ISTANBUL — Turkey’s careless approach to the environment may be striking at one of its most iconic industries.
Overfishing, increased pollution and damaging infrastructure projects are threatening the fishing business in Istanbul and around the country. At stake are supplies of natural resources, tens of thousands of local jobs, billions of dollars — and, for traditional net-fishermen, a centuries-old way of life.
“Time is passing so fast but there is no active involvement by the [Turkish] ministry of environment at present” to protect the traditional trade, said Bayram Ozturk, a professor with the faculty of fisheries at Istanbul University.
The Turkish ministry for the environment failed to respond to GlobalPost’s repeated invitations for comment.
With 5,177 miles of coastline, Turkey is the sixth largest producer of fish in Europe. The industry directly employs over 110,000 people, and was worth $1.6 billion to the local economy in 2006.
But aggressive modern fishing methods and new maritime industries are crowding out Istanbul’s traditional fishermen and overwhelming the Bosphorus Strait’s unique biological corridor.
The Bosphorus serves as one of the world’s key fish migrating routes for mackerel, bluefish, Atlantic bonito, anchovy and gild-head bream. It’s the only outlet for the massive Black Sea — a body of water larger than the state of California.
Though no categorical data on fish stocks in Turkey has been collected, the decreasing sizes of fish caught across the country over the past decade suggests stocks are falling. Last year, Turkey’s traditional net-fishing haul fell 27 percent compared with 2011, even as its fish-farming industry grew.
Turkey’s position as a bridging point between Europe, the Caucasus, the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East makes it a key economic player in the region. Trade with eastern neighbor Iran was valued at $22 billion last year, while to the west, the European Union remains Turkey’s top import and export partner.
But along the Bosphorus, tanker traffic has forced small-scale fishermen to cast their nets in small, out-of-the-way coves.
On an afternoon this past October, Captain Ozman Korkmaz, 53, stood on his 55-foot boat. Just six weeks into the new fishing season, he should have been buried in hauls — but there were no fish in sight. Instead, Korkmaz was spending hours making “purse seine” nets, a type of dragnet, by hand, his hulking frame bent over.
“[Usually] I spend eight months on the boat and four months fixing nets and preparing for the new season,” said Korkmaz, who has been fishing Bosphorous, Black Sea and Atlantic waters since he was 14 years old. Turkey’s fishing season begins on Sept. 1 and ends March 31.
Fishing on the strait is restricted by season, catch size and depth. In Beykoz, a village on the northern section of the strait, GlobalPost watched boats drop dragnets every 30 minutes but haul in few fish big enough to keep.
Those who stick to the limits are also hurt by those who don’t.
“Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is reducing stocks. This is the biggest challenge,” said Ozturk, the Istanbul University professor.
Ozturk believes stocks can only be stabilized by increasing the number of government-regulated marine protected areas. The international Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Biodiversity Targets propose countries designate at least 10 percent of their coastal waters as protected areas by 2020.
Turkey’s government has pursued increasingly anti-environment projects since the Gezi Park protests last summer, when demonstrators staged the largest protest in a decade to fight government plans to replace Istanbul’s central green space with a replica military barracks and mall.
A wave of regeneration and infrastructure projects since then has brought out thousands of defiant Turks unwilling to trade forestland and public spaces for high-budget developments. But their efforts have changed little.
According to environmental organizations and urban planners, the government’s latest mega-project — a third bridge across the scenic Bosphorus — will disrupt fishing activity, and upset important aquifers and water runoff systems.
Still, many Bosphorus fishermen remain fervent supporters of Turkey’s populist and Islamist Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“He is a strong man, he is a good Muslim,” said Korkmaz, who keeps a portrait of the prime minister inside his boat.
Murat Sarikamis, who works with Korkmaz on his boat, agreed. “He gives us money and diesel oil at half price,” he said.
The average fisherman earns about $7,500 a year, well below the average Turk’s net-adjusted disposable income of $13,004. Falling fish stocks are threatening to make that modest income drop even further.
But Korkmaz won’t say outright that there are too many fishing boats chasing too few fish on the Bosphorus. Instead, he looks down at his newly-made nets, and sighs.