Claire Nouvian

2018 Goldman Prize Recipient

  • France
  • Oceans & Coasts

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.

A delicate balance of marine life

In the 1980s, traditionally strong stocks of Atlantic cod and other white fish along the northeast Atlantic continental shelf began to collapse from overfishing. Fishermen ventured farther out to sea—and into deeper waters—in search of unexploited fishing grounds, yielding orange roughy, black scabbard fish, and roundnose grenadier. Most deep-sea fish grow slowly and reproduce late, making them particularly vulnerable to overfishing. By the early 2000s, these stocks were severely depleted in many cases.

In Europe, the main deep-sea fleet was French and belonged to supermarket chain Intermarché. The fleet—like many others in Europe—used a method known as bottom trawling, in which boats tow a heavily-weighted net that is dragged back and forth over the seafloor. One of the most destructive forms of fishing, bottom trawling destroys everything in its path. Metal “doors” used to keep the nets open can weigh hundreds of pounds and the nets can be up to 40 feet high and 200 feet wide. During an average 10-day fishing trip, trawlers make up to five passes per day, covering 12 to 18 square miles of sea floor (the 10 French deep-sea bottom trawlers could destroy an area the size of Paris in two days). Countless fish, sharks, crustaceans, and invertebrates picked up as bycatch are thrown overboard and rarely survive. One observer likened the practice to “clear-cutting a forest to catch a few birds.”

A passionate advocate for the sea

Claire Nouvian grew up in Algiers, Paris, and Hong Kong. The daughter of a recreational fisherman, she has vivid memories of spending weekends by the sea, learning first-hand about coastal environments.

In her 20s, Nouvian spent time in Argentina, where she was overwhelmed by the bounty of nature. Experiencing an environmental awakening, she was inspired to work on behalf of the environment, initially as a wildlife filmmaker and journalist. In this work, she saw up-close the extent to which natural habitats were shrinking and wildlife was being threatened. After filming a documentary at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, Nouvian became passionate about the deep sea.

In 2005, Nouvian founded the NGO BLOOM in order to preserve marine environments from unnecessary destruction, and soon began to build close relationships with other organizations and experts to launch the fight against deep-sea trawling.

A path to policy change

In 2008, as the EU was developing reforms of its deep-sea fisheries laws, Nouvian saw a window of opportunity to influence policy at both the French and EU levels. She began collaborating with other activists to lobby French politicians on the need for new fisheries legislation. Nouvian knew that her approach needed to be data-driven and scientifically sound in order to combat the powerful French fishing lobby, and engaging enough to influence the public. As the main powerhouse behind the French fishing lobby, convincing Intermarché to change its fishing practices was a crucial first step to securing a ban on deep-sea bottom trawling in France.

In June 2012, Nouvian won a legal battle against Intermarché for its ad campaign that falsely claimed that its fishing practices posed no harm to the marine environment. The following year, she initiated a public consumer campaign that ranked French supermarkets according to their fishing practices, focusing particularly on deep-water fish and each supermarket’s commitment to sustainable fishing. With the largest and most destructive fishing fleet, Intermarché came in last in the ranking. Based on a TEDx talk by Nouvian, French cartoonist Pénélope Bagieu published a comic strip on her blog depicting the devastation caused by deep-sea fishing. The piece was shared widely and helped garner 900,000 signatures for BLOOM’s petition asking the French government to support a ban on deep-sea bottom trawling.

Throughout 2013, Nouvian continued a media blitz, with giant public posters, newspapers ads, press statements, media interviews, and fact-based reports—all in opposition to destructive deep-sea fishing. In December 2013, public pressure on Intermarché prompted the supermarket chain to begin negotiations with Nouvian. In January 2014, Intermarché announced that it would no longer fish below 2,600 feet (800 meters) and would phase out the sale of deep-sea species by 2025.

Still, France remained one of the only EU member countries opposed to any regulation of deep-sea bottom trawling, so Nouvian launched a new media campaign pressuring the French government to change its position. In November 2015, France—in response to overwhelming public pressure—finally agreed to a ban on deep-sea bottom trawling below a depth of 2,600 feet (800 meters). In 2016, all EU member states collectively adopted the ban.

Today, Nouvian and BLOOM are collaborating with Intermarché to deepen its sustainability practices. The company has overhauled its business practices and recognizes that its bottom line is indeed tied to its sustainability impact. With BLOOM, Nouvian is now actively working to end fishing subsidies that encourage overfishing and destructive fishing practices around the world.

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