Champion of THE SEAS
A tireless defender of the oceans, Claire Nouvian campaigns against the destructive fishing practice of deep-sea bottom trawling
CLAIRE NOUVIAN couldn’t be happier. She had just shown the proofs of her book, The Deep, to some of the world’s most eminent marine scientists at an international deep-sea symposium. The amazing photographs she had collated, documenting life far beneath the waves, had drawn excited oohs and aahs.
But Claire’s pride turned to horror as American marine scientist Professor Les Watling showed a video to the packed conference room. She found herself looking at volcanoes that lay 2000 metres beneath the sea off the New York coast. Soviet fishing trawlers had ravaged them in the 1970s and now, 30 years on, these seamounts were bare. Instead of anemones and corals that take thousands of years to grow, there were only scars in the rubble left by weighted trawl nets. It was at that moment in 2006 that Claire Nouvian’s eyes were opened to the destruction wreaked by the fishing industry around the world.
Growing up in Algeria, Hong Kong and Germany, and eventually moving to South America, 44-year- old French-born journalist Claire Nouvian, had developed a fascination with the world around her. Claire turned to video to tell the stories of the world’s most beautiful places. It was documentary-making that took her in 2001 to the Monterey
Bay Research Institute in California where she first discovered the secret world at the bottom of the ocean, and the idea for The Deep was born. As well as a book, there would be an exhibition that would travel the globe. Now based in Paris, Claire set up an organisation, BLOOM, from her home to raise awareness about the oceans.
“I thought that if I shared the story of the beauty of the natural world, people would stop destroying it,” she explains. “That was completely naive.” Exposing the damage – and stopping it – became Claire’s passion. She was now an activist.
HUNGRY FOR FACTS,
Claire enlisted Professor Watling’s help. They used Graphic Informat ion Systems (GIS) to calculate areas of the sea floor that might be protected. They gathered global f isheries statistics. In the course of her research, Claire was shocked to find out that France’s largest deep-sea commercial fishing fleet belonged to Les Mousquetaires, owner of supermarket chain Intermarché. Professor Watling pointed out that its trawlers could destroy an area of sea floor the size of Paris in two days.
Even though her book The Deep was published that year in 12 languages and the exhibition toured eight countries, attracting 2.4 million visitors, there was little appetite for change. Claire’s mission remained clear. I’ll stop these trawlers, she thought. “Most people, when confronted with the fishery scientists, or the lawyers from the bi l l ion- dollar corporations, would wither under the pressure,” says Professor Wat l ing. “But not Claire.”
Claire withstood intimidation – a picture message on her phone showing a dog with a knife in its mouth; a red laser beam following her round the f lat where she lived alone – and financial stress. At one point she considered waitressing to pay the rent. She took her campaign to a European Commission f isheries conference, where her slight build belied her determinat ion as she denounced Intermarché to a packed amphitheatre.
By 2012, two other women had joined BLOOM. They had no financing but they were getting results. That year they took Intermarché to the French advertising regulation authority for an ad campaign that falsely claimed its fishing practices posed
“We need to understand that this is war against nature, and the natural world is our support system”
no harm to the marine environment. Intermarché had to withdraw the offending advertisement.
BLOOM won public support too. In 2013, Claire gave a passionate TEDxParis talk, where she revealed not only the marvels of the deep sea, such as sponges used in cancer treatment, but also the ‘toxic logic’ of the French fishing industry. Even with subsidies, the fishing industry was unprofitable but, by buying fish from Intermarché, the public was funding the destruction of the deep sea. Popular cartoonist Pénelopé Bagieu was in the audience that night. She was so shocked that she turned Claire’s talk into a comic strip. The cartoon – which depicts how deep-sea bottom trawling is more than 3000 times destructive than any other human marine activity, including gas and oil extraction – went viral. BLOOM’s petition asking the French government to stop deep-sea bottom trawling grew to nearly 900,000 names in a few days. It was the biggest environmental petition in French history.
But at a European level, Claire suffered a bitter blow. On December 10 that year the European Parliament unexpectedly voted to allow deep sea bottom trawling to continue.
“I felt horrible and discouraged,” Claire admits. “I lost faith in humanity.”
But the next day Claire was again rallying her small team. That same day Intermarché put out a public message, reaching out to environmental groups for help in implementing more sustainable fishing practices. A month later, the company agreed to stop fishing below 800 metres. In November 2015, the French government under François Hollande agreed to the same ban, followed by all EU member states in June 2016.
But her work saving the ever-threatened marine environment is far from done, Claire says. She has now turned her attention to electric pulse fishing, which indiscriminately electrocutes all marine life close to the nets.
“A lot of other damage is still going on and who’s watching that?” says Claire. “We need to understand that this is war against nature, and the natural world is our support system.”
In April this year, Claire Nouvian was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for grassroots conservationists who achieve results even though the odds are stacked against them.
A photo of a dumbo octopus from Nouvian’s book that depicts the extraordinary beauty of the deep sea