The fight for Istanbul’s dwindling fish stocks

I have a piece out on Eurasianet about the surge in illegal trawling around Istanbul, which has caused tension between fishermen and environmentalists that erupted into violence in January.

Due to decades of pollution, habitat destruction, and overfishing, many formerly common food species have all but disappeared from Istanbul’s waters.

This in turn has given rise to a vicious cycle with fisherman desperate to make ends meet catching large numbers of fish that have not yet reached spawning age, further depleting stocks already at risk of commercial extinction.

Some fishermen have teamed up with ecologists and scientists to push for tougher laws regulating the fishing industry in order protect its long term future. But many heavily indebted fishermen are unwilling to accept short term pain for long term gain.

When I began researching this story, I was looking to do a piece more generally on the complex environmental threats facing both the Black Sea and Marmara Sea, but discovered this particularly interesting issue after I started interviewing.

From my article:

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.”

You can read the whole story here.

In the end, I did not have space to go into much detail about the other very serious threats facing Turkey’s seas. Vast quantities of domestic and industrial waste flow into the Black Sea and on into the Marmara from the big rivers of Eastern Europe and Russia: the Danube, Dneister, and Dneiper.

Intense marine traffic also adds to the pollution, and exotic species are transported from the other side of the world in the ballast tanks of vessels, which has had a devastating effect in the past. The semi-enclosed nature of the Marmara and Black Sea makes them especially vulnerable to these kinds of anthropogenic activities.

Turkey seems serious about doing its share to combat this problem. A large part of the responsibility falls on municipalities, who manage sewage treatment and disposal. In particular, Kocaeli, at the eastern end of the Marmara Sea, has done much to curb the discharge of industrial pollution from the many factories in that region.

Istanbul too has achieved impressive results in reducing pollution. The municipality sent me this very detailed breakdown of its efforts to increase sewage processing, almost none of which I was able to include in the story. I’m posting it here (in Turkish) because it’s a useful resource for anyone else interested in this topic.

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