At Köksal Yılmaz’s fish stall along the Sea of Marmara in Istanbul’s Bostancı District, bream and sea bass are as popular as ever. But the days when most of his fish came from these waters are long gone.
“If it wasn’t for fish farms, all of our businesses would go bust,” said Yılmaz, 50, who gave up his former livelihood as a fisherman eight years ago when yields dropped so low he could no longer make a living.
Pollution and overfishing have plagued the waters around Istanbul for decades. But now, with campaigners fighting for tougher regulations to prevent a total collapse in fish stocks, a boom in illegal trawling has led to violence.
In late January, Ahmet Aslan, head of a fisheries union on the European side of Istanbul, was sitting in a teahouse near his home when a man entered, asked him to step outside, and challenged him over his opposition to illegal trawling. He then pulled out a pistol and shot him in the face. Aslan lost his left eye. He has said the attack was a threat to campaigners from a cartel of illegal fishermen, whom he accuses of jeopardizing the future of the industry for the sake of short-term profit.
“Ahmet Aslan’s case was the first, but, unfortunately, I think we will be seeing more,” said Defne Koryürek, another campaigner against illegal trawling. “There are no fish, there are lots of fishermen, and they are under tremendous pressure.”
She estimates there may be more than 300 trawlers operating illicitly in the Bosphorus and Sea of Marmara, with the practice increasing as much as fivefold since September 2011, when the Turkish government upped the minimum catch size for bluefish, a staple of Istanbul fishermen. The government increased the size restriction on bluefish from 14 centimeters to 20 centimeters, cutting into fishermen’s already narrow profit margins.
But the revised catch-size is not enough for the scientists, environmentalists and small-scale fishing unions who campaigned for the move. The restriction, they say, will not protect the bluefish from commercial extinction, since it only spawns when it is 24 centimeters long.
Were that to happen, the bluefish would join a long list of formerly abundant species that have all but disappeared from Istanbul’s waters, including turbot, sole, swordfish, bluefin tuna, lobster, and langoustine.
Kenan Kedikli, head of a small fishermen’s co-operative in Bostancı, says a vicious cycle has set in with some fishermen responding to dwindling stocks by fishing in ever more damaging ways. “When I was young, if you brought an undersize fish into the market, people would shout at you and heckle you,” he recounted. “But overfishing has destroyed this healthy culture.”
In November 2011, Durali Koçak, the director-general of the Fisheries and Aquaculture Office of the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Livestock, vowed to pursue the problem with “rigor and determination.”
Speaking to Turkey’s state-run Anatolia News Agency, Koçak said the ministry plans to introduce mandatory dockside inspections and a system of documentation during the transportation of fish to market. "This will ensure that accurate data is obtained and enable us to determine whether or not the fish have been caught in line with the rules or not,” Koçak said.
Campaigner Koryürek praised the government’s efforts, but said that the only way to end the problem of illegal fishing is to reduce the high levels of debt among fishermen, and, ultimately, to reduce the size of Turkey’s fishing fleet. Others are seeking increased protection for sensitive ecological areas within the Sea of Marmara.
The Turkish Marine Research Foundation (TÜDAV) has proposed a ban on all fishing and tourist development and restrictions on marine traffic around Istanbul’s Princes’ Islands and the Marmara Islands. “Currently, there are no protected zones at all in the Marmara Sea,” said TÜDAV President Bayram Öztürk, a professor of marine sciences at Istanbul University. He has presented the proposal to the government and expects a decision on it next month, he said.
Öztürk also represents Turkey in a four-year, €9 billion European Union-led initiative launched in February 2012. The program aims to protect biodiversity throughout the network of waterways, stretching from the Black Sea to the mouth of the Mediterranean. “We’re trying to make protected stepping stones and corridors for marine animals,” said Öztürk. “If we’re successful, it will be a huge victory for nature.”
But he added that other factors are contributing to the collapse of fish stocks, including invasive species in the ballast tanks of marine vessels and pollution, the main sources of which lie far outside Turkey’s control. “Seventy percent of the land-based pollution in the Black Sea comes from the Danube. It impacts not only the Black Sea, but the Marmara Sea and the Aegean Sea,” he said.
Every year, nearly 13 billion cubic meters of industrial and domestic wastewater from 11 European countries drains from the Danube, carrying around 260,000 tons of nitrogen and 50,000 tons of phosphorus, along with a cocktail of toxic metals, according to the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube. “The first thing that is needed is international co-operation and concerted action,” said Öztürk.
Many of those interviewed had sweet memories of the days when the seas surrounding Istanbul teemed with life, and wonder if they will ever return.
“When I was a girl in Emirgan [a neighborhood on the European side of the Bosphorus], people would catch fish in buckets,” recalled campaigner Koryürek. “They would dip them in the water and pull them out full of fish.”
“Now there’s nothing, and I don’t want to leave that to my children, " she said.
Alexander Christie-Miller is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.