Sebnem Bal, 24, wanted to be a designer ever since she was a kid. But, after three years of graphic design education at a university in Istanbul, she had to quit school. She now works as a full-time cashier at a supermarket on the outskirts of Istanbul to support her family, which is in financial trouble.
Osman, her father, speaks in a soft, tired voice. Sipping from his tea, he tells me he started fishing at a very young age. “My father never wanted me to be a fisher, but I insisted. I started by assisting the fishers in our area when I was as little as 12.” Now, at 52-years-old, he regrets being a fisher: “Fishing is a passion for me, but I can hardly make ends meet. I have a family of four. My wife isn’t working. I’m financially doomed. Telling my daughter she had to quit university to support our family was one of the toughest things I did in my life.”
Bal is not the only Istanbul fisher who is going through financial difficulty. Small-scale fishing is in a state of crisis in Turkey. Via video call, academic Saadet Karakulak explains that the rise of industrial fishing has taken a toll on traditional fishers: “Due to the assertive neoliberal economic policies of the ruling AKP government, the fishing industry in Turkey grew immensely in the past decade. Industrial fishers increase investment year after year, reaching farther and deeper,” says Karakulak. “However, as the focus shifts towards industrial fishers, traditional fishers face the threat of disappearance as both their catches and livelihoods worsen.”
The fishing industry employs 250,000 people in Turkey, which is less than 0.5 percent of the population. There are 10-to-15,000 traditional boats and around 30,000 traditional fishers. They catch around 45,000 tons of fish every year–which is only about 10 percent of the total 431,000 tons of national yield. A few decades ago, the picture was completely different: in the 60s, there were almost no industrial fishing practices in Turkey. It all changed very quickly when the center-right Ozal government ambitiously started setting up industrial fishing boats, only for certain types of fish like anchovies and alalonga in the mid-80s. Of course, the scope widened very quickly. Prospering immensely in the past decade, Turkish industrial fishers have even reached out to other markets: 52 seiners have been fishing small pelagics in Mauritanian waters since 2015.
Commercially important pelagic fishes migrate from the Mediterranean Sea to the Black Sea by passing through the Istanbul Strait in northwest Turkey–bringing Europe and Asia together. This geographical advantage makes fishing economically important to Istanbul; the Bosphorus Strait is home to an ecosystem that makes up 15 percent of the total fishing economy of Turkey.
Erdogan Kartal, 58, has been a traditional fisherman on the Bosphorus for almost 40 years. He says the working conditions were very different when he first started, too. “I remember the days when one could easily make a proper living by fishing. How funny does it sound now! I can safely say that we used to earn two-three times more than what we make today,” says Kartal. There is not any record on how much traditional fishers make on average, as small-scale boats do not have a monthly salary system. For each trip, the captain gets half of the total profit, sets some money aside for the expenses, and distributes the rest between crew members. But Kartal explains that even for the fairly experienced, with the best equipment and team, you can make no more than 2,780-3,180 TL a month as a crew member. The best-case financial scenario for traditional fishers in Istanbul today is earning just about the net minimum wage for single people—which is 2,826 TL a month. Some, however, make just barely 1,500 TL a month. The payment system in traditional boats naturally results in less people doing more work for more share from the profit, worsening the working conditions for the crew.
Osman Bal says that he, more often than not, chooses to go fishing on his own so that he can have all of the share to himself in order to make ends meet. “I know it is very dangerous to be on my own. Many fishers going on solo trips drowned whilst throwing nets into the sea. There has to be at least two people on the boat for safety reasons—but I take the risk.” Most of the small-scale fishers from outside of Istanbul have left their profession and moved on to other agricultural jobs—hazelnut and corn farming in Northern Turkey and olive and cotton crops along the Mediterranean coastline. As Istanbul lacks similar agricultural means for employment, many traditional fishers are employed in traditional boats they had sold over the years as their finances worsened. Some of them are employed by industrialized fishers, too. They work in a highly technological environment and are paid much better. They do not share the profit with the captain, but they have fixed salaries as high as 6,000 TL a month. But working on these vessels is harder than it seems. For instance, they require long trips away from home. Osman Bal worked on a seine vessel for two years, but he says he’d rather go fishing on his own on a small boat and risk death than be away from his family for eight to nine months.
But the fact that traditional fishers do not get to sell their catch despite relying on the income from the fish they catch is seen by many as the biggest problem traditional fishers in Turkey face today. Middlemen do it. According to activist Defne Koryurek, there are 52 cooperatives, which boast a total number of 17,000 fishermen members. But only six cooperatives have a selling spot in wholesale fish markets. These cooperatives control less than 10 percent of the total fish that enter the market daily. The remaining 90 percent is sold by middlemen who work at wholesale fish markets where small-scale boats finish their trips to sell their yield for the day. The middlemen take 15 to 25 percent commission to distribute fish to stalls across the city. Small-scale fishers say they are happy to do it on their own, but the system would not allow them.
Academic Cansu Simsek Gucyener explains the middlemen are a group of people that control the capital, possess the privilege of defining the price range, earn money by debiting the fishermen, and are never audited. She says “without changing the middlemen order and restricting fishing by trolls, it will not be possible to talk about a fair system.” Some traditional fishermen compare it to a “fish mafia”. But why can’t they stand together against the system? Unionist and fisher Mufit Cikrikcioglu considers it a political issue: “We cannot act together, we are hindered from doing that. Commercial fishers and the middlemen have economic power, a situation that easily translates into political lobbying. They have good relations with government officers. They have a hold on the media. It is extremely hard for us to make our voices heard. We are always asked to keep silent and obey them.”
COVID-19 measures helped with biodiversity, but that wasn’t enough to better the working conditions for traditional fishers. According to The General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean, during During COVID-19, small-scale or coastal vessels were the hardest hit with less than 10 percent still operating—hile, for large-scale operations, the range of vessels still operating has been much higher: 40–100 percent in some cases. Social-distancing restrictions were reported to be the hardest to comply with, especially in fisheries involving small vessels. Kartal agrees the first phase of the pandemic was tough due to strict regulations. But now they are seeing more fish than the last few years. Still, he fears for the biodiversity in the Bosphorus: “As some types are facing extinction, we rely heavily on the existing types like anchovies or mackerels.” This leads to overfishing, in which not only industrial fishers but also some of the traditional fishers play a part. Saadet Karakulak says no small fisher is confident about the return of the day and this pushes them to focus on maximising their yield whenever and wherever they can—giving birth to a chicken-and-egg situation. As the biodiversity deteriorates, small scale fishers suffer from it. As they suffer from not having enough yield, they overfish.
“All we have to do is unite; demand more audit for industrial fishers, make sure we sell our own yield without the middlemen—and get some support from the state doing all these,” says Bal. His relationship with fishing sounds like a true love and hate story. I ask him why he would not move on to a completely different area. He says he wouldn’t even know what to do: “I was a kid when I decided to put my heart into this. How can I quit fishing? That would mean trying to rip myself off my identity. What else could I do? Our circumstances went downhill over a short period of time, but why can’t it improve as rapidly? I love what I do and I would like to keep on doing it—as long as it doesn’t push my younger daughter to share the same faith as her sister.”