French Allies

A CONSTANT PRESENCE at meetings of the French fisheries science community since the turn of the twenty-first century, Philippe Cury’s mustache and I have crossed paths in Paris, South Africa, California, and numerous other places around the world. And though some claim it’s gone out of fashion, I think it communicates the elegance of a careful strategist, nicely complementing its owner’s observant gaze.

Along with Jacques Moreau and Didier Gascuel, Philippe is one of Daniel’s few scientific and political allies in France, where the research community in marine sciences has long been suspicious of his work, or rejected him entirely. A landlubber from Montargis, south of Paris, Philippe Cury studied agronomy in Rennes before going to Dakar for a year and a half of civilian service in 1980. There, he worked on artisanal fisheries before returning to France to complete his education in biomathematics in Paris and join ORSTOM. What followed was a brilliant career, mainly abroad, where he spent thirteen years in Africa and five in California before his current post in Brussels, where he defends the IRD’s interests before the European Union. Between all his traveling, he directed the Centre de recherche halieutique (fisheries research center) in the French port city of Sète and made his mark on the discipline with a number of important publications. In particular, he became known as the champion of the ecosystem approach to fisheries management in France. I personally admire Philippe because in 2008, at a time when overfishing was a taboo subject in France, he published a book on the subject, entitled Une mer sans poissons (A sea without fish) with Yves Miserey, a journalist at the conservative newspaper Le Figaro who could hardly be described as a bleeding-heart leftist. The authors recount the sad history of ocean fisheries in France and elsewhere, leaning heavily on the works of Pauly, Worm, Jackson, and many others. Their conclusion is unforgiving: “In France, ocean conservation and the protection of marine species always comes after social harmony—a harmony so fragile that it can be broken by a couple of fishing boats blocking a harbor.”1 To back up their statements, the authors provide a plethora of examples. “Bit by bit, overfishing has destroyed everything—today, 95% of the fish caught in the Bay of Biscay are less than 23 centimeters (9 inches) long.”2

Philippe and Daniel have known each other “forever” but can’t recall the exact date of their first meeting. It was almost certainly at a research laboratory in Monterey, California—the same town where Steinbeck set his novel Cannery Row. But was it in the mid-eighties or the early nineties? In any case, on that fateful day, Daniel, intense as usual, had crossed swords with an American colleague. “Daniel wasn’t afraid to go after people, especially in his younger days—he could be very verbally aggressive when he came in contact with people who were set in their ways intellectually,” Philippe tells me when we meet in his comfortable Brussels office. “I’ve seen him stand up in the middle of a conference to harangue the speaker,” he adds. In Monterey, Philippe was asked to calm things down, and he soon came to like this strange Frenchman from the Philippines who spoke with a Swiss accent. “When you spend time with Daniel, you realize very quickly that he can think ten times as fast as you,” says Philippe. “He’s more of a craftsman than an intellectual—there’s a strategic aspect to his work where everything fits into everything else, like a set of Russian dolls. He always knows what he’s doing. It’s like climbing a huge cliff—you have to see it as a whole in order to find your footholds and climb up little by little, all while helping other people see it, too. The way he goes about things and helps others is very unique, and it’s also part of the political aspect of his work.”

“We became friends,” Daniel says simply when I ask for his side of the story. Philippe became the proverbial president of Daniel’s French fan club and the likely instigator behind many of the honors he has since received there. After being invited to the seminar in Vancouver where they celebrated the sixtieth birthday of the colossus of marine ecology in 2006, Philippe returned the favor, rolling out the red carpet for his friend at the fisheries research center in Sète, where Daniel spent four months in 2009. “But it was a fiasco,” Philippe admits with a sigh. “Daniel needs to talk, and my colleagues snubbed him—I couldn’t understand why. . . sometimes people are so petty. . .” I first met the Pauly-Cury duo at the Montpellier aquarium in spring of that year. Daniel was doing a presentation for the general public on Darwin’s voyage around the world. He looked exhausted, hardly speaking when Philippe—in low spirits himself—introduced me to him after the event. Although Daniel likes to visit France—especially if he can make a side trip to La Creuse—he has never been terribly impressed with the way his native country handles environmental issues. In particular, he remembers the Grenelle de la Mer* in 2009, which he attended at Philippe’s invitation: “I was there for two days. Of course, the ship-owners and the fishing lobby had the upper hand—they were the ones who were dictating what was good for the oceans. Can you imagine?” Daniel laughs out loud. “I started talking right away about the problem of subsidies that increase overfishing, and the whole room answered, ‘What subsidies?’—and it’s true, in France there are no subsidies for fishing, only ‘adjustments.’”

As is often the case with the “consultative workshops” to which Daniel is invited, the rules had been set in advance with “specific terminology” being used to avoid any “slipups.” “In France, IFREMER are the main architects behind this language manipulation campaign,” Daniel declares. “For example, they talk about ‘maritime professionals,’* which allows them to leave out researchers, who have often studied these questions for decades . . . Aren’t we professionals, too?” Daniel chafed at these restraints: “I have the luxury of not obeying the rules because I’m not based in France and my university isn’t going to put pressure on me.” No one backed him up, though, and he was tempted to leave the conference after the first day. Daniel was already preparing to depart for Hamburg when Claire Nouvian of the environmental nonprofit BLOOM managed to pull some strings late in the evening and get a meeting with the minister of the environment, Jean-Louis Borloo, at 2:00 PM the following day. “I got my audience,” Daniel recounts. “Borloo arrived late, drunk, and immediately launched into a monologue about Obama, who he didn’t think was so smart, talking about everything that Sarkozy was going to do better. . . It was unbelievable—because I’m Black, he made a nonsensical connection between me and American politics. Eventually, we managed to talk to him for five minutes to ask for marine reserves, a reduction in fishing effort, et cetera, but it was all for nothing. It made me sick. We were in this incredibly beautiful palace with seventeenth-century frescoes, and this little man was supposed to represent the French Republic.”

But things were already changing and a few people began to break the silence. In 2008, researcher Benoît Mesnil retired from IFREMER in Nantes and published a scientific article titled “Public-Aided Crises in the French Fishing Sector.”3 This dense eleven-page paper told the story of forty years of conflict that was only now coming to a head. Mesnil thanked his colleagues at IFREMER for their input, but insisted that his statements were his alone—and he hit hard: “The French fishing industry has been drowned by subsidies meant to keep it afloat.” He explains that the fisheries present themselves as victims of “the system” in the course of violent conflicts, asking for more and more money, which they always get. To support his argument, Mesnil cites the exact amount of public money involved: over 800 million euros in 2006, while the commercial value of all the seafood disembarked in French ports was barely one billion euros. “Despite heavy investments in fleet capacity, the French [fishery] trade deficit has consistently become worse in mass and value—and likewise for most EU countries,” Mesnil writes. His analysis also includes a sociological perspective: “In reviewing hundreds of pages of French fishing magazines I have never encountered the word ‘profit’ in interviews or speeches of industry members: [it] looks like a taboo word, for administrations and politicians as well.” According to Mesnil, this vicious cycle is facilitated by the state, which offers up huge subsidies without asking for anything in the way of “wiser use of marine resources, more attention to the market, improved social relations, provision of more accurate information on their activities, or stricter compliance with legal obligations in general.” “In other words,” explains Mesnil, “the subsidies were devised to simply continue ‘business as usual,’ with all its wrongs. Indeed, some subsidies have exacerbated the critical processes (open access, overcapacity, indebtedness, excessive effort, and/or non-selective fishing).” He then points a finger at French politicians: “None of those who had a role in the recital of crises reviewed above was ever admonished for the poor return to the nation of the subsidies he had decided. Most even had a brilliant career.” And he doesn’t leave fishermen unscathed, either: “The generation of now retiring skippers, who benefited from the generous aid policies, is among the most vociferous in demanding measures for the young fishers, and it is tempting to ask them what they did to make the profession attractive to their children and other youngsters.” And to top it all off, Mesnil concludes, the fishing industry is still “terribly medieval,” with rates of accidental deaths among the highest of any profession.

The French press, after years of silence, covered and even expanded the debate. Two profiles on Daniel Pauly, one in Le Monde and one in Libération,4 as well as a radio interview on France Inter in spring of 2009, attest to this change of pace. Daniel’s voice on the national radio is surprisingly soft: “We think the sea will save us, but it can’t, not anymore,” he says with the empathy of a doctor consoling a dying man. “We are experiencing a global biosphere crisis, confirmed by the recent financial crisis.”* When the journalist asks which measure needs to be undertaken with the most urgency, Daniel responds, “In France? The application of the laws that are already in place and the application of the law of the market, which is being destroyed by subsidies.” Very calm during his time on France Inter, Daniel let loose with Michel Henry of Libération, whose article began with the hook, “Careful with this guy, he’ll scare you stiff!” “This tall, strapping man,” Henry continues, “in good shape for a sixty-two-year-old, has a big advantage: he’s a talker, more of a mockingbird than a monkfish.” The article is particularly well researched, with a summary of Daniel’s extraordinary life, from his early exploits to the causes he has taken up more recently. “It’s easy to say that scientists are idiots because they don’t go out and fish,” Daniel explains in the interview. “It’s as if politicians had the choice between taking advice from doctors or sorcerers, and they chose the sorcerers.” Philippe Cury, who dipped into his address book to help organize this media crusade, adds his two cents: “Daniel is denouncing the fact that fishing is managed like an agricultural product, something we can control. In fact, we don’t control anything.”

And so, fisheries advance blindly, ever further, ever deeper. A study published by Telmo Morato of the University of the Azores in conjunction with the Sea Around Us showed that the average depth of trawling operations has increased substantially since 1950.5 This meta-analysis, which covers every ocean on the globe, shows that “fishing down the deep” has intensified since 1980 to reach an average trawling depth of 200 meters (656 feet) in the North Atlantic and 600 meters (1,967 feet) in the Antarctic. Try to imagine what bottom trawling looks like: a huge pocket up to 115 feet tall (as high as an eight-story building) and 330 feet wide (about the length of an American football field). Pulled along by a boat with several thousand horsepower, this net is held open by two “otter boards,” panels that can weigh over 2,000 pounds, which are pushed outwards by resistance from the water. In the 1980s, researchers attached cameras to a bottom trawler for the first time in order to observe what was happening beneath the surface. I will never forget the shock that ran through me the first time I saw those videos of what looked like a giant bulldozer destroying the underwater landscape. The fish they tear from the deep are rattails, lings, and black scabbardfish. You’ve never heard of them because they’re ugly little suckers—only their meat ends up on your plate. When left alone, they grow slowly, reproduce late, and live to be fairly old—meaning these species are among those most easily endangered by the blind, non-selective practice of bottom trawling.

Philippe Cury adds that “each year, trawlers cover half of the area of the world’s continental shelf, which is twice as large as the United States of America, and five hundred times as big as the area that is deforested each year. Some of the most productive zones are trawled up to eight times a year in the North Sea, and between 25 and 131 times per year in certain estuaries.” 6

IN FRANCE, THE debate over bottom trawling turned out to be an intense one. I discussed these events with Claire Nouvian of the NGO BLOOM over dinner at her home in Paris in 2016. Daniel had just won the Albert I medal from the Paris Oceanographic Institute, and the ambiance was festive. Claire is a journalist who turned toward environmental causes after visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium for a story in 2000. There, she discovered “the tragic destruction of ancient underwater ecosystems by a handful of industrial fishing vessels.”7 This indignation “turned into a lifelong crusade against super-powerful lobbies.” Claire published The Deep, a richly illustrated volume that was eventually translated into twelve languages and that allowed her to create BLOOM.8 In 2008, she spoke with French president Nicolas Sarkozy about the future of the oceans and collaborated with his government “during the first two years of his mandate, when a ‘flurry of environmentalism’ briefly took hold of the Élysée.”9 The Grenelle de la Mer resulted in the creation of a “deepwater fishing initiative.” Claire soon discovered that “industrial fishing was being protected at the highest levels of government, with the complicity of the president of IFREMER. . . After several twists and turns . . . the nonprofit organizations abandoned the initiative in July of 2010.”10

The fight continued, however, at the European Union’s headquarters in Brussels, where the fishing commissioner, Maria Damanaki of Greece, “demonstrated the courage and will to put an end to decades of destructive fishing.” But negotiations soon bogged down “because of the opposition of a single commissioner: Michel Barnier, former French minister of agriculture and fisheries, who was recruited by the lobbies at the last minute.”11 His refusal was all the more surprising because only “between 44 and 112 crew members are employed aboard the ships that practice deep-water fishing, which corresponds to 0.2 to 0.5% of French crew active in 2012.”12 BLOOM didn’t give up, though, and launched (among other initiatives) the most-signed petition in French history, which ultimately convinced IFREMER to revoke its scientific endorsement of the deep-ocean fishing lobby.

In 2013, French supermarket chains Carrefour, Casino, and Auchan announced that they would stop selling seafood from deep-ocean fishing operations, but Intermarché, the most implacable member of the group and the only one to own a fishing fleet, waited until 2016 to follow suit, promising to halt the sale of deepwater species by. . . 2025. In the end, after several reversals, and thanks in large part to the indefatigable Claire Nouvian and her army of activists, Ségolène Royal (minister of the environment under President François Hollande) championed regulations on deepwater fishing, which were finally passed by the European Union in June of 2016. “Our political systems are corrupt, sick, and under the influence of toxic industrial lobbies,” Claire Nouvian concludes, “but with a big enough call to arms, it is possible to get things done, even despite the neoliberal wind that is blowing across Europe, where the reddest of red carpets are currently being rolled out for the most polluting and destructive companies.” Daniel would soon work to determine the importance of this very mechanism—the impact of consumer activism and public engagement on the management of the oceans—with the help of yet another female colleague. According to a persistent urban legend, their first conversation went something like this:

Daniel: “Give me one good reason to direct your thesis.”

Jennifer: “Because I’ll make you famous. And at some point, you might say yes just so that I stop coming to your office to bother you about it.”

Daniel hesitated because Jennifer Jacquet came from the United States, and he usually preferred to mentor young researchers from the Global South, often turning up his nose at graduates from the big American universities. Besides, Jennifer is more of a sociologist than an ecologist, and in 2004, Daniel was looking for students to reconstruct catch statistics from as many countries as possible, not to write pretty speeches. But Jennifer wouldn’t give up—she had come too far and waited too long to fail so close to her goal. Originally from rural Ohio, she rallied to the environmentalist cause at the age of nine, and later worked for Sea Shepherd before discovering Daniel’s work during her studies at Cornell.

“One of the many papers we had to read was ‘Fishing down’ . . . You can really detect something about someone’s personality through their writing . . . just some of the ways he was phrasing things . . . the elegance in the first couple of paragraphs of his Science paper. I thought, ‘I want to meet this person,’” she tells me when we meet at her office at New York University in downtown Manhattan. She is currently a professor of environmental studies there, and on this November morning in 2016, Jennifer does most of the talking. Besides being a professor, she is also a blogger, journalist, and essayist who speaks with the practiced ease of a professional communicator. Her website suggests contacting her agent to schedule any conferences. “Before Daniel’s stroke, he was a completely different animal. It was so obvious that he was the best, and he won me over right away. I didn’t even apply to any other PhD programs.”

Daniel eventually gave in, but Jennifer had to wait until 2005 and the end of Daniel’s brief convalescence before starting her thesis. Daniel asked her to reconstruct fishing statistics for Mozambique and Tanzania. She got to work, but also began developing “little projects on the side.” In fact, Jennifer was mainly interested in the notion of individual and collective responsibility vis-à-vis the environmental crisis, and specifically in the strategies that make it possible for NGOs to twist the arms of huge multinationals with the public’s help.13 One such strategy is ecolabeling: the USDA Organic label in the United States guarantees that products come from organic farms, while the FSC label promotes responsible forest management. In the marine sector, the WWF partnered with Unilever, the biggest distributor of seafood in the world, to create the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) label for sustainable fisheries in 1997. You can easily find the label—sporting a stylized fish on a sea-blue background—in your local supermarket, particularly on frozen Alaskan pollock. No fewer than 312 fisheries all over the world are currently allowed to use the label.

Initially, Daniel supported the MSC initiative of enhancing consumer accountability. “Eating bluefin tuna in a sushi restaurant is no less harmful than driving an extravagant car like a Hummer or harpooning a manatee,” he wrote.14 He gave generously of his time to help establish criteria for sustainable fisheries. But when Jennifer asked him about labeling in 2005, he replied, “Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the right way to solve the problem [of overfishing].”

This remark troubled Jennifer, who had been convinced of the immense power held by consumers and the importance of eco-labeling, and she decided to take a closer look. She quickly went from surprise to disillusionment, and in 2007 the newly formed Jacquet/Pauly team published their first opinion piece15 questioning the effectiveness of the MSC label: Asia consumes more than two-thirds of the world’s seafood, and that market is totally immune to ecolabeling. The same thing can be said of Africa and South America, where demand for fish is likely to keep growing. Europeans and North Americans can buy themselves a clear conscience with MSC-approved products, but that will not solve the world’s overfishing problem. Plus, so-called “responsible” fisheries often make it possible to cover up the sale of other species caught in much less sustainable conditions: What is the point of ecocertifying cod destined for British fish and chips if most of the catch is made up of illicitly harvested small coastal sharks, many of which are endangered? These fraudulent practices are extremely common and largely facilitated by a deep-seated (and carefully maintained) laxity in the labeling and traceability of seafood. Jennifer showed that a full third of seafood in the United States was not correctly identified.16 Many a restaurant customer would be furious to learn that their expensive wild grouper was in fact a farm-raised tilapia in disguise.

Jennifer’s thesis didn’t exactly thrill her colleagues at the MSC in London, but she was just getting started. She continued working on the issue, this time at the head of an international team, publishing an article in Nature that launched her onto the world stage.17 Her tone was even sharper than before. According to Jacquet and her colleagues, the MSC’s criteria are quite simply too lax and the environmental benefits they promise too nebulous. Indeed, many declining fisheries are now ecocertified, and the MSC team seems to care more about legal problems than environmental ones. Even more scandalous, reduction fisheries can now get the MSC label, a major reason for its declining credibility. “We no longer have to prove that extracting such huge quantities of fish, which form the basis of marine food webs, harms populations of large predatory fish, birds, and marine mammals—but the definition of ‘sustainable’ ought to include an ‘ethical’ obligation,” says Frédéric Le Manach, one of Daniel’s former students and now scientific director of BLOOM, addressing the problem of reduction fishing. “Catching perfectly edible fish, often in Africa or South America, to produce low-quality farmed fish for Westerners just doesn’t make any sense. It’s scandalous that the MSC label allowed itself to fall into that trap, and it’s one of the many mistakes that will lead to its downfall.”

“Daniel doesn’t think that the individual has the power to change things as a consumer,” continues Jennifer, who agrees “philosophically,” but keeps to a strictly vegan diet. As an example, she points to the well-known case of ozone: after Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina of the University of California discovered that fluorinated gas emissions from refrigerators were slowly eating away at the atmosphere, the powers that be did not wait for each citizen to “be reasonable” and buy a refrigerator that didn’t emit fluorinated gas. No—they outlawed the production of the gas in question. In the same way, Daniel insists, countries should make sure fishing quotas are respected, stop subsidizing activities that are harmful for the marine environment, and establish protected marine reserves that are strictly off-limits to fisheries to allow fish populations to recover.

During a visit to Philippe Cury, looking out over the tuna-fishing port of Sète, Daniel continued reflecting on the measures that would need to be undertaken to resolve the marine biodiversity crisis and the environmental crisis as a whole. Together, Philippe and Daniel wrote Mange tes méduses! (Eat your jellyfish!), 180 pages of brilliant scholarship. Inspired by Daniel’s beloved Darwin, the book begins with a long history of life, the biosphere, and humanity: “The planet-wide triumph of Homo sapiens is without question the most unusual and surprising event in the history of evolution18. . .While nature operates on natural cycles, humans operate on a unidirectional timeline (often called ‘progress’), which is characterized by a rush forward and permanent expansion . . .19 We relegate animals to the role of machines destined to fulfill our own needs.” 20 Philippe Cury, who wrote the first act of this evolutionary tragedy, evokes a whole bestiary to communicate the wonder he feels when looking at the natural world, particularly the marine megafauna (large fish, turtles, birds, whales) that an “obstinate nature” forces to travel thousands of miles each year to feed and reproduce.

The mustachioed pair* tell the sad story of how humans have overexploited and destroyed ecosystems: “Three major phases are considered: first, that of hunter-gatherers who destroyed the large animals that were readily available; the second is that of the domination of nature and the exhaustion of the soil through agriculture; and finally, the most recent period in which technological advancements have made it possible for man to systematically destroy renewable resources . . . Humans are in such a hurry that they are ill-suited to the slow cycles of nature, and prevent nature from renewing itself.” 21

This introduces the subject of overfishing, for which Daniel lays out one of his favorite metaphors:

The ocean illustrates how our interactions with the spoils of nature resemble a Ponzi scheme, named for the con man who invented it in the 1920s. His modus operandi was to promise incredible profits financed by an influx of capital which would be gradually invested. This type of financial structure always results in a speculative bubble and the collapse of the system in place . . . We believed that the natural capital of the oceans could produce a hundred million metric tons annually, but in fact, that is nothing more than a speculation on the world of living things, that we ourselves invented . . . The whole thing was brought into being by nothing less than a fisheries-industrial complex—an alliance between big fleet owners, lobbyists, lawmakers, and fisheries economists.22

Cury and Pauly remind their readers that members of this cartel “guarantee themselves political influence and access to government subsidies that are completely disproportionate to any contributions they could hope to make to the GDP of advanced economies—in the United States and France, this sector represents a smaller part of the economy than the hair salons, and, in England, less than the lawn mower industry.”

Following this now-familiar overview of history and current events, Cury and Pauly imagine possibilities for the future based on their research and a lifetime of experience, though they also draw on the UN’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.* Their epilogue aims for optimism, but it brings tears to my eyes: “Perhaps one day we will be able to recognize the beauty of life as a whole, without sentimentality, to be at ease with it and give up the idea of achieving supremacy over nature. The best scenario for the future that we can construct is the one imagined by Darwin: one in which humans live in nature and recognize the unity of all life and adjust their relationship to other living things accordingly. A change in the way we extract resources from the earth is necessary.”23

Cury and Pauly conclude on an ambiguous note: “Our destiny is determined neither by heavy pessimism nor insipid optimism. Between all sorts of inconvenient truths and reassuring lies, we may yet manage to find our way toward a more sustainable and desirable society.” Their text, which calls for an overall change of pace in our daily lives and in history,24 touches on the ideologies of degrowth and simple living without citing them directly. Such a call to action would sound more coherent coming from someone like Pierre Rabhi* than from my two favorite fisheries scientists, whose carbon footprints are literally sky-high and who have been living at a hundred miles per hour for the last several decades.

* A high-profile forum on the future of marine environments hosted by the French ministries in charge of sustainable development and the oceans.

Institut français de recherche pour l’exploitation de la mer (French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea).

*Professionnels de la mer.” (TN)


* The interview took place just six months after the 2008 financial crisis.

* In the 1990s, Daniel traded in the beard of his youth for a more distinguished mustache.


* Pierre Rabhi (b. 1938): French environmentalist, writer, and farmer known for his philosophy of “happy sobriety.” (TN)

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