Why should you care and mobilize for the Deep Sea ?

Watch Claire Nouvian’s TEDx conference below. You can turn on English subtitles on the right bottom corner.


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Here is the transcript:


This is the planet, how the planet is known to us, how it is seen from space, a planet wih 3/4 of its surface covered by the oceans. But this is a flat image, in two dimensions.  If we add the depth to this image in order to have a three dimensions image that takes into account the volume, therefore a more faithful view, this would be the final image of the planet, because water is really occupying 99% of the planet in terms of volume. So water on Earth is really the place where life can develop, where animals can live. This is what made Cousteau say : on the scale of the planet, birds only crawl.


The average depth of the ocean is 3,800 meters deep. We all now the Marianne Trench, up to 11 000 meters deep… There is life, through and through the  oceans. One can think evidently because there is no light past 200 meters deep and beings are found in total obscurity, and there in no photosynthesis and no production of food… Then all the food falling down for animals in the Deep Sea will be the crumbs falling from the surface. We can think this limitation of food will limit the development of life. Obviously, the opposite happens, because we see these amazing life forms in the Deep Sea, the biggest habitat of the planet, with very particular morphological adaptations to an hostile environment, because it is cold, there are few things to eat. Opposed to what we imagine most of the time, this diversity of species -and this is not quite intuitive for us- is not represented with an important biomass. If we count the animals and weight them in kilos per square kilometer or square meter, life is not very abundant. Whereas in terms of species diversity, as life appeared in the water, and we are talking of millions and billions of years of evolution in the water, we come to an amazing diversity of animals.


The animal behind me is a real fish, it is not a science fiction film creature, with a completely transparent skull and tubular eyes. We can wonder where it comes from, it comes from the oceans, it comes from California and was discovered in 2009. We discover in this “land of records” or “sea of records”, an animal like this one, which holds the record of length, it is the longest animal of the world. A blue whale is 30 meters long, which is already significant, well this animal, the giant siphonophora, can be up to 100 meters long. When we dive into the oceans, we describe on average a new species every two weeks. You can imagine, as we’ve only sampled one percent of the deep oceans, we have everything to discover. For instance, I’m showing you here researchers who discovered three octopus siting on their eggs. They dove year after year, the octopus were not moving. These octopus hold the record of the longest hatching, as they stayed three years without moving or feeding themselves, hatching their eggs at several thousands of meters deep.


We also discover on the seabed, animals that are disseminated and that can be useful to humankind. We can say, it’s great, this girl loves the Deep Sea, but what is the purpose of all this? The purpose can be bound, typically in deep-sea sponges… We extract from them molecules used in cancer treatment and in industrial applications. These sponges and corals typically… Do you associate them with the deep oceans? Usually no. We imagine corals as aggregated in coral reefs like the Great Barrier Reef in Australia  or the Red Sea in tropical waters or hot surface waters. Well, we are wrong. Most coral species on Earth live up to 3 000 meters deep, in the Deep Sea. We can see here a coral reef, this reef is 9 000 years old. 9 000 years is what it took for this ecosystem to be built. One needs to understand that an ecosystem is as complex as a city. There are “hospitals”, “roads”, nurseries”, “offices”, “dormitories”… And for all of this to be functional and balanced, thousands of years are required for this setup.  On the other hand, these coral reefs can be build with only six species of coral, so only six deep-sea species can build coral reefs, but there are more than 3 000 coral species living disseminated on the seabed.

This picture shows the animal with the longevity record on Earth. It is 4 200 years old. This animal alone is 4 200 years old. Now what is the purpose of these corals ? Their functions resemble the ones of trees : we can see here a deep-sea coral branch with an egg. It is like a tree, it will welcome nests, allowing animal to reproduce, and swim from the seabed to gain access to the current and feed themselves. Researchers did not know what this egg stood for, they broke the coral branch, brought it on the boat and, before their eyes, for the first time in history, this “glowing sucker octopus” hatched. These are obviously not real ears, these are fins. These octopus, of which we know nothing about… We have to imagine that we have far more questions on all this fauna living far away from our thoughts and activities.. We know almost nothing about them, we know very little. On the other hand, we know that it is the biggest reserve of biodiversity on Earth. We also know that this space is a space of life in slow motion… I’ve had the luck to dive in the Deep Sea, and one immediately and intuitively understands this… As there is no light, there is no hunting mode like on the surface, where tunas and swordfish swim at full speed, as they depend on their sight to hunt, feed themselves, recognize their sexual partners, etcetera… In total obscurity, it does not happen the same way. It is more a form of wait-and-see and opportunism.


This huge reserve of biodiversity is protected since the dawn of times from our activities but also from our knowledge, since we are only begining to explore all this. It HAS been protected for a long time and it is not the case anymore. Today fishing nets will go and catch for instance this deep-sea coral. As you can see, this coral, with its size, is at the minimum several hundreds of years old, probably several thousands of years old. These corals, these animals, this fauna constitute our common world heritage and they are discarded overboard, as if it was garbage… When we should think of these animals and this biology that has so many things to share with us for humankind’s future, we should think of them as sarcophagus, as a heritage.


Which is the fishing method that enables to perpetrate this massacre? It is called “deep-sea trawling”. These are boats of industrial size that send heavy ballasted nets with steel spheres rolling on the seabed, that are non discriminatory, taking everything they find on the seabed, because of their weight. They tear off or make fall everything on their path. On either side they have huge panels that keep open the net and floaters on the front, as you can see on the diagram. They look like an open mouth that will be dragged. This gear, before catching the first fish, needed a big expense on fuel to drag all this. As we are talking of deep oceans, these boats fish until 1 800 meters deep. They need to horizontally move away from the shores and then send all this gear vertically very far, then drag it during several hours. Fish end up on the bottom of the trawl, the “final pocket”, like an enormous washtub. It is very hard to measure the impact of trawlers on the seabed because, by definition, it is the bottom, far away, very deep, far from our cameras, far form our sight. As a form of very efficient and fast marine deforestation, if it was happening on the surface of the Earth, we could document all this. It not the case. Here is the photo of what happens on the surface. It is the same fishing method, but on the surface. We see an aerial picture, with every white dot on the picture being a boat. The trails we can see are trails of sediment lifted and in suspension… Adding to the destruction of the Deep Sea and the absence of selectivity of the trawls, the sediment gets hanging in the water, creating problems for the whole ecosystem.


In the Deep Sea, this is a picture taken very deep, one cannot use the same scale. It is only possible to light around ten or twenty meters, according to the power of the lamps. But we can see that after a trawler has gone by, it is  radical, nothing remains. We have to keep in mind that we are in an extreme temporality conflict : the encounter of ultra technology and efficiency with the ultra vulnerability of biology. This equation does not function. The question that needs to be asked -and we heard it many times tonight- is: when we have the means to do something, should we do it? It is a real question about mastering our tools.


We can see that the fish we have described, that have been in this washtub for several hours, are turned into a sort of unappetizing porridge. In the nets, we find a huge amount of species of all sorts, as trawlers cannot select their catch. We actually target three species, in particular in France and the West of France. For these three marketed species, more than a hundred are discarded, sacrificed and thrown overboard dead. Among the collateral victims of these fishing methods are animals that we know nothing about, as I have shown you earlier. For most of the animals, we ignore their biomass, their population, if they are abundant, how much they are affected or not… What we know is that, when we look into it, we see how bad the situation is. Typically, deep-sea sharks living in the North-East Atlantic, have been impacted in such a radical way that their decline has been huge , their population has declined of more than 90% in less than 15 or 20 years. So we are facing here also new records… In the history of mankind and its relation to the tiger, the rhinoceros or the elephant, we have never managed to reduce so drastically wild populations in such a short timeline.


The impact on the seabed of this fishing method is also very hard to estimate, from a spatial point of view. But a British scholar made the effort by looking at the impact of this deep-sea trawling method compared to the other methods and human activities in the Deep Sea. She realized that deep-sea fishing had 3 000 times more impact on the seabed than any other human activity, for instance gas or oil extraction. The problem is to realize that, when we see a net filled with fish, and we bring to the surface this amazing abundance, it is hard to imagine that there is an biological vulnerability connected to it. When we see a picture like this, we can think it is like a net full of sardines, for instance. Except that sardines live between three and five years. These animals in the net are orange roughy, I don’t know if you have ever eaten some… Orange roughy reach sexual maturity at 25 or 30 years old, and they LIVE until 160 years old. Their biological vulnerability is intrinsic. It is out the question to use and exploit what takes place in the Deep Sea in the same way as what takes place on the surface. Researchers were clear about it : they described this fishing method as the most destructive in History.


The question we can ask is: why this massacre? Well, there are three main species caught by French boats, you might not know them: blue ling, black scabbardfish and grenadier. You won’t see them as such on the fish stall, because, forgive the pun, they have a “nasty face”, so they have always been cut in filet and were firstly offered to the consumer at the end of the eighties to make us accept these new fish on our plates. I’m asking you to remember their names because, if you come across them, it would be good to boycott them, because we have keep in mind the hideous price associated with them. These fish only represent one percent of French catches. We are not in the perspective to find a solution concerning a question of freedom or independence of fish supply to feed the French. On the other hand, several of these fish have been listed by the French Agency of food security as fish to be avoided for pregnant women or small children, because these fish, as predators, have a tendency to accumulate heavy metals or toxins in their tissues.


Who profits from deep-sea fishing? This question needs to be asked. Well, it concerns less than 300 ships in the world. So we can think the problem is easy to settle. It is crazy, but in France, there are less than ten ships concerned by this activity. The worst is that, and this has been an intellectual shock for me, deep-sea fishing is not profitable, despite benefiting from substantial public subsidies, in the past and still today. Why? How? I take a two minutes break to tell you about the money needed to fit out a boat, pay sailors, pay fuel, go and find the fish, bring them back and sell them… This activity, when the fish is sold at the auction market at 2 €/kg, is not profitable. There are exploitation losses every year, despite the subsidies. So, you might tell me, it is simple, the solution will come by itself, because this non profitable activities will end up disappearing. It is the case for some activities that went bankrupt. The problem is that, when an activity is connected to a retailing group or a group that has access to the market… Because the final consumer pays the fish 15€/kg, so there is a possibility of a margin. In order to create this margin, one needs to be backed by retailing group that has access to the final consumer. Bad news for France… Most of the French deep-sea fishing fleet belongs to the retailing group Intermarché.


We’ve come full circle. Who pays this? Us. We paid 15 Million € in the years 2000 for French deep-sea fishing. The bitter reality is that we finance the destruction of the Deep Sea. For whose benefit ? The question remains in the air. In reaction to this ecological and economic nonsense, I decided and swore to myself I would end this fishing method throughout the world.  A small goal, you might say… I have been working on this for ten years, that I exhaust myself a little, but all is not lost since in July 2012, the European Commission proposed to ban this fishing method in Europe. It took a lot of time, piles of scientific literature and economic proofs to raise up this issue in the political systems and one woman, the Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki, to have the political courage of taking this decision and propose in July 2012 the ban of this fishing method. The problem is that, when the European Commission proposes a text, it is only the beginning of a process, since after, there are the European Parliament and the Council, meaning the Member States. Mind you, France is blocking ferociously, backed up by industrial lobbies, for this regulation to go under. Today, we have a decisive step of a few months, and a few months only, to try and take this historic window of opportunity… I really don’t have the certitude that this will happen again…


And I will conclude by quoting Schopenhauer, who says : “Every truth goes through three stages: First, it is covered with ridicule… This, we have already done it… Then it suffers a strong opposition… We are in the middle of it… Then it is considered to have always been an obvious fact.” To get to this last stage, it is obvious that we will not manage this on our own. I say “we” meaning the NGOs, the associations on the field… Without the support of the public opinion, YOUR support… to sign petitions, to create a buzz around you… As media and journalists, to talk about this… There is no chance to win this fight. On the other hand, with your support, we will of course manage to get to Step three. I am counting on you. Thank you.



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