Documenting history in Turkey


Aylin Ulman

The author conducting research on recreational anglers on Galata Bridge, in the Golden Horn estuary of Istanbul (© A. Ulman)

by Aylin Ulman

In 2011, I began working for the Sea Around Us Project to complete catch reconstructions for Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea countries. I quickly realized, while studying Turkey’s fisheries, that some marine ecosystems of Turkey recently underwent immense reductions of commercial species [1], leading to entire trophic shifts, but little data were available to explain these issues. At the beginning of my MSc with Daniel Pauly in 2012, it was decided that I’d go to Turkey to document the shifting baselines syndrome, i.e., gradual shifts in perception of the ecosystem, and collect details on these missing species/habitats.

My father was part of this study, as he is part of the first generation of scuba divers from Istanbul in the late 1950s and remembers a time long gone-by, when the Bosphorus was pristine and teeming with marine life. He has always been a typical eastern Mediterranean fisher, which does not normally go well with proud marine conservationists such as me. However, documenting shifting baselines in Turkey allowed me to turn his older generation’s Turkish traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) into recording the missing pieces of biological history.

To assess the shifting baselines syndrome, I compared today’s level of fishing effort, catch amounts, catch composition, and mean sizes to the time when these fisheries began; had them rate the quality of fishing now and when they first started; asked about any local extirpations or serious collapses in fish abundances; asked about the changes in catch of several other key taxa; and then queried the fishers about how they would improve fisheries.

The present plight of Turkish fisheries are likely a combination of the following: they have a tremendous fishing fleet (over 17,000 commercial vessels), very sophisticated technology (i.e., sonars and GPS), no catch restrictions, little enforcement of regulations, and also grapple with pollution issues.

I attended meetings for both the small-scale and industrial sectors and quickly realized that some sectors were more affected by the changes in biodiversity and catches than others. Consequently, I decided to interview fishers from all sectors (industrial, artisanal, and recreational) to understand their unique perspectives. Thanks to my prior work with the Sea Around Us, I knew over 100 Turkish names for fish, which was essential in conducting my surveys. I concentrated mostly on the Istanbul Bosphorus (where fishers depart to fish each of Turkey’s four seas), the Dardanelles (home to the most productive migration route for the key pelagic species), and the southwestern peninsula (which separates the Aegean Sea from the Mediterranean).

I first began my survey training on my father’s fishing friends in Datça, on the very southwestern peninsula, where he is the vice-president of the local fisheries co-operative. Everywhere, fishers were very open and helpful to me, which surprised me. Many were asking me: “Why does our government not try to learn how our seas have changed, yet a Canadian is out there with us trying to understand it?” I then realized just how privileged we are to be able to conduct this type of study. I was most surprised by how welcomed I was by the industrial fishers. I had gone there with a preconceived notion that these were the bad guys, wielding an immense fishing power. However, I quickly learned that these were the true ‘traditional’ fishers of the country, many whose families had been fishing for hundreds of years. They really care about the future of the fisheries and are desperately seeking some sort of output control to manage the stocks.

As I surveyed each fishing sector, and made many new friends, I gained new insights into a few common illegal fisheries of the Bosphorus, like the sea snail, Mediterranean mussel and bottom trawl fisheries, and now I have numbers to better estimate them.

I realized that the rate of ecological change is unbelievable for certain areas. For example, the Golden Horn estuary of the Bosphorus was teeming with swordfish, bluefin tuna, lobsters and Atlantic mackerel just 60 years ago, all of which seem to have vanished since the 1970s. Older fishers rarely bring up these species in conversation anymore, but are still haunted by their disappearances.

If I had to remember just a few quotes from this field trip, they would be:

-“Forget about making money [fishing], we do not even enjoy this anymore”;
-“30 years ago, 3 months of fishing would leave your pockets full for the other 9 months, now we fish every day and can barely afford our bread”;
-“Both small-scale and medium-scale fisheries are just not viable anymore, only the large-scale fisheries can survive, we need to find other work to complement our fishing salaries”; and
-“We have seen the best fishing years imaginable, but our children will only know those years through encyclopedias”.

On a side note, I was staying in Taksim Square when I was in Istanbul, where east meets west, and ancient history is met with modernity. There, I got to witness the Turkish national revolution, and its daily progression first hand. Its early stages were a very elated street party, comparable in my lifetime only to the Toronto after the Blue Jay’s World Series wins of 1992 and 1993. The educated half of the country united for the first time in history in Taksim Square to oppose actions of the Prime Minister. The protesters went from feeling utterly powerless to realizing that united they were strong, and that the world indeed was listening (for a little while anyways). I have never felt more proud to be Turkish, that is, until they began to use tear gas; I then realized that human rights and democracy have a different meaning than in Canada, and that it was better to be safe than arrested…

The shifted baselines of Turkey had not been previously studied. There is no other way to find out this information besides speaking to the fishers whom have witnessed these changes first hand. I hope to make my findings accessible to the fishing community in their local publications so that those without the prior ecological knowledge can at least try to imagine it, and even pass it down. Now that we know that Turkish citizens have a voice, it is now time for Turkish fishers to have a voice.


Ulman A, Bekişoğlu Ş, Zengin M, Knudsen S, Ünal V, Mathews C, Harper S, Zeller D and Pauly D (2013) From bonito to anchovy: a reconstruction of Turkey’s marine fisheries catches (1950-2010). Mediterranean Marine Science 14(2): 309-342.

New database of marine aquaculture launched

The new Global Mariculture Database (GMD), released by the Sea Around Us Project, offers detailed information on the where and what of mariculture around the world since 1950. By mapping the production of marine aquaculture at smaller scales than the usual national scale and by digging deeper into the species being farmed, the GMD provides room for new insights into marine aquaculture.  And all of this information is now available online for anyone to browse on the Sea Around Us Project website!

The GMD confirms reports by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) that the amount of seafood produced by marine aquaculture has tripled since 1950 – a massive increase. During this time, there has also been a shift in the type of seafood produced globally, with a larger percentage of predatory species, such as salmon and tuna, farmed around the world today compared to 1950. In the past, the relative production of species lower on the food chain, like mussels and oysters, was higher. This phenomenon has been described as “farming up the food web” a term derived from the concept of fishing down marine food webs.

In keeping with the Sea Around Us Project’s goal of improving public access to global fisheries and aquaculture information, this Global Mariculture Database (GMD) is freely available online at

To find out more about the GMD and how it was created, you can read the paper recently published in the journal Marine Policy:

Campbell B and Pauly D (2012) Mariculture: a global analysis of production trends since 1950. Marine Policy 39: 94-100.

Check out our new website!

Fishing down marine food webs

A new website (, hosted by the Sea Around Us Project, has been launched. This website helps clear up misconceptions about the concept of “fishing down” in marine ecosystems – whereby fisheries have a tendency to deplete longer lived, high-trophic level species first, causing a decline in the mean trophic level of catches from an ecosystem.

Since it was first published, the fishing down concept has been documented and adopted by a broad community of marine and freshwater scientists around the world. Thus, the website also aggregates many case studies illustrating the phenomenon in marine ecosystems all over world, from Argentina to the North Sea, from Greece to the Caribbean. In 2010, the fishing down concept was challenged in a publication in the journal Nature. The objections that were raised are based mainly on imputations and misunderstandings, and the Fishing Down website is dedicated to clearing up the misunderstandings behind much of the controversy. One apparent problem is that fishing down can be masked by extraneous factors, such as the taxonomic over-aggregation of catch statistics. The website is intended as a response to the voiced concerns and provides scientific references about the fishing down phenomenon, including a link to the original article, led by biologist Daniel Pauly and published in the journal Science in 1998, titled “Fishing down marine food webs.”

We welcome you to visit

Analysis of FAO Report on Fisheries Statistics

Global fisheries statistics must be viewed with a critical eye. Fisheries landings data are collated by FAO and contributed by all member countries, which have varying resources and motives. In a new paper recently published in Marine Policy, Daniel Pauly and Rainier Froese take a close look at FAO’s State of the Worlds Fisheries and Aquaculture’ (SOFIA) report from 2010 and discuss the FAO’s history, as well as the implications, imperfections, and possible improvements to be made to fisheries data.

Pauly and Froese are both complimentary and critical. They point out the misleading use of the word ‘stability’ in the report as it refers to global catch data from 2005-2008, and point out that even if that global catches are indeed stable, fishing effort is rapidly expanding. They note the FAO’s acceptance of scientific data that showed China does not know how much its fisheries catch, and the large degrees of uncertainty around global trends this problem creates. Pauly and Froese point approvingly to SOFIA’s position on assemblage overfishing and their statement: ‘ We do not disagree that a general decline in mean trophic level of marine landings is likely to have occurred in many regions.’ Finally, Pauly and Froese call for cooperation between institutions, e.g., U.N. technical organization and civil society, as represented by universities and non-government organizations, to improve SOFIA reports and potentially the management of fisheries globally.

To read the full article click here.

Citation: Pauly, D. & Froese, R. 2012. Comments on FAO’s State of Fisheries and Aquaculture, or ‘SOFIA 2010’ Marine Policy 36: 746-752.

Sumaila responds to Branch et al. in Nature

Economist Rashid Sumaila recently responded to the paper by Trevor Branch and colleagues in the journal Nature:

The trophic fingerprint of marine fisheries’ (Nature, 468, 431-435, 2010), has intensified the debate on how best to measure the impact of commercial fishing on ocean biodiversity: Is catch data useful in telling us what is happening in the ocean or do we need stock assessment information in order to say something meaningful? As an economist, I cannot contribute to this debate but I can ask some questions: What conclusion does one come to if one uses one or the other of these approaches?If one ends up with the same conclusion then the debate is only of academic interest. If the conclusions reached are different, what are the potential costs to the world should one or the other be incorrect? In general, proponents of the use of stock assessments for measuring the ‘health’ of ocean fish populations, led by Ray Hilborn of the University of Washington, conclude that ocean fish populations are doing just fine, while those who use catch data, spearheaded by Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia, come to the conclusion that global fish stocks are in bad shape. Depending on which of these two camps wins the argument, the world would either stick to the status quo and continue to manage global fisheries as we currently do, or the world community would double its efforts to manage global fisheries sustainably. Should the former conclusion turn out to be incorrect, the world would have saved some costs by continuing to fish without further management restrictions, with the consequence that ocean biodiversity would be eroded further, thereby supplying less and less fish with time. On the other hand, if the latter turns out to be incorrect, the world would have incurred unnecessary cost due to stricter management but would have an ocean rich in biodiversity that is capable of supplying fish into the future.

Read more on this issue here.