Guardian of the Sea
Guardian of the Sea
As children growing up in Turkey, one of the first things we learn is that the country is surrounded by seas on three sides. The Black Sea to the north is known for its unrestrained beauty; the Aegean to the west is home to myths and legends; and the Mediterranean in the south is warm and easy. Located within Turkey are two very strategic straits: the Bosphorus, which cuts through Istanbul, and the Dardanelles, connecting Sea of Marmara to the Aegean.
It is a magical misty morning in October and I am on a ranger boat out in Southeast Aegean. To be more specific, this is Gökova - a spectacular bay with crystal blue waters and pine tree forests along the coast. The area is quiet this time of the year, without the madness of tourists and rental cruise boats. I dip my hand in and skim the cool, still water as the boat starts to gain speed. With the sun rising through the mist, it feels like one of those antique Japanese paintings.
Aside from being a beautiful bay, Gökova is home to one of the most successful marine conservation projects in the world: the Gökova Bay Marine Ranger Project. With me on the boat is Zafer Kızılkaya, the founder and president of The Mediterranean Conservation Society, an NGO aimed to conserve natural habitats and restore degraded coastal ecosystems in Turkey. Zafer is the man behind the Gökova project as well as other marine conservation projects led by the Society. As we speed through the bay, he stands up and waves at the small fishing boats along the way. He knows every little cove, every fisherman and fisherwoman in the area. He has spent years restoring life around these waters. He is a true hero; the only thing missing is a trident in his hand.
I first met Zafer Kızılkaya in 2017 when he came to speak at YEDI, the yearly food conference that I help organize in Istanbul. When he came to the conference, he had just received the Whitley Gold Award for his project in Gökova. The award is considered the “Green Oscars” and one of the most prestigious environmental awards in the world. He spoke with enthusiasm about the drastic changes they’d observed since the project began a few years ago. The numbers were astonishing. Before their intervention, while looking absolutely beautiful above water, Gökova had become almost lifeless under water. Invasive fish had arrived from the Red Sea, seagrass capacity was diminishing and illegal fishing was devouring the sea at rapid rate. Through relentless commitment and a brilliant system, Zafer and his team had saved both marine life and the fishing community. They had also managed to create social change.
Turks have a complicated relationship with fish. On one hand, there are definite signs of love and affection. For example, we give lüfer, bluefish, different names depending on its size and call it “the prince of the Bosphorus”. At the fish stalls in Istanbul, you can see trays of small fish, like horse mackerel, glittering alongside rows of fatty bonito, all lined up with their bright red gills turned over. It’s common to hear someone proudly say, “If my father came out of the sea, I would eat him too!” Throughout the Turkish coastline, you’ll find restaurants that specialize in fish. In the Black Sea region, the most important source of protein is the hamsi, the local anchovy. Songs are sung, and poems are written about this small, oily fish.
At the fish stalls in Istanbul, you can see trays of small fish, like horse mackerel, glittering alongside rows of fatty bonito, all lined up with their bright red gills turned over.
(On another note, one of the most popular names given to babies is Deniz, which means “sea”. Personally, my two sons are named Ege, meaning “The Aegean”, and Mercan, which translates as “red seabream”. Yes, I named my kid after a fish!)
However, if you look at the whole of Turkey, with 8 kg per capita, seafood consumption is much lower than most European countries (the EU average is 25.1 kg). As you move away from the coasts, affinity with marine life understandably weakens. People favor animal fats over olive oil and meat over seafood. This distant relationship is not just due to geographical differences. There are religious and economic factors as well. Alcohol is usually part of the seafood meal, therefore not favored by devout Muslims. And fish is perceived as (and is) quite expensive.
When it comes to protecting our waters and its marine life, we are generally irresponsible and selfish. We tend to treat the sea like an endless source, expecting that it will continue to provide no matter what we do. Take Istanbul. Lüfer, the fish we prize most and call “prince of the Bosphorus”, is at the brink of extinction. Despite conservation efforts, you can still see illegally caught baby lüfer at markets and on restaurant menus.
I ask Zafer what he thinks about all of this. “Throughout history, Turks used the sea to fight, to go to war”, he says. “People have lost their family members to it. For most people, the sea drowns you, takes people away. So generally, the sea is not associated with abundance and wealth. It’s quite the opposite - people avoid it, not embrace it.”
When it comes to protecting our waters, he argues that we tend to expect the government to come up with solutions. “In Turkey, the public isn’t used to taking things into their own hands. They don’t see anything as their own responsibility. Instead, they expect everything to come from the government. So to make anything happen, there’s a need for proper enforcement,” he says.
Zafer grew up in Ankara, the capital of Turkey, located inland in the northwestern part of the country. He spent his childhood watching Jacques Cousteau’s undersea documentaries on television. And as soon as he learned how to swim, he was hooked. Even when he went to study civil engineering at university, he knew that he would live in the sea rather than on land. He soon became an underwater photographer, worked as a volunteer for a tropical marine survey project in Indonesia, and later spent a few years in the tropical Pacific to document conservation issues and led expedition teams.
In 2006, while he was working at the Underwater Research Society in Turkey, a Mediterranean monk seal pup was found close by. She was only four weeks old and severely dehydrated. Zafer picked her up, set up a rehabilitation center and took care of her for five months until she was ready to be released back into the bay. The seal pup brought Zafer to Gökova Bay, and it didn’t take long for him to settle there. By then, Gökova Bay had shown signs of damage. In 2008, Zafer led a research team to oversee the state of northern Mediterranean. In Spain, protected areas had 90 grams of fish per square metre, whereas in Gökova, it was only 4 grams.
In 2010, Zafer and his team set up marine protected areas with the support of the government, but soon realized that laws weren’t enough. They needed actual monitoring on site. They found the solution by forming a marine ranger system. They started with three speedboats and six marine rangers, all of whom were local fishermen. Later they invested in a specially designed software to record unlawful fishing activities. Then drones came into effect. Local fishing communities, coastguards and the government all became part of a community-based conservation system.
Not surprisingly, they were initially met with some resistance from local fishermen. These people had fished in the bay with no restraints; now, someone was telling them they had to stay away from certain areas. It was only when they saw the results and the gradual recovery of fish stocks, that they changed their attitudes and started supporting Zafer and his team.
They also created a program for fisherwomen. “In this area, there are more than 100 professional fisherwomen who spend over 300 days per year at the sea, and fish alongside their husbands. These women had no social status. Most didn’t even know how to swim,” Zafer says during our conversation. They devised educational programs aimed only at these women, teaching them about sustainable fishing, invasive fish, and women’s rights. For the first time in their lives, the women were given certificates and licences instead of their husbands.
Since its inception, the Gökova Bay Marine Ranger project has become one of the most successful marine conservation initiatives in the world. Over the years, it received numerous awards and grants. For Zafer, the difference in marine life and the livelihood of the fishermen and women are the real rewards. Their monitoring shows that there are 20 times more fish today in Gökova Bay than in 2013. The amount of fish per square metre has risen significantly, from 4 grams to 100 grams in the protected areas. They also see more and more grouper, seal, and shark, which had previously disappeared from these waters. Monk seals have recently returned to the bay, as well as loggerhead turtles.
Zafer and his team have also assisted communities to implement more sustainable fishing practices to reduce bycatch. Trawling has been banned within 300 kilometres, the largest area in Europe used for biodiversity and fish stock conservation. The local fishermen and women now know what to do with invasive fish. As a result, their yearly income has increased 4 times. From skeptics to full supporters, they now keep detailed reports on the number and species of fish they catch.
That morning, as we cruise to one of the protected areas in Gökova Bay, I find out that Zafer and his team have recently received a new grant from Cambridge University. With it, they will expand the conservation area to 1000 kilometres, running all the way down to Antalya. “Imagine having the same results as we have had here, but on a much larger scale,” he says, smiling. He is hopeful, especially now that they have the fishermen and women on their side. Some will even join him in talking to fishing communities in the new areas. They have learned the value of taking responsibility for their own environments. Talk about real social change.
Just then, a group of dolphins swim by us and keep us company along the way. It looks like they also want to show their support.