Turkey: In Lake Van, struggle to save sole
fish species continues
By Emiko Jozuka for SES Türkiye in Ercis
Found only in Lake Van, the
Kurdish region in southeastern Turkey (northern
Kurdistan), the fate of the pearl mullet remains up
in the air. Over the past decade, experts have
pushed for a new sustainable fishing model, but some
have pointed to inadequacies and claims that it has
disrupted long-standing fishing traditions.
Pearl mullet jump upstream to reach freshwater
spawning grounds. Photo: Emiko Jozuka
Dead fish dumped on a bridge stand as testament to
illegal fishing. Photo: Emiko Jozuka
Hundreds of pearl mullet wash up on the banks of
Lake Van and its rivers. Photo: Emiko Jozuka.
Pearl mullet compete with one another to reach
freshwater spawning grounds. Photo: Emiko Jozuka.
June 22, 2012
ERCIS, The Kurdish
region of Turkey, From mid-May to mid-June, the
rivers running into Lake Van in southeast Turkey
teem with thousands of pearl mullet, writhing
against each other in their race to reach freshwater
spawning grounds. Yet in some rivers, washed up on
the river banks and floating lifelessly in the
shallow waters are the remains of hundreds of pearl
mullet that didn't make the journey.
Found only in Lake Van, the pearl mullet is the only
fish species able to survive in the lake's highly
salty and carbonated waters. But during its
reproductive cycle, the fish must overcome both
natural and man-made obstacles in the journey
towards the freshwaters where they can spawn.
Along with the challenge of swimming against the
current and jumping over cascades, over time the
survival of the pearl mullet has been endangered by
human predators who anticipate the season when they
can catch the pearl mullet along its migration
The ease with which troves of fish, stuffed full of
eggs that are considered a local delicacy, could be
gathered up in plastic bags and buckets and sold in
local markets, encouraged many to make a business
out of illegal fishing during the spawning season.
Before protective actions and stricter bans on
fishing were implemented in 2001, Mustafa Sari, the
president of the Van Nature Observer's Society and
professor of aquaculture at Van University,
described how his research had pointed to the threat
of the pearl mullet's extinction unless
precautionary measures were taken.
"It was a terrible thing to see. Truckloads of fish
would be gathered in order to be sold in the city
centres. Whatever wasn't sold that day would be
dumped in the fields, and fresh fish would be
gathered again the next day," explained Sari.
Between 1992 and 1996, Sari focused his research on
developing a sustainable form of fishing that would
provide locals with food and income while protecting
After initially trialling two unsuccessful pearl
mullet conservation models, Sari's third attempt in
2001 led to the Lake Van Fishing Management Plan,
supported by the Global Environmental Facility's
Small Grants Programme and implemented with the
assistance of the UN Development Programme.
The plan aimed to provide a model for other lakes in
Turkey and focused on the awareness raising
initiatives of NGOs,www.ekurd.net
universities and research groups in the area who
advocated a move to a more professional style of
A stronger gendarmerie and police force were also
assigned to patrol key points in the pearl mullet's
migration route during the restricted fishing period
between April 15th and July 15th.
But the model has also created critics among some
fishermen who say that the new rules have disrupted
fishing traditions and regulation formerly done by
Sahbettin Avci, a local fisherman in the village of
Karahan, near Muradiye, says that since the
conservation scheme was implemented, specific
fishing territory has been allotted to each village,
restricting the areas they can fish.
The deep western portions of Lake Van don't freeze
in the winter due to the water's salinity, but the
shallow sections in the lake's northeast arm near
his village are prone to icing over.
As a result, the plan's emphasis on fishing in the
winter has benefited fishermen with access to deep
water territory, but has left others -- with only
shallow water access -- in a difficult position.
"In the past we used to fish up until May 15th.
After this we respected our own ban on fishing up
until July 1st. In the winter we don't fish because
the water isn't deep enough and [our fishing
territories] get covered in ice," Avci explained.
The hundreds of dead pearl mullet that are found
washed up on the sides of river banks have also
polarised opinions and frustrated those unhappy with
the four month restricted fishing period.
"We're not against the gendarmerie and soldiers who
patrol the area; they're just doing their job. We're
angry about the number of dead fish that we find
washed up on our river banks," said Avci.
According to Kamil Çagri Baydaş, a veterinarian at
the Muradiye Agricultural Ministry, these dead fish
are those dumped back into the river by locals who
illegally caught them and could not sell them.
Despite the steps taken to protect the pearl mullet,
the gendarmerie and police patrols aren't sufficient
to survey the entirety of the migration routes.
Yildirim Ozcelik, an agricultural and aquacultural
engineer at the Van Agriculture Ministry, says the
biggest obstacle to saving the pearl mullet is a
lack of knowledge.
"The biggest problem is lack of education. For some,
they are not aware that this fish species will
become depleted," he said.
While a lack of awareness may still endanger the
pearl mullet population, loose law enforcement also
prevents the conservation scheme from being entirely
People caught fishing the pearl mullet during the
spawning period are fined 857 TL (372 euros). Yet,
according to Sari, even if people are charged with a
fine there is little done to make them pay it -- a
blip in the system that he said is often exploited.
Research conducted by local universities reveal that
in 1990, all 15 fishing villages in Van province
engaged in illegal fishing, yet by 2003, the number
had dropped to three villages. Furthermore, while in
1996, 12,000 out of the 15,000 tonnes of pearl
mullet fished were illegal; by 2005 the figure for
illegal catches had dropped to 4,000 tonnes.
Back in Karahan village, the village head Serafettin
Simsek explained that although educative measures
have prevented the vast majority of residents from
catching the pearl mullet during spawning period, a
small percentage of very poor villagers still engage
in the activity to make ends meet.
"It's difficult to persuade everyone to give up
fishing during the spawning period. People are
unemployed, and some people are apathetic," he said.
But Simsek added that he's learned from Sari that
during the spawning period, pearl mullet are
pregnant, and asked rhetorically, "Would you kill a
cow or a woman on the day they give birth?"
"Inside the cow is a calf, inside the woman is a
baby, so fish are the same. To kill fish during
their reproduction cycle is a sin, murder."
Published by Ekurd.net in cooperation with Southeast
Copyright © respective author or news agency, setimes.com
does not take credit for and is not responsible for the
content of news information on this page