Claire Nouvian: ‘Deep-sea bottom trawling applies the most destructive fishing to the most fragile ecosystem.’ Photograph: Iris Brosch/Goldman Environmental Prize
From The Guardian by Jonathan Watts
It was a vampire squid that inspired the European winner of this year’s Goldman environmental prize to successfully challenge the devastatingly unsustainable practice of bottom-trawling.
More than a decade before Blue Planet, Claire Nouvian was researching this rare creature – a living fossil that is found 4,000m below the surface of Monterey Bay – for a French television company, when she first realized the extraordinary variety of life and colour on the deep ocean floor.
The joy of that discovery was quickly followed by horror when she realized how quickly this landscape – formed over centuries – was being turned into a desert as a result of industrial fishing.
A bottom trawl is a type of fishing net that's pulled along the seafloor.
Fishermen commonly use bottom trawls to catch shrimp and bottom-dwelling fish like halibut and sole.
However, in addition to these target fish, the nets also catch a variety of ocean life that's usually thrown back dead or dying.
Dragging heavy gear across the seabed can also damage sensitive seafloor habitat.
The harmful effects of bottom trawling on bottom-dwelling organisms and their habitat can be reduced by modifying the fishing gear or limiting trawling areas.
Deep-sea bottom trawlers drag heavy nets with steel doors and roller gear across the ocean floor, decimating ancient coral, mussel colonies, sponges, sea worms and many species that live long and breed too slowly to replenish their numbers.
The technique has been compared to the clear-cutting of forests because the heavy doors – some of which weigh several tonnes and are marketed as canyonbusters – scrape the tops off of seamounts and rugged terrain.
A tireless defender of the oceans and marine life, Claire Nouvian led a focused, data-driven advocacy campaign against the destructive fishing practice of deep-sea bottom trawling, successfully pressuring French supermarket giant and fleet owner Intermarché to change its fishing practices.
Her coalition of advocates ultimately secured French support for a ban on deep-sea bottom trawling that led to an EU-wide ban.
Determined to challenge this, Nouvian switched from journalism to activism, founded the Bloom Association in 2005, and began a campaign that recently resulted in a major policy shift by the European Union.
She describes her strategy as an application of investigative journalism.
She first identified the problem, honed in on the causes, interviewed the major players and then sieved through reams of data to expose the ecological and economic flaws of the business.
“Deep-sea bottom trawling applies the most destructive fishing to the most fragile ecosystem,” Nouvian told the Guardian in an interview ahead of the Goldman award ceremony.
“The seafloor has intricate features that form over years, like cities. Bottom trawling wipes it out.”
Intermarche fish selections.
Courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize
Nouvian initially focused attention on a fishing fleet owned by Intermarché, a French supermarket chain.
Her association sifted through years of corporate accounts and discovered that the fleet was chronically unprofitable even with public subsidies.
In partnership with other NGOs, they also canvassed former fishing communities in France and the UK to see how fishing port communities were being ruined by industrial trawling.
This was followed by a petition calling on the government to ban a practice that was environmentally destructive and economically unviable.
With the help of a viral cartoon on the subject by acclaimed French illustrator Pénélope Bagieu, more than 900,000 people signed up, forcing first Intermarché, then the French and UK governments, then the European parliament and council to agree on restrictions.
From June 2016, European fleets have been banned from bottom trawling at depths of more than 800m.
Claire Nouvian at a Paris fish market
Courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize
Nouvian is now targeting pulse fishing, which uses electric currents to stun fish or induce spasms that force sole and plaice from the sediment.
The European commission banned this practice – along with fishing with poison and explosives – in 1998, but eight years later accepted a Dutch proposal for an exemption for 5% of trawlers to conduct “scientific research” into whether this form of fishing is less destructive than other types of trawling.
Nouvian says 84 Dutch ships have been fitted with electrodes, which is more than 30% of the fleet, and they only started collecting data after Bloom challenged them in 2016.
“This is terrifying. If we electrocute fish, we also electrocute eggs and everything else. All life in a certain space is wiped out. It sounds like science fiction, but it is real.”
Under pressure from Bloom, other NGOs and small-scale fishermen’s groups, the European parliament voted to prohibit pulse fishing inside EU waters earlier this year.
But she says it continues on a wide scale because the European commission is failing to enforce regulations while the EU institutions make a final ruling on whether pulse fishing should be prohibited.
Nouvian has called on supermarkets to refuse to stock electric-caught fish but so far in the UK only Waitrose, Co-op and Morrisons have agreed, while Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Marks and Spencers have not replied.
French retailers – who have learned not to cross this formidable campaigner – have been more responsive.
The prize-winner – who complains there is only 20 hours to work in a day – is also working to ban shark-finning in Asia and lobbying the World Trade Organisation and governments around the world to end subsidies for destructive industrial fishing and to give more support to small-scale fishing communities.
“There are way too many big fishing vessels and they are kept afloat with public subsidies. But there are fewer fish so they have to go further, enter deeper waters and take more types of fish,” she said. “We have the means to wipe out other species and us with it, but just because we can it does not mean we have to.”
- NewsDeeply : Goldman Prize Goes to Activist Who Fought Deep-Sea Industrial Trawling / Race to the Bottom: Impact of Deep-Sea Fishing Severely Underestimated
- The Times : Not every vampire squid is the great vampire squid
- Science Magazine : Tensions flare over electric fishing in European waters
- GeoGarage blog : Is fishing with electricity less destructive than digging ... / Can the EU do more to protect deep sea life?