When Claire Nouvian first became passionate about protecting deep-sea life two decades ago, she says not many people were paying attention. Since then, Nouvian has helped put threats to the deep ocean in the international spotlight and change the European Union’s fishing policies. For her work, the Goldman Environmental Prize – an annual award given to grassroots environmental activists from around the world – on Monday announced Nouvian as one of this year’s seven winners.
In 2005 wildlife filmmaker Nouvian founded BLOOM Association, a nonprofit that began to fight deep-sea trawling – a destructive fishing practice in which a weighted net is dragged along the seafloor, scooping up everything in its path. Nouvian learned that her own country, France, was heavily involved in trawling.
Her organization launched a multifaceted campaign against trawling, involving legal battles, scientific research and consumer education. An early target was one of Europe’s largest supermarket chains, Intermarche. Its French parent company owned a fishing fleet that was an important player in Europe’s trawling industry. In 2014, Intermarche agreed to stop fishing below 800m (2,600ft) and to phase out the supermarket sale of all deep-sea species in a decade. The European Union, with the support of France, adopted a similar trawling ban in 2016 after lobbying from BLOOM, the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition and Pew Charitable Trusts.
Oceans Deeply spoke with Nouvian about the challenges and successes in her battle to protect the deep sea and its fragile ecosystems.
Oceans Deeply: With your TEDxParis Talk and write-in campaigns, it seems like a big part of your effort was around raising public awareness. Given that this ecosystem is so far away and can seem so alien, how did you connect with people, and did you feel like that was a challenge?
Claire Nouvian: I never felt like that was a challenge. I thought, if only a fraction of people are like me, they should really be gasping for air when they see all of these wonderful creatures. A big red jelly will have tentacles that are deployed to 5m, and the colossal squid will reach 20[m]! All of that is quite easy to draw attention to, I think.
Oceans Deeply: Do you feel like you did anything especially unique?
Nouvian: We don’t assume that one single field, one single approach, will work miracles. We think that you simultaneously have to take on all different aspects – whether it be media, public opinion, education, policy and do it all at once. And legal – don’t worry, we go there, too.
People could tweet, they could write postcards, and that really does deliver pressure and therefore results, but alone I don’t think that would suffice. We also need expert advice for policymakers. That is where Matt Gianni [of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition] needs a special mention because Matt was our policy adviser throughout the campaign.
If there was one item that I have to pick out to explain why we eventually won, I would say that it’s the socioeconomic analysis of the deep-sea fishing fleets. I think that that really delivered a lot because no one had looked at their economic performance so far. We were able to show that the public taxpayer’s money was used to keep those industrial fleets afloat and that without that money there would be no industrial fishing. There would be no overcapacity. It had a ripple effect all the way up to the European institutions. The economic analysis was, I think, quite powerful.
Oceans Deeply: How did you start working with the supermarket giant Intermarche?
Nouvian: [At Intermarche] there was a change of managers at the highest possible level, and I think that that’s the encouraging thing. A big corporation is really only worth the people that it’s got, so you can see that the changes in management can deliver a lot. When they changed managers at Intermarche, we had very reasonable people that really understood that their responsibility was to keep the relationship that they have with their customers alive. They needed that trust.
What we had been saying to them was “go further.” You have a public name, you are established, you have so many supermarkets. You need to take this responsibility seriously. At the end of the day, when consumers walk into a supermarket, they want to make sure that the brand took responsibility for not poisoning them, for not destroying the environment, for not having slave labor.
They understood that this was a necessity in the long run, and they took it seriously. We’ll see if the results are there. For the moment, they’re really sincere about really trying to change their ways. That is a massive shift.
Oceans Deeply: Do you have strategies that you think you can take from your experience fighting bottom trawling to other ocean issues?
Nouvian: We just won a vote against electric fishing, which is mission impossible because we started late. We were so busy with the deep-sea trawl ban that we really started late on electric fishing, but we did start and in just a few days we turned around the European Parliament with 751 members. We got [them] to vote for a definitive ban on electric fishing, and now we need to convince the rest of the institutions, i.e. member states.
The fact that we are science-based and the fact that we use data to produce our documents and our guidelines is really very powerful. So, we’re doing it again. But also, we’re really trying to get the World Trade Organization to eliminate harmful fishery subsidies. That is 164 member states. We have a year and a half to accomplish this. We’re going to be very busy.
Oceans Deeply: Is there anything more that you would like to say?
Nouvian: I am very honored [to have won the Goldman Environmental Prize] but I suppose that is very common language about the award. I think that the other winners are spectacularly courageous – much braver because they live under threats that are so real. I feel like such a small player compared to them, so I have a lot of admiration.
I would also explicitly call on the corporate and financial sector to seriously start funding true change in the world and to stop being so selfish and materialistic. I would call on them to start acting like adults.