Claire Nouvian

This description of Claire Nouvian's work was prepared when Claire Nouvian was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2013 .

Introduction

Since 1950, 20 percent of sea species have disappeared and the rate of extinction of marine species has been accelerating so fast that there could be few wild fish left by 2050. To reverse this situation, Claire Nouvian is building a collaborative research community that enables and pushes companies, citizen organizations (COs), and governments to change every step in how the world deals with the oceans. With her organization, Bloom, Claire is enjoying early species preservation successes.

The New Idea

Claire is building a body of independent credible research so that oceans reformers and decision-makers can take actions standing on solid ground and with the necessary legitimacy to win changes all along the fishing value chain, from consumers and distributors to regulators. She is able to do so by mobilizing an international group of independent researchers and experts that work pro bono. Thus, she is able to provide new insights across a spectrum of areas including the state of marine ecosystems and on the consequent impacts on marine life, consumption patterns (e.g. the transparency of certifications and labels and the use of fish byproducts across industries), subsidy systems that finance the fishing industry, and alternatives to fish-based products. Claire is simultaneously creating multi-targeted strategies to raise awareness among consumers and change their consumption patterns; denouncing deceptive labeling and certification strategies of distributors; helping distributors change their practices and rethink their supply chain, and is lobbying toward a change in industry norms creating a more balanced subsidies system for the fishing industry.

Claire understands the urgency to do something to preserve threatened marine ecosystems that are disappearing at a dramatic rate. She targets key areas, mostly forgotten by other environmental organizations, where change is doable and success is rapidly achievable. For example, stopping wide-net fishing and the 285 mega-boats that use these nets and are responsible for 85 percent of deepwater catches is therefore one of her major battles. Saving sharks, a species that could disappear in just over 20 years, is another urgent threat.

The Problem

Over the past decades, changes in consumption, distribution, and fishing habits have been having a dramatic impact on marine ecosystems. The level and nature of consumer demand is not adapted to the sustainable management of oceans: fish consumption per inhabitant has multiplied. As a consequence, 80 percent of marine resources are exploited at full capacity or overexploited; predatory fish species, like sharks, have declined by 90 percent over the past 50 years, and “the end of fish” is scheduled for 2048 if fishing pressure remains unchanged, and 2025 when it comes to deep sea fish. According to an upcoming research study by Daniel Pauly, comparing the number of fish officially declared and the real number of catches, the situation could be even worse with underestimated fishing stocks.

Due to a lack of independent studies negative impacts of current fishing practices are difficult to prove. Current research is biased by the financial and political interests of their sponsors, with research grants coming from the fishing industry preventing access to reliable information to inform accurate corporate strategy design or policy making. For example, contradictory research sources give different lists of endangered species to protect and policymakers suffer from the slow pace of negotiation and reform implementation at the EU level, while feeling strong lobbying pressure from multiple stakeholders. As a result, fishing quotas and legal constraints are too indulgent to effectively protect marine ecosystems. The financing system is also imbalanced: 85 percent of subsidies ($34 to $50 billion a year) go to industrial fishing (versus traditional fishing), whereas they only account for 50 percent of the sector’s catch dedicated to human consumption and only represent 4 percent of the sector’s employment.

In this context, most COs working toward marine conservation are at a disadvantage to affect real lasting change. Until now, no one has developed an entire value chain approach, combining reliable research, effective denunciation, and selfless collaboration with industry players and political institutions, which might be the only effective way to bridge activism, implement the necessary reforms and bring about a systemic change.

Most consumers have no understanding of the silent destruction that currently threatens all marine ecosystems. While they are informed of the fate of some endangered species living on firm ground, they ignore the existence of deep sea species. Without an affective bond to these species, humans often feel less concerned about their destiny. As a result, they think of fish as a sustainable, healthy alternative to meat without realizing that the volumes of species they consume have a direct, negative environmental impact.

The Strategy

In her effort(s) to influence practices toward more sustainability all along the fishing industry value chain, Claire has created a system to capture, foster and build a knowledge base of unbiased scientific arguments. To do so, she mobilizes independent researchers in top universities and independent research centers around the globe. Claire engages them in producing and/or sharing independent and critical studies about fishing industry activities, subsidy systems, practices of distributors and consumers, social and environmental impacts, and so on. Much of this research relies on existing data that is never computed in an unbiased way, which allows reducing their cost. Additionally, all research targets specific and action-oriented issues that are not in the focus of other players in the field, such as deep sea fishing or sharks. This allows for clear messages and non-conflicted information, and enables her to engage stakeholders to act quickly on information; and gives her a base of knowledge to rely on and offer advice and support to industry players.

Focusing on actions that can have a positive and rapid impact on urgent issues, Claire connects and works directly with governments and companies that are open to changing their practices and can make a difference in the field. For example, with the support of solid, independent research of scientists and an organized mobilization of other COs, Claire has contributed to a full reform of deep sea fishing regulation at the European level. Indeed, a vote in March 2013 has opened the way to stop bottom trawlers and other destructive deep sea fishing methods.

In parallel, still relying on scientific proof, Claire denounces those who refuse to act and builds consumer and citizen sector pressure to incentivize them to change. For example, the unsustainable practices of supermarket chains have been one of her major battles. She has notably identified and revealed how a well-known supermarket chain was misleading consumers. While they own the biggest French deep sea fishing fleet and have some of the most devastating practices in the field, and do not meet legal transparency requirements, they had created their own sustainable fishing certification and were greenwashing consumers about the advantages of owning their own fleet, which ensured they knew “where the fish comes from.” With scientific evidence in hand, Claire has launched a campaign demonstrating the impact of these practices on the environment, and has had a deep impact on the chain’s image, leading them to rethink their practices.

More interestingly, this campaign has also had a major influence on the practices of other large retail chains. For example System U, another leading French supermarket chain, has entirely reviewed its fish supply chain strategic plan and postponed the launch of its own sustainability certification when they learned of the risks associated with misleading consumers. As for the market leader Carrefour, they are working hand-in-hand with Claire, with free, unbiased consulting and advice to develop sustainable strategies. While working on the definition of a realistic—thus long-term—transition plan toward a sustainable fishing supply chain, Carrefour has blacklisted threatened underwater species from their shelves.

To give more leverage to her influence on policymakers and business leaders, Claire knows she needs a strong voice and strong allies. She hence organizes large environmental groups with an interest in the marine advocacy field to speak as a unified voice through a unique platform, hosted by the international Deep Sea Conservation Coalition. For each of her battles, she can count on the support of WWF, Greenpeace, the Shark Alliance, and Foundation Nicolas Hulot: together, they are credible enough to bring cases to governments, European institutions or the Tribunal of the Seas. In 2009, during the French Grenelle de la Mer, they have successfully proposed a law to turn 20 percent of French Marine territory into marine protected area (France is the second largest European country in terms of marine territory). Today, the platform is playing a key role in preparing a reform of European laws on abysses (deep sea) fishing; and thanks to Claire’s independent research on the environmental consequences of the current EU fishing subsidy system, they are also influencing its design and proposing alternatives.

Claire also knows the power of consumers in their consumption choices, and of consumer unions, in their ability to influence public opinion, sue large companies and the government. She is hence mobilizing a critical mass of consumers through various channels—raising consumer awareness about marine species through attractive and playful tools (books, exhibitions, and a contest); and informing them with independent data and research in the media, notably through an annual sustainability ranking of supermarkets and fisheries (something she had initially set up in New Zealand). Recently, Claire has embarked on an effort to create a consumer union by recruiting the general public to her cause: when she reaches 10,000 members, she will have an even stronger voice.

The Person

Claire is a traveler and a nature lover. Born in Paris, she has been traveling around the globe since childhood and has lived in many countries (Algeria, HK, France, Argentina, Germany, to name a few, creating an identity as a citizen of the world. Claire decided early on to learn foreign languages to communicate with as many people as possible around the world, and now speaks six languages, including Russian and Chinese. During her travels, she also discovered the downsides of modernity, particularly appalled by over-consumerism and materialism in some places.

During Claire’s early 20s, she spontaneously moved to Argentina where she had a revelation about nature and decided that she would devote her life to its preservation. Back in France, she worked as a co-producer with Discovery Channel, and she geared her career to creating nature documentaries to help citizens discover the richness of nature and wildlife, and the role of individuals in our ecosystem. Using scientific information and research became the basis for all her work.

Claire was brought face-to-face with the stakes of marine ecosystem preservation while making a documentary on abysses in California, and found that millennium species and deep sea ecosystems had been destroyed for decades by the fishing industry. Convinced that such a topic required a unique outlook, she quit the production company she was working for and created her own production venture. Claire formed a network of scientists and researchers to prepare what would later become Bloom’s first project: a book and exhibition on abysses. She requested fifteen levels of editing before being fully satisfied! The book sold 150,000 copies and more than 1 million visitors have been to “The Deep” exhibition around the globe.

Claire developed other actions in the field of marine conservation, as she discovered that informing consumers would not be enough to change the fishing industry. In 2009, she discovered what was happening to sharks in Asia and decided to open a Bloom office in Hong Kong. In partnership with the research department of Hong Kong University, she conducted an ambitious, independent study about the sociological and eco-toxicological dimensions of shark consumption. This gave Bloom enough data to denounce wrong doings and convince the catering and the cosmetic industries to collaborate with them on more sustainable alternatives. As a result, 60 percent of the 35 largest hotel chains in Hong Kong have stopped offering shark fin soup. This is a tremendous achievement, considering that a single wedding dinner represents 50 to 300 sharks.