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.
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.”
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.
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.
Shortly after Badem’s release the local people called me on the phone, when I was already in West Papua for a National Geographic Project. “Your seal is in town, playing with people” they said to me.
So I came back to Gökova and hired staff to build a holding pen, 50 metres in diameter and 20 meters depth, where she was kept during the summer months to minimize interaction with people and get her used to the life of a wild animal.
I realized that we had done one thing really wrong. During her rehabilitation, we had a lot of body contact and interaction with Badem, grabbing and holding her, force-feeding her. She saw us as her parents and like that there was no way she would become a wild animal. For a long time she thought that she is a human being, not a seal.
When she was 3 years old, she had a pup. Sadly, her pup died, which is very usual for seals when they have their first birth. After I had taken her dead pup to send it to necropsy, she came to me and cried on my lap like a human being. This experience was so incredibly sad for me that I decided to never work in seal rehabilitation again.
After that event she disappeared for a long time. She had been spotted on the Greek islands and she did not approach people anymore. She seemed to have become a wild seal after all. One day she came back to Gökova, with a pup. She seemed to know that this was a safe place for her and her pup, with friendly people and the pup often came to the river to play and catch fish.
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?
“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
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.”
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?
“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.
They love to be out at the sea, fishing, and with their income from fishing, they do not really need the additional or alternative income which the pescatourism opportunity would offer for them. That is why they lost interest. Pescatourism is still interesting though for people who would like to quit fishing and do something else or who would like to do a mix. But since we lost the boat and the majority of interested fishermen we stopped the pescatourism project.”
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
“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”
“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.
Because of that we decided to contact Gökova fisherwomen and trained them in sustainable fishing, marine conservation, future of fisheries, conservation of no-fishing zones and most importantly about women rights and fisherwomen rights. For example they never used life jackets because they found them very uncomfortable to wear over their breast, especially during work, so we bought them suitable life jackets for a female body shape that automatically inflate when you need them, together with winter clothes, boots, environmentally friendly gear and so on.”
“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.”
(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.
One very problematic invasive species is the puffer fish. Because it is very toxic, you cannot eat it. These fish eat the bait and the catches on the long line and destroy fishing nets. The damage per boat is about a 1000 Euros per month in the small scale fishery. Luckily, after our no fishing zones were established, the number of big groupers in the bay increased a lot. Groupers do not prey on
puffer fish but imagine you are a small fish and there is another fish a lot bigger than you right next to you. The groupers make the area appear more threatening and in that way much less attractive for a puffer fish. We also discovered during our scientific research that the tissue of the puffer fish is not poisonous until the fish reaches a body length of 17 cm, which means that other fish can prey on them. Anyway, due to the increasing grouper population, we do not have any puffer fish problem in Gökova Bay anymore, but in other areas, they lead to huge problems.”
“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??
“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.”
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.”
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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