Gökova Bay is located on the southern Mediterranean coast of Turkey in the 'Mediterranean Basin' global biodiversity hotspot, and in the WWF Global 200 ecoregion. Because of its unique marine and terrestrial biodiversity, selected marine and terrestrial areas of Gökova Bay were declared a special environmental protection area (SEPA) in 1988. On the terrestrial side, the government implements strict regulations on extraction and resource access. Marine resources, however, are covered by no such regulations. The coastal waters were, until creation of 'no-take zones', subject to open access fishing, which created a recipe for overexploitation and illegal fishing.
Along with the seasonal tourism industry, fishing is the primary employment sector in Gökova Bay. Local fishing resources had been in steady and serious decline over recent decades, with fishing communities suffering significant income loss. Part of this decline can be traced to overfishing and illegal fishing practices that put unsustainable pressure on marine ecosystems. At the same time, climate change has altered ecosystem function and balance, and has facilitated the introduction of invasive alien species. The rivulated rabbitfish (Siganus rivulatus), squaretail rabbitfish (Siganus luridus), and spotted roughback blowfish (Lagocephalus sceleratus), for example, have migrated into the region, negatively impacting the ecosystem by preying on important commercial species, damaging fishing gear, and limiting the productivity of the local fishing sector. As the backbone of the local fishing economy, golden grouper (Epinephelus costae) and caramote prawn (Melicertus kerathurus), accounted respectively for 32 and 10 percent of fishing incomes in 2006. In the 2009-2010 fishing season, those numbers dropped to 10 percent and 0.02 percent, respectively.
Established in response to marine ecosystem degradation, declining fish diversity and abundance, the Mediterranean Conservation Society has created a network of no-take zones and a marine guard program while providing the tools and resources to ensure that each community marine guard unit is fully equipped to effectively enforce and monitor no-take zones.
The organization has worked with the government to formally register the program, as well as to legitimize and amplify the reach of community-based surveillance and patrol activities through support from the national authorities. Although community rangers cannot fine people for committing an illegal activity, they can record any incident by camera and report it to the Coast Guard. Equipped with this information – photo and video evidence – the Coast Guard can then take legal action against transgressors. In some cases, local officers from the Directorate General of Fisheries and Aquaculture have joined community rangers during their patrols, bolstering the alliance between government and community members. The approach has been highly successful, with more than 2,400 hectares of sensitive marine habitat protected. It is this integration of traditional knowledge with multi-stakeholder partnerships and enforcement mechanisms that enables the Mediterranean Conservation Society to serve as a model for other marine areas around the world.
This project is among the first bottom-up decision-making initiatives for the management of natural resources in Turkey. Local fishermen have been empowered to monitor and report illegal fishing activities to government authorities, closing the loop between local knowledge and enforcement authority. Local communities and national authorities are working in full cooperation, sharing innovative ideas on how to further adjust and improve the sustainable management of local fisheries.
To measure its impact, the Mediterranean Conservation Society has been scientifically monitoring marine biodiversity in the areas it oversees. In the English Bay no-take zone, for example, sightings of the golden grouper (Ephinephelus costae), which constitutes a large percentage of local fishing community income, increased 34 times in 2014 compared to 2008 data. Sightings of the same species increased eight times within one kilometer outside the no-take zone, proving a positive spillover effect from the no-take zones into nearby areas over a relatively short period of time. Similarly, fishermen and marine rangers have also reported frequent monk seal and turtle sightings in the no-take zones. Sandbar sharks have likewise been recorded in larger numbers, including baby sharks, suggesting the bay is once again serving as a nursing ground for this endangered shark species.
An in-depth study initiated by the Mediterranean Conservation Society throughout Gökova Bay further demonstrated that between 2013 and 2015, biomass of apex predator fishes increased significantly in several no-take zones, with the English Bay no-take zone demonstrating average biomass nearly 25 times that observed in unprotected sites (Figure 2). This same study additionally showed that the biomass of apex predators increased most dramatically of all species studied, and led to a reduction of invasive herbivorous species (Figure 3). As several scientific studies have showed the negative impact of invasive species on overall ecosystem health in the Mediterranean, this increase in apex predator biomass and decrease in invasive herbivorous biomass is a promising sign for ecosystem restoration in the region.
Figure 1. Biomass of apex predator fishes in Gökova Bay MPA
Figure 2. Comparison of fish biomass within and outside of No Fishing Zones in Gökova Bay.
The initiatives of the Mediterranean Conservation Society have led to positive improvements in local fisheries management, which has meant increases in fish catches and local fishermen incomes. The increase in revenue is due to stricter enforcement of no-take zones, which has led to both a reduction in recreational fishing, demonstrated by the decrease in average number of fishing boats, and an increase in fish stocks. Akyaka Fishery Cooperative, the largest in the bay and just one example among many, reports an increase in fishing revenue of over 180 percent after three years of implementing no-take zones.
Figure 3. Increase in fishing revenues of Akyaka Fishery Cooperatives since the No Fishing Zones established in 2010.
Among the local fishing community there are approximately 100 fisherwomen working with their husbands or alone. Continuing the struggle in all aspects of life, women care for their families and the sea with great determination. The Mediterranean Conservation Society aims to ensure the continuity and strength of fisherwomen in Gökova Bay and Datça-Bozburun Peninsula by discovering and addressing their needs and supporting sustainable fisheries, thereby helping them to continue their jobs as well as sharing with the public the basic problems and consequences of the problems marine protected areas are facing. Women are the first to be affected by diminishing biodiversity. Recognizing the importance of a collaborative approach to marine management and a gender inclusive stance on improving socioeconomic conditions in the region, the organization initiated a project in 2013 to support over 70 fisherwomen in the Bozburun-Datça Area of Gökova Bay.
The creation of no-take zones in 2010 that are monitored and enforced by both local communities and the national government has answered urgent needs in the Mediterranean Basin to link policy and practice. This achievement has been amplified by the Mediterranean Conservation Society's successful advocacy campaign to restrict the access of industrial fishing vessels such as purse seiners and trawlers from inner Gökova Bay. Today, more than 150,000 hectares of the Gökova marine protected area ban purse seiner fishing, and more than 260,000 hectares are closed to trawlers. The work of the Mediterranean Conservation Society has built a bridge between community-based conservation and government policy development that previously did not exist, providing a foundation to address the yet unmet need for a collaborative fisheries management plan in Gökova Bay. The organization is rallying for the creation of a national marine ranger system within the responsible ministries, which would be an unprecedented step towards ensuring marine conservation throughout the country.
"It took us twenty years until we managed to agree and finally establish the no-take zones. Neither the sea, nor I, have another twenty years to wait for somebody to make it work, for then it will be too late."
— Ercument Altınsoy, Gökova Bay fisherman