Changing Tides

By Sera Tolgay:

Fishing rods line Istanbul’s Galata Bridge, the fresh smell of the sea breeze permeates the city’s fish markets, and the waterfront bustles as boats, ferries, and tankers travel back and forth along the Bosphorus. Istanbul is a city defined by its connection to the waters of the Bosphorus Strait and the Marmara Sea. But the average buyer at the fish market, the tourists having a bite from their fish sandwiches, and the customer at a typical fish restaurant simply enjoy their meals, unaware of the hands and tides that have brought the fish to their table. The seeming abundance of fish and the vibrant atmosphere of Istanbul’s markets conceal the darker reality of overfishing and lack of regulation in the city’s fishing industry.

A new buzzword is floating around environmental and academic circles: “Fisheries Depletion,” referencing the decline of the fishing stock available in Istanbul’s waters as a result of overfishing and environmental degradation. Like all far-reaching environmental problems, these issues also have a local effect, as they cripple the independent fishermen of Istanbul, whose livelihoods move in flux with the changing environmental fabric of the Bosphorus.

Clusters of fishing boats along the Bosphorous are a common sight in Istanbul. (Tolgay/TYG)

As the first rays of the rising sun hit the thick fog above the waters of the Bosphorus, small boats scattered along the Kandilli-Cengelkoy route between the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. In small boats with primitive equipment, the fishermen sat, busy with their rods while occasionally conversing about the weather and their daily catch. For these fishermen, the turquoise waters are their workplace, and extracting a living from the depths of the sea is their way of life.

“See that old man over there?” asked Arslan Yaras, a military veteran who has been fishing and supporting himself off of the Bosphorus’ bounty for two decades. “He is homeless; he lives in that tiny boat and makes a living off of what he can catch from below these waves,” Yaras lamented as he steered his seven-meter-long wooden boat, big enough to fit a small cabin with a mattress and a teapot.

Yaras lives on land, but he wakes up every morning at 3:30 am and climbs on board to travel up the Bosphorus for two hours. He plows through the harsh currents to reach Bebek, a busy fishing spot, before sunrise.

“It started as a hobby, but soon it became my occupation,” said Yaras as he pulled back his rod, lined with silver sardines, a rare catch in the Bosphorus nowadays.

“I am a retired army officer, and our government does not do much to support the elderly and the retired, so I was forced into changing my hobby into a way of living.”

Yaras stressed that although making a living from a pastime might seem quaint, the reality of fisheries depletion makes fishing a wrestle for life as the supply and range of species has plummeted over the past decades.

After fishing for five to six hours every day, Yaras takes his fish, usually around three carts’ worth, to the small fish markets in Kadikoy, on the Asian side of Istanbul, saving some to sell to friends. As a small fisherman in possession of his own boat, he has established a personal relationship with customers in the Kadikoy region where he lives. These people who know and trust him find his fish more valuable than commercially caught or farmed fish, making him immune to competition from commercial fishermen who are restricted to bigger wholesale markets where they cannot directly engage with buyers. In Istanbul, eating fish from the sea is a matter of culture, and people are willing to pay the price. Most fish restaurants serve both farm-raised and fresh-caught sea fish, which can cost as much as three times the price of farmed fish.

Despite the advantages of reeling in highly valued, hand-caught sea fish, the overfishing caused by larger operations threatens Yaras’s traditional way of earning his livelihood. According to the records of Karekin Deveciyan, who was the director of the Istanbul Wholesale Fish Market in 1910, there were about 41 species of fish that year. In the twenty-first century, the fishermen of Istanbul have to rely mostly on five species of fish, namely bluefish, bonito, seabass, mullet, and horse mackerel, which they call “the five masters of the Bosphorus.”

The poor regulation and widespread popularity of trawling and seine fishing in the Bosphorus have contributed greatly to fisheries depletion by producing vast amounts of undersized or undesirable types of seafood known as “by-catch.” Seine boats use large walls of netting to encircle schools of fish, often entrapping unwanted fish in the process. Yaras drew attention to the fact that both methods, despite their environmental drawbacks, are much more profitable than his way of fishing. Nonetheless, he and many others choose to rely on their small boats and unsophisticated equipment because they prefer the freedom of being in charge of their own boat. According to the Fisheries Department of the Istanbul Agriculture Ministry, the majority of licensed fishermen own small boats; 1,324 fishermen use boats shorter than eight meters, among a total of 1,986 boats. Yaras, one of 6,049 licensed fishermen in Istanbul, also has his philosophical reasons for preferring the sustainable approach of being a small fisherman.

“You have to respect the prey, as a hunter,” Yaras said as he plucked out a mackerel from his rod’s hook. “The fishing rod allows for that natural law of hunting and being hunted. But the trawlers, they completely ignore that relationship.”

Yaras showed off his latest haul of fish. (Tolgay/TYG)

While the by-catch is thrown back into the Marmara Sea, most of the fish caught by large-sized enterprises travel to the Kumkapi Wholesale Market Hall for Fisheries, Istanbul’s biggest fish market. Normally the hustle and bustle of large-scale seafood sales would overwhelm, but silence filled the cavernous space on one day in June. A prominently posted sign explained:

“Fisheries Act 1380 will begin on April 15, 2011 and will expire on August 31, 2011. Taking into consideration the reproductive cycles of fish and other scientific, environmental, economic and social issues, the current fishing ban is targeted for the protection of fishery resources and sustainable operation of fishing practices.”

Almost dismissive about concerns related to the preservation of species for future generations, Murat Uzunel, an official at the Wholesale Markets Fisheries Directory, a government institution next to the market hall, pointed at the announcement on the bulletin board. He asserted that the ban was enough effort “for now” towards tackling the fisheries depletion problem. The ban is a promising first step, but in practice, issuing such a temporary measure will not be sufficient to solve long-term problems and restore the ecosystem of the Bosphorus and the Marmara Sea. According to Professor Nurhan Unsal from Istanbul University’s Fisheries Faculty, this is mainly due to the absence of a quota system that would establish standards to minimize by-catch.

Quota systems in both the European Union and the United States have played an essential role in creating a sustainable environment for the fishing industry. Alaska manages its fisheries through a model of public decision-making blended with government initiatives that have established a regulatory system with annual catch quotas for every species. Yet instead of putting catch quotas on sardines or establishing a federal agency that would oversee fisheries regulation, the Turkish government has chosen only to enact a fishing ban. In a similar vein, the Ministry of Agriculture has stopped issuing commercial licenses to fishermen, as a step towards limiting the fishing fleet.

However, these measures are not targeted towards addressing the long-term goals of restoring the Marmara Region’s biodiversity and ecological balance. The lack of permanent measures is the result of insufficient resources allocated for fisheries research, which disables professionals from making up-to-date seasonal measurements and mapping the migratory patterns of different fish in the Marmara

Region. As Unsal emphasized, without an initiative from the government to establish an extensive regulative system, fisheries depletion will remain a problem in the Marmara Sea.

Although the 56th amendment of the 1982 constitution includes a clause promoting “environmental rights,” the lack of administration and enforcement has rendered sustainability simply a word on the bulletin board, its meaning lost in bureaucracy. As governing institutions overlook the importance of long-term consequences, Yaras’s way of fishing continues to be regarded as an outdated occupation, representing the remnants of a romanticized way of life at sea, rather than a plausible model for sustainable fishing.

For the fisherman, inconsistency and expectation are inseparable from daily work. Nevertheless, the erratic life at sea, even when coupled with fisheries depletion, is bearable for Yaras.

“I guess there is a spirit of optimism that comes along with the life at sea. When I gaze along the horizon, I forget about my worries.”

Sera Tolgay ’14 is in Branford College. Contact her at