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The Unsustainable Future Of Fish Farming — On Vivid Display In Turkish Waters

Currently, 60% of Turkey's fish currently comes from cultivation, also known as fish farming, compared to just 10% two decades ago. The short-sightedness of this shift risks eliminating fishing output from both the farms and the open seas along Turkey's 5,200 miles of coastline.

Photograph of two fishermen throwing a net into the Tigris river in Turkey.

Traditional fishermen on the Tigris river, Turkey.

Dûrzan Cîrano/Wikimeidia
İrfan Donat

ISTANBUL — Turkey's annual fish production includes 515,000 tons from cultivation and 335,000 tons came from fishing in open waters. In other words, 60% of Turkey's fish currently comes from cultivation, also known as fish farming.

It's a radical shift from just 20 years ago when some 600,000 tons, or 90% of the total output, came from fishing. Now, researchers are warning the current system dominated by fish farming is ultimately unsustainable in the country with a coastline 8,333 kilometers (5,177 miles) long.

Professor Mustafa Sarı from the Maritime Studies Faculty of Bandırma 17 Eylül University believes urgent action is needed: “Why were we getting 600,000 tons of fish from the seas in the 2000’s and only 300,000 now? Where did the other 300,000 tons of fish go?”

Professor Sarı is challenging the argument from certain sectors of the industry that cultivation is the more sustainable approach. “Now we are feeding the fish that we cultivate at the farms with the fish that we catch from nature," he explained. "The fish types that we cultivate at the farms are sea bass, sea bram, trout and salmon, which are fed with artificial feed produced at fish-feed factories. All of these fish-feeds must have a significant amount of fish flour and fish oil in them.”

That fish flour and fish oil inevitably must come from the sea. "We have to get them from natural sources. We need to catch 5.7 kilogram of fish from the seas in order to cultivate a sea bream of 1 kg," Sarı said. "Therefore, we are feeding the fish to the fish. We cannot cultivate fish at the farms if the fish in nature becomes extinct. The natural fish need to be protected. The consequences would be severe if the current policy is continued.”

It's time to give back to the sea

The dramatic decline in the most sought out fish species are striking in the official numbers. For example, the anchovy harvest was down to 126,000 tons in 2020 from the 320,000 tons in 2002. Saurel harvest was over 26,000 tons in 2002, down to 15,000 tons in 2020. The same trend is also true for other fish types such as haddock and red mullet. While there are increases in the harvests of some fish types such as the sardine and brisling, the overall trend is clearly on a sharp decline.

The alarming data should spur Turkey to rethink a national fishing policy based on protecting the ecosystem. Professor Sarı said over 5,000 species should be living in a healthy ecosystem in the Marmara Sea, near Istanbul, in order to have a loufer or a sea bream to be served on our dinner table.

Sarı says that the seas no longer have the capacity to feed humans. "We've polluted the seas, damaged the habitat and exterminated the fish in the process. And now [the sea] is unable to give us anything," he said. "We have to change our mentality from having always learned how to take from the sea. Now it’s time to give [back] to the sea.”

Turkey is attempting to manage fishery without bringing quotas to fishing except for a few species, choosing instead just to limit fishing to specific times and locations or by certain methods, Sarı explained that Turkey's four different seas (Marmara, Aegean, Mediterranean and Black Sea), each has its own dynamics. "We attempt to manage our seas with policies that are too general. This is also a problem regarding the sustainability of the system.”

Photograph of fish farms in Aegan Turkey

Fish farming in Aegan Turkey

David Broad/Wikimedia

Fishery on the decline

Professor Bayram Öztürk from the Institute of Marine Sciences and Management of Istanbul University, and chair of the Turkish Marine Research Foundation, said Turkey has fundamentally abandoned fishing for the sake of cultivation.

“We should focus on sustainable fishery"

Öztürk recalled his youth when anchovies were washing up on the shores of the Black Sea and locals simply had to pick the fish up to salt them for the winter. Today, the anchovy is far smaller, six to seven centimeters long, and should be at least nine centimeters long. Öztürk recalled that the 80% of the fishing in Turkey used to be just anchovy 30 years ago, which is now down to around 60%. “We should be talking about the anchovy when we are talking about fishery [and] fishing in Turkey. Turkey has three to four main fish types, but anchovy is the most important one for the Black Sea.”

Turkey has among the most expensive fish in the world behind Japan and a handful of other countries, and Öztürk who also believes sustainable policies are required to prevent the downfall of fishing in the country. “We should focus on sustainable fishery and a strong stock to leave for the future generations by designating protected areas at the seas to increase the low diversity and quantity.”

Invasive fish species from the Red Sea have crossed the Mediterranean and the Aegean, like the puffers, are another threat for the habitat of the fish in the seas of Turkey alongside the excessive and illegal fishing.

Aerial photograph of the Kili\u00e7 fish farms in Turkish waters.

Kiliç fish farms in Turkey

Kiliç Sea Food/Aquaculture

Sea pollution

Sea pollution is also extremely high and the Marmara should not be treated as if it’s a “cesspool” by waste water treatment systems being employed: “The fish stocks will increase if we can reduce the pollution in our seas, manage to protect it and provide active supervision," Öztürk said. The ecosystem would renew itself.”

The audits regarding fisheries in Turkey are weak, and the sanctions are inadequate. Still, there are also some positive steps being taken in order to preserve sustainability in Turkey’s seas, including the artificial reef project in the Bay of Edremit.

The project, which is monitored every three months, created a “great habitat” where 400 artificial reefs were sunk in just 18 months. Sarı said the data is very promising, with multiple reported sightings of fish in large schools. “We believe that this campaign will make a contribution to the regional economy and the scuba diving tourism as well as the habitat itself," Sarı said. "And just as important: We hope such projects sets an example for all the shores of Turkey."

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