anything that's even being discussed right now in some specific areas which are worthy of conservation.

Spain has just been the worst possible player when it comes to the management of fisheries in Europe. They want huge public money and they do get it. They get the bulk of public subsidies in Europe for their industrial fleets. Their fleets are roaming the world's oceans for whatever fish is left and they have absolutely zero interest in environmental governance of the ocean and fish stock. Since 2004, the UN has put industrial Spanish fleets under a lot of scrutiny, and as a result, Spain has put more effort into trying to show that they are not doing that much environmental damage as a nation. So, they're trying to act like they're a good environmental actor, but they're acting quite as badly as it gets when it comes to Europe.

France was terrible, French lobbies were the absolute worst. France has been leading those countries that really did not want to ban deep sea bottom trawling. They've done it all, but with COP21 coming to Paris it was a great opportunity for us to make sure that the government was taking responsibility. So, we asked, "Are you going to lecture the world on environmental standards when it comes to climate change when you're not ready to do the minimum for the ocean? This is home. This is a concrete case. What are you going to do about it?" I think that the French minister of ecology, Ségolène Royal, has managed to convince the government that with COP 21 coming to Paris it would have been a huge diplomatic faux pas to not support the ban of deep sea bottom trawling in Europe. Just before COP 21, on November 6, 2015, France turned around in favor of the ban on deep sea bottom trawling.

IRENE PEDRUELO: What would a sustainable deep sea fishing market look like? You were describing it briefly, related to Portugal. Would it actually require a change in dietary habits?

CLAIRE NOUVIAN: Portugal does have an artisanal fishing sector which is the only way, to our knowledge, in which deep sea fishing can actually be sustainable. It happens in very specific conditions, with a few boats, artisanal gear, guys going out for two or three days max, and so on. We convened an international workshop in 2010 where scientists from all over the world tried to answer the following questions: Has there been any sustainable deep sea fishing in history? If so, where, and under what conditions? They also asked: What we call sustainable; is it respecting the ecosystem in its entirety? Or is it just respecting one fish stock, without even looking at the impact that the fishing may have on other elements of the food chain and the ecosystem?

The report they produced concluded that there is no such thing as sustainable deep sea fishing with such unselective and destructive gear as bottom trawling. So, the first rule was: If there is going to be anything that's closely related to sustainability when it comes to deep sea fishing, it's not going to be done with a bottom trawl for obvious reasons. It's super destructive and super unselective.

We've allowed massive deployment of fishing capacity on fish which are absolutely not resilient and have very specific biological characteristics: late sexual maturity, low reproductive rates, a very long longevity. If we want to go towards ecosystem-based sustainability, making sure that every component of the ecosystem is actually standing for itself, we would need to stop fishing the deep sea completely until everything has recovered. Then we would be in a position to start deploying gear which is selective, and fishing at a very small scale.

IRENE PEDRUELO: Have quota systems failed?

CLAIRE NOUVIAN: Managing a fishery does require a certain amount of tools. There's not one magical tool, unfortunately. The problem with every single tool that's at our disposal for managing the oceans is that the translation, the interpretation—that is, what we do with it—is actually quite pathetic. The quotas, themselves, could be a great tool. The problem is that the way quotas are set in Europe is highly political. It's absolutely not scientific.

IRENE PEDRUELO: A lot of your advocacy work is focused on moving forward legislation to protect the oceans. But before that, there is a lot of work to be done on changing peoples' "hearts and minds."

CLAIRE NOUVIAN: Right, and we are actually managing to do that. We come from nowhere. You have to imagine that France and French people had never even paid attention to anything that's related to fisheries or managing fish stocks whatsoever. In the UK, for example, or in the States, there's a really high level of interest in natural resources and the environment. In France, no one ever even cared about environmental issues. So we've had to create this culture and that's where we've come from. Our petition against deep sea bottom trawling got 900,000 signatures and it's become the number one environmental petition in the history of France, actually. Something happened there. We have followers and people are starting to get interested in what we call "direct democracy." And this is absolutely crucial if you want to have some balance in the democratic game going on.


Policy Innovations' Six Quick Questions

What are the three main attributes of an innovator? Creativity and super strong confidence in one's values and beliefs.

What other obsessions do you have in addition to the oceans? Classical music and art.

What do you do in your free time? I go to flea markets and exhibitions, I look at art, discover art, look up artists from the past and listen to Beethoven. My obsession is Beethoven.

I'm afraid of . . . There's nothing I'm more afraid of than to see that our society as a whole refuses to take responsibility for the fact that we've created a massive mess when it comes to international policy and when it comes to integrating diversity and making sure that we redistribute wealth in a way that doesn't turn the suburbs into no-go zones, where people have no future and are left to themselves with no chances to do well. And I can see the growth of these ultra-right-wing speeches even among the socialists, the supposedly left-wing government of France.

Life is about . . . love. It's about love, making sense, and being true to one's self.

What would you tell your younger self if you had to start over? I would tell my younger self to "stick to what you have in your gut, stick to your values, stick to the fact that you don't want this for this world." And I would also tell myself: "It's going to be so hard. You're going to be feeling so lonely, but whatever convictions you have in your heart, write them down, and put them out there because it will help you connect with other people that feel and think like you, breaking the circle of isolation."

Read More: Business, Conservation, Corruption, Economy, Environment, Ethics, Trade

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