Claire Nouvian by Xerxes Cook

Water makes up 98 percent of the earth’s volume, yet we’ve only had a chance to explore one percent of its wildlife.

What Lies Beneath

With the populations of the tasty fish we like to eat diminishing by the day, the European fishing industry has had to look for fish further ashore, and deeper, for new species using a technique called deep sea bottom trawling that threatens the marine organisms we know of, and those we don’t.

It was on a reconnaissance trip for a film at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in the United States in 2001, that Claire Nouvian first discovered incredible images of unidentified creatures in spectacular shapes and astonishing colours, filmed at depths of up to 4000 metres. Captivated and dazzled, she sought to learn more about them, capturing this otherworldly abyss in her book and exhibition, The Deep, in 2006.

Her feelings soon turned to outrage on discovering that as the numbers of cod, haddock, hake and flounder have fallen as much as 95 percent over the past decade, boats have been indiscriminately trawling the bottoms of the deep seas in a hunt for just three species — blue ling, black scabbard fish and grenadier ­— and simply throwing everything else away, whether that be 4000 year old corals, sharks, or the examples of biodiversity we know very little about. So Claire set up BLOOM Association, an organization dedicated to campaigning against a marine industry dominated by France that is 3000 time more destructive than any other — and that includes gas and oil extraction.

Do you eat fish? Yeah I do. I have had a lot recently because the fish labelling study we’re doing, which I didn’t particularly really like. Outside of the study, I’ll eat animals low on the food chain like herring, mackerel and sardines, I really enjoy sardines. I think we should forget about tuna in general, unless you can get a specifically identified fish that you know is sustainable, why not, go ahead and indulge yourself — but it’s going to remain a predator no matter what. It’s like eating the lions in the savannah and not the antelopes.

What is the situation with deep sea bottom trawling? Well we can start with the oceans in general. They are massively exploited, and there are very few fisheries that are sustainable, properly managed so we get the same amount of fish year after year, especially in Europe. If you bottom trawl an area, you take everything that’s there and really jeopordise all these links between living things, which will eventually produce a surplus which you can collect — the idea of fisheries is that you should only harvest the surplus. And we tend to forget that fishing is the last activity that feeds the world from wild things — these are not things we farm or breed. Except for when you pick a few berries or mushrooms when you’re going for a walk in the forest, fish are literally the only food items you’re going to get from the wild. So we shouldn’t be playing with fire… We’ve depleted the stocks so much that we’ve lost we think about 90 percent of predators in the ocean, the big large fish, in the past 50 years. And what are you going to have next? In the Mediterranean, it’s jellyfish. Or, in Croatia for example, I have unpublished data from scientists that has shown last year was the first time that they’ve caught more plastic bags in weight than fish. And so because of that, fisherman have had to look for fish further ashore, and deeper, for new species which have very little value.

So it is out of desperation we’ve turned to these fish? Yep.

Eating tuna is like eating the lions inthe savannah and not the antelopes.

Deep sea bottom trawlers are looking for three fish, and throw away everything else — but these three fish don’t seem to be particularly tasty… How can there be a demand for them? It’s weird. When they started deep sea fishing in France in 1989, they offered these fish for free to French people, to get them acquainted with the taste. And they got used to it, and after a while, they started to think it was acceptable. The beautiful great fish we used to have in the North Atlantic, like cod, huge beautiful cod, have completely disappeared, collapsed once and for all, apparently in 1992. So because they’re not coming back, since then, people have developed a taste for deep sea fish.

People now are quite familiar with the idea of buying sustainable caught fish, such as pole and line caught tuna. But what are the few steps consumers can do for a phenomenon like deep sea trawling? Every time you buy something you are making a vote for the world you want when you buy. You are what you eat. And then in our evanescent world, signing petitions or sharing information — which is what social networks are great for. Also, I would just say, we have a great filter which allows us to have a positive outlook on life, but people should just trust NGOs, even if the truth is so bad it’s hard to believe.

When it comes to fish, does the responsibility lie with customers or businesses? Both, as one doesn’t work without the other. Brands are so hypocritical. Because Intermarché [the French supermarket who own six out of the 11 deep sea bottom trawlers] has a vested interest in deep sea fishing, for years they’ve been carrying out this toxic lobbying, and we’ve had this massive construction of this huge state lie about deep sea fishing. And just because we’ve managed to generate public pressure, they’re now negotiating with us. Brands are sensitive to public mobilisation; as without us, the customers, they don’t exist. And then, brands, when they become champions — there’s a beautiful piece of research called Shame vs. Honor by Jennifer Jacquet, a social game that’s shown that brands who seem to be moving towards or cooperating with environmental or social standards are very sensitive to shame or honours. But those who already have pretty shameful business practices are insensitive to anything. And that’s why BLOOM has issued a supermarket ranking in France regarding their fish procurement policies. So yeah, get mobilised.

We tend to forget that fishing is the last activity that feeds the world from wild things — these are not things we farm or breed. So we shouldn’t be playing with fire.

Deep Sea Wildlife

In deep water, a new creature is discovered every two weeks, and yet we have only explored one percent of the deep ocean. Below the photic layer where the sun doesn’t shine, 200 metres down, there are dazzling arrays of creatures that have developed a number of ways of surviving without photosynthesis. Some of these fish even produce their own light, like the giant Siphonophore which, at 100 metres long, is the largest animal in the world — and is one of the two life forms on Earth capable of emit a red biolumescence (the other being Chirostomias pliopterus, a species of barbeled dragonfish found in the Atlantic Ocean). The very bottom of the ocean bed is home to over 3,000 species of coral, some of which have been discovered to be 4,200 years old. All these magical creatures and the world they inhabit is destroyed daily by deep sea bottom trawling, a fishing technique that strips the ocean floor at a rate that would demolish Paris in a day and a half. For more information, have a look at Penelope Jolicoeur’s witty illustration of Claire’s TED talk on deep sea bottom trawling, and don’t forget to sign the petition!

The BLOOM Association is also active in the Far East in working to conserve shark populations through making shark fin soup a socially unacceptable dish, and has had some success with Hong Kong’s Peninsula Hotels taking it off their menus, and Cathay Pacific refusing to transport sharks from unsustainable sources. But why should we be bothered about sharks in the West? Well, actually, you are going to eat a shark. An NGO revealed that for a long time, fishing ships in the U.K. were selling a large proportion of deepwater sharks instead of cod for your fish and chips. Also, you will probably find some squalene in your beauty products, which is a product very often derived from the liver of deep sea sharks. It is a very moisturising compound which is non greasy, which is why everybody loves it. For the cosmetic industry, there’s a whole trade out there of endangered species, especially in Asia. In the West they’ve said they’ve cleaned up — and actually I’m testing a load of cosmetics tonight from England, France, Asia to see if their squalene comes from sharks or other sources such as olive fermentation. Squalene is also used in some vaccines. The world has lost 99.9 percent of its sharks — it’s crazy.

And how did you become so interested in the oceans? I could have done something else. It’s just out of all the spending on NGOs for environmental work [goes towards the oceans]. it’s only something like three or four percent, even though oceans cover 72 percent of our planet. The NGOs are completely understaffed, when you compare it to what at stake — half of the oxygen in the world comes from the oceans, we’re dealing with the stabilisation of the climate, recycling of carbon, the food supply, the economy, jobs — there’s a billion people who depend on the oceans, but there’s only three percent of funding that goes into oceans. So I think it was the urgency of the situation that pulled me in that direction. My real passion is for birds, but they don’t need me, they’re doing fine. Whereas the oceans, especially the deep oceans which are the largest reservoir of life on Earth, nobody was doing anything about the really rapid destruction which is probably totally irreversible.

What gives you hope? I am optimistic about individuals. And brands — some brands can really change the world, and they should take their CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility] commitments very seriously.

Do you think humans are intrinsically altruistic or selfish? Selfish. Is there even a debate about this?

Dianna Cohen said what gives her hope is that people’s first reaction to bad news is to ask, ‘what can I do about this?’ I’m pretty pessimistic about human nature — otherwise, why would we be where we are?

In Croatia, last year was the first time that they've caught more plastic bags in weight than fish.

Daniel Pinchbeck views the ecological crisis as an initiatory stage for human development. That’s what Descartes used to think 400 years ago, but look what happened. These people were fiercely in favour of progress, as they thought technological, medical progress and science in general was going to bring us liberation from slavery tasks and diseases.

Yet we’ve become slaves to our machines. And the only progress we can now achieve in the West is altruism, education, empathy and consciousness — these are real projects that can really drive you for your entire lifetime. But are we taking this route? I don’t think so.

We have a great filter which allows us to have a positive outlook on life, but people should just trust NGOs, even if the truth is so bad it’s hard to believe.

However, we do see a rise in mindfulness within business practices, which is basically Buddhist meditation recalibrated for a corporate culture, and the popularity of Eastern practices such as yoga hints at a recognition that Western material progress hasn’t fulfilled the needs of our body nor soul. Yet after spending so much time in China and Hong Kong, do you find this phenomenon to be in reverse? Yes, which is why my faith is in individuals, and not in a collective trajectory. Lots of individuals are doing amazing things, and if not faith, it gives you hope, love and meaning on a day to day basis, so you don’t end up in the gulch. If you go downtown to Shanghai it’s like a mass that’s been put to sleep, they’re going to a mecca of shopping. Consciousness, I don’t see it.

What would be your advice? To throw away your television.

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