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Interview with Zafer Kizilkaya – Gökova MPA, Turkey

Gökova Marine Proteced Area is located in Gökova Bay, on the Turkish Aegean coast. The MPA has an area of 830 km2 with six no-fishing zones.

Gökova Bay, Mugla Province, Turkey.

In April 2017, I visited Gökova MPA and talked to Zafer Kizilkaya, the MPA manager. Zafer is a civil engineer, with an amazing knowledge of marine species and a passion for marine conservation. His very special hobby are wild orchids. He has worked in various projects for National Geographic as a science photographer before very special coincidences in Gökova Bay let him establish the NGO “Mediterranean Conservation Society”. He recently won the Whitley Fund for Nature Gold Award for his work protecting Turkey’s marine environment.

My curiousity to visit this MPA was high, because the combination of (1) an engineer who works in (2) marine conservation in a Mediterranean MPA where you can find (3) monk seals (4) sandbar sharks, (5) marine turtles and (6) fishermen that are happy with no-fishing zones and even help to protect them was in my eyes very rare.

Zafer, if you had three wishes for the future of marine conservation, what would it be?

“I only need one single wish. World fisheries are subsidized with about 35 billion US dollars each year!  About 16 billion US dollars would be needed to create no-fishing MPAs in 20% of our oceans. My wish would be to cut about half of the fisheries subsidies and use the money to establish those MPAs. In this way we would not only save our marine environment and our problem of depleting fish stocks and increasing seafood demand, but we would also create millions of new jobs.”

Zafer Kizilkaya with fisherman Atif in Gökova Bay.


Restrictions in Gökova MPA

Purse seining is prohibited in the MPA and trawling in most of the area. Diving and snorkeling are prohibited in the entire MPA. The reason is that otherwise it would be difficult to control illegal spear-fishing activities, especially with respect to the protection of sandbar sharks and groupers.

The six no-fishing zones and trawling and purse-seining restricted area of Gökova MPA.

How did you get the idea to establish an MPA in Gökova Bay?

“The whole story started with Badem, an orphaned Mediterranean monk seal pup whom we found in 2007. (The author uses whom here as Badem and seals in general seem to have human-like personalities). Because there was no seal rehabilitation center in Turkey at that time, I decided to establish one on my own, in Foça, near Izmir. My dear friend Mustafa Koc helped me to fund this project. When it was time to release Badem, I decided to release her in Gökova Bay, because it was the only place on the Turkish coast which I found on the map that has a minimum of human settlement in a large area.

Zafer and Mediterranean Monk Seal Badem, Source: Zafer Kizilkaya, www.akdenizkoruma.org.tr

During all the time when I was in Gökova Bay, busy with Badem, I realized how beautiful this place is, but underwater there is nothing left! In 2008 I organized a quick assessment study for the entire Mediterranean in terms of environmental health, and it came out that Gökova had the smallest fish population of the entire Mediterranean. Coincidently in the same year, fishery in Gökova Bay collapsed. At that point I decided to found our NGO “Mediterranean Conservation Society” and I started to convince people that the only solution to the problem is to establish no-fishing zones.

I explained the principle and benefit of no-fishing zones to the fishermen with the example of a bank account: “I you have money on your bank account, you will get some interest. If you don’t have any money in your account there will be no interest to benefit from”. In the beginning the discussions were very difficult, but after a year the fishermen agreed on six no-fishing zones. They government agreed to the plan, and in 2010 Turkey’s first six no-fishing zones were established.”

How is enforcement managed for the no-fishing zones?

No-fishing zone information board.

“Illegal fishing has been and still is our biggest problem. Officially it is the responsibility of the coast guard to prevent and fine any illegal fishing activities. However the coast guard was in the beginning very busy to deal with the refugee situation and there was not

Zafer with ranger Iskender on one of the speed boats used for patrolling.

enough capacity to look after the no-fishing zones. As a consequence we decided to set up our own ranger team. However the ministry told us that this was against Turkish law. But when I read the constitution I found out that every citizen has the right to stop or record any illegal activity. So we went to the coast guard and offered to them to be their helping hand by collecting evidence, by documenting and that they would only need to issue the fines. For our ranger team we had selected a group of local fishermen, because they are the ones who know best where illegal fishing takes place. Based on these conditions, the coast guard agreed to our offer and over the years, we have been able to establish a very good collaboration with them.”


One of the six no-fishing zones.

What kind of people are involved in illegal fishing and how do you deal with them?

“We most frequently find private people, who look like amateurs but use professional equipment, which is totally illegal, followed by fishermen from other villages who know that there are a lot of fish inside the restricted areas and who just want to try their luck.

We usually approach people with our boats and if they are new in the area and might just not know that they are in a restricted area, we inform them very friendly and politely and we give them educational brochures. A lot of these people later on call our rangers if they see any illegal activities, so this is becoming a big network of people looking after Gökova MPA. For people who are repeatedly trying to fish in the no-fishing areas, the coast guard will fine them and confiscate their gear.”

Have you started any Pescatourism activities in Gökova Bay?

Reporters of German TV Deutsche Welle interviewing pescatourists participating the inauguration trip in Gökova Bay. Photo: Ozkan Anil

“Yes, we suggested to the Ministry of Fishery and Agriculture to run an experiment and to give pescatourism a try for a year with only one boat and to send them an evaluation report in the end. We used a boat that was donated by the Municipality of Akyaka and prepared it for pescatourism excursions. We trained 12 fishermen to do the tour and three UK tourism agencies agreed to sell the tour. Six tours could be successfully run with a good return, however, when the Municipality of Akyaka was integrated into the Municpality of Mugla, the latter did not want to continue with the project and confiscated the boat. We had to stop the project because of that.

Fortunately the fishermen have and good and increasing revenues from their fishing activity since the establishment of the no-fishing areas.

What other projects have you initiated in Gökova MPA?

“We have various other projects including research projects, socioeconomic activities and ghost net clean-ups.”

Ghost Net Clean-Ups

Ghost nets covering the reefs in Gökova MPA. Photo: Zafer Kizilkaya

“There are kilometers of discarded fishing nets in Gökova Bay, even in the no-fishing zones. We do the cleaning all year around because there is a lot of gear left. There is maybe a 50 to 60 year history of discarded fishing gear down there. I can show you before-and-after videos of our cleaning activities.”


“Fisherwomen of the Aegean Sea” 

Fisherwoman in Gökova Bay. Photo: Zafer Kizilkaya,

“In another project we support the fisherwomen in the bay. There are over 120 fisherwomen in Gökova, professional fisherwomen who spend over 300 days per year at the sea. They started in fishing activities to support their husbands, who most often could not afford to hire staff. In this way they became professional fisherwomen and they all have a fishing license. However they do not have social security, they do not know to swim and they do not know their rights. They work under very hard conditions with no toilets on the boats, and often they have to take their small children on the boat with them.

Invasive Species

Invasive Randall sea bream for sale at Akyaka’s fishing cooperative.

“Also in Gökova Bay, like many other places in the world, we discovered rising water temperatures due to climate change in the last years. Two or three years ago, a new tropical fish species, Randall’s threadfin bream appeared in the bay, together with two other invasive species. All in all we had five invasive species in the fishing nets which people did not want to buy because they do not know them. For that reason we decided to invite a couple of famous chefs who created recipes for these fish species. These species are actually very tasty, much better than the local fish. We organized a big fish festival where we cooked 200 fish of these invasive species and we let people taste the dishes and ran a survey afterwards to get people’s feedback. In the week after the festival there was a massive demand for invasive fish species and right now, 35% of the fishermens’ income comes from invasive species.”

Leaflet with recipes for invasive fish species.

(Zafer laughs) “This became one of the most successful climate change adaption projects in the Mediterranean and we would like to replicate it in some other parts of Turkey, because it is so easy. In the entire world there is no successful example of an eradication of an invasive species. Once they come in, you have to learn how to adapt to them. I do not like the principle of trying to eradicate invasive species. It is not their fault and we have to realize that we are an invasive species as well.

Ecosystem restoration

“In addition, we have two other EU projects going on, one of them is about ecosystem restoration. There are 26 countries taking part in this project. In our MPA, the focus is on restoration of sea grass, certain sponge species and algae species. The rabbit fish represents a huge problem, as it is eating all the algae, so we have bare rocks, where we would normally have algae. In this project we work on the restoration of these three groups and measure our success over a four-year-period.”

Further success stories

“We created a What’s App group for the communications between us, our rangers and the coast guard. The coast guard people became so motivated for the work they are helping us with, that even after they are transferred to other areas every two years, they want to stay in  our What’s App group and they want stay informed about what’s currently going on in Gökova MPA.”

How did you motivate fishermen for conservation and what is the secret of Gökova MPA’s success??

Zafer with fisherman Atif.

“In the beginning it was very difficult to motivate the fishermen for environmental protection. But once people see positive results, their motivation changes.

If you do the same steps as we did to establish our MPA, carefully and with the community, you can have the same success everywhere in Turkey. It is so easy! But of course, you need the government’s support first, because the restricted areas have to be legally declared.

We always made sure to include the community. We educate people, we listen to them and we help them with their problems. Our rangers and fishermen are very happy to be part of the system, to have this responsibility to contribute to the protection of the environment and to the protection and improvement of their own and other fishermen’s livelihoods.”

Zafer talking to fishermen Samir and Taner.


What are the most important fators for the success of an MPA?

“Enforcement is very important. If we cannot ensure proper enforcement, the principle of no-fishing zones, to enhance the growth of fish populations, does not work, which is bad for our environment and for our fishermen. Additionally the situation becomes very unfair for our fishermen, because you let other people fish in their “bank account”, which they are not allowed to touch.

The other crucial factor is to include the community, make them a part of the project, educate them, give them responsibilities, let them contribute, talk to them, listen to them and not to ignore their questions, doubts or problems.”


Sandbar shark conservation

With Boncuk Cove, Gökova MPA has one of the most important nursery grounds for sandbar sharks in the world. Sandbar sharks have a low reproduction rate and are therefore very vulnerable to overfishing, which can be in the form of direct fishing or as bycatch. Their global conservation status is Vulnerable (VU) and Endangered (EN) in the Mediterrranean Sea.

“In our research projects, we are monitoring the sandbar shark population size and their behavior. The fishermen help us to determine bycatch ratios and we educate them in handling and releasing the sharks in bycatch situations to increase bycatch survival rates. The nursing grounds in Boncuk Cove are inside one of our no-fishing areas and our rangers patrol the area daily in cooperation with the coast guard to prevent illegal fishing.”

Sandbar shark in Gökova Bay.

 Sandbar shark observed in Gökova MPA, 20th April 2017:


Mediterranean monk seal

The Mediterranean Monk Seal is globally Endangered (EN). Deliberate killing of Monk Seals mainly by fishermen was responsible for one-third of all mortalities of 79 stranded animals in Greece (1991-1995) and is considered the single most important source of mortality for this species in the eastern Mediterranean (Androukaki et al. 1999). Deliberate killing, hunting, and capturing live animals for exhibition purposes were the main cause for the population reduction of the species in Turkey until 1980 (Kiraç et al. 2013). Other important threats for this species are habitat destruction due to coastal development and tourist activities (boat trips or scuba diving) to visit the caves where the seals are breeding.

“In Gökova MPA, monk seals are frequently seen on the underwater cameras which have been installed for the monitoring of sandbar sharks. The MPA is an attractive place for them because they find two important things: Lots of fish in the no-fishing zones and caves.”

Video taken by Mediterranean Conservation Society (AKD) with an installed camera in one of the caves:


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Deutsche Welle video report about Gökova MPA, fishery, invasive species and pescatourism in Gökova Bay, 2014: English, Deutsch


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