Saving the Pearl Mullet, and People Too


The alkaline waters of Lake Van support just one species of fish. Photo by Bryce Edwards via Flickr.

In the early 1990s, eastern Turkey was a hotbed of conflict, as violent acts by members of a separatist organization took thousands of lives. Given this climate, it's not too surprising that a young professor in the city of Van didn't exactly get a warm response when he tried to urge authorities to protect an endemic fish."When I first raised the subject to the [local] governor, he said, 'dear teacher, I am trying to secure the safety of our citizens and you're talking to me about the safety of fish!" Prof. Mustafa Sarı recalled on a recent episode of the CNN Türk series "Turkey's Changemakers," which profiles people making a difference in the country. But what Sarı knew was that the two things were, in fact, intertwined.

Illegal Fishing of the Pearl Mullet
The fish in question was the pearl mullet, or "Van fish," the only species able to survive in the salty, alkaline waters of Turkey's Lake Van, and one found nowhere else. Like salmon, the pearl mullet swims upstream to spawn, moving into the freshwater rivers that feed into the lake to lay its eggs and then returning to Lake Van once the young fish have hatched.

Local residents, however, had come to see the spawning period as prime time for fishing, snapping up the pearl mullet in buckets, nets, and even plastic bags as the fish leap out of the water on their way upstream. Some 15,000 people in the generally low-income area make their living from fishing, but as of the mid-1990s, a full 90 percent of that catch was taken illegally, most of it during the pearl mullet's reproductive season.

Seeing that this would soon spell the end for the fish, and the livelihoods of the people who depended on it, Sarı, an instructor in the aquaculture department at the University of Van, appealed first to the authorities, then to villagers themselves -- without any success. But, in the words of the "Turkey's Changemakers" narrator, "just like the pearl mullet, Mustafa Sarı tried to make his way against the current."

Overfishing Threatened Fishermen's Livelihoods
"[People would say,] 'You cannot change how things work. You cannot know what being poor is like,'" Sarı said. "And I told them, 'If you insist on fishing at the pace you are now, you will be unable to make any profit in five to 10 years.'"

The truth of Sarı's words started to become clear even sooner than that, as fish stocks began to plummet, and with them, fishermen's incomes. At that point, the professor began to find support for his efforts. Villages signed on to his project to combat illegal fishing and the government agreed to expand and enforce the regulations.

Sarı solicited support from NGOs; created educational brochures to hand out in the villages to explain why it was important to forgo out-of-season fishing and the "delicacy" of eating pearl mullet with the eggs inside; and helped build canning and cold-storage facilities to preserve fish caught in winter for year-round income.

Fish Stocks on the Rebound
Out of the 15 villages in the area, 13 are now participating in the effort and the amount of fish caught out of season has dropped by a third. As a result, catches are up again, the average size of pearl mullet has increased, and fishermen's incomes have tripled.

"We are not very accustomed to this type of news in Turkey. We hear that some species is facing the danger of extinction. And then sometime later, we hear that it in fact did go extinct," Sarı said. "We do not have many stories about a species being saved from extinction, especially if that species is serving someone's economic benefit. We changed that ill fate with the pearl mullet."

English-subtitled episodes of "Turkey's Changemakers," which highlights people contributing to social and human development in Turkey, are available on Facebook.
More about sustainable fisheries:
Walking Fish: Students Pioneer Sustainable Seafood Program
What Does Sustainable Tuna Fishing Look Like? (Video)
Iceland is the Success Story of Sustainable Fishing
St. Lawrence Shrimp Fishery Certified Sustainable
CleanFish: Supplying Sustainable Seafood for All
World's First Sustainable Tuna Fishery Certified

Tags: Conservation | Fish | Fishing | Television | Turkey

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