Despite its relatively diminutive size, the Mediterranean may well be considered one of the world’s most pivotal bodies of water (its name literally translates as ‘sea in the middle of the world’). Yet marine conservation has not been a high priority for authorities overseeing human activities in this part of the world’s oceans. Alongside the presence of vast quantities of plastic and invasive species – not to mention the humanitarian crises unfolding between the iconic shores – has been the severe ramifications of widespread overfishing. Many once prosperous fishing communities, such as the residents of Gökova Bay in Turkey, found themselves pulling up empty nets, as the marine species they once relied upon for their diet and income continue to plummet to ever lower numbers.
In 2013, Turkish marine researcher, engineer and underwater photographer Zafer Kizilkaya was awarded a Whitley Award in recognition of the work by his organisation, the Mediterranean Conservation Society, in creating six new ‘no fishing zones’ (NFZs) covering Gökova Bay. These new no-take reserves, managed and rigorously protected by the local community, became prosperous breeding grounds and nurseries for many fish species, whose numbers since grew by as much as 800 per cent, spilling over into surrounding waters. Through the funding and publicity from the award, Kizilkaya and his team were subsequently able to expand the size of the NFZs by 25 per cent, creating a total protected area of over 3,000km2.
‘Marine protected areas have so many benefits,’ insists Kizilkaya. ‘They support local people, they support culture, and more importantly, they protect biodiversity. Nobody comes, nobody disturbs. Nobody anchors, nobody fishes. They just give an amazing amount of benefits.’
As Kizilkaya repeatedly outlines, however, creating the NFZs was only the start of the solution. The key has been enforcement, since increasingly healthy fish populations create ever-increasing interest from aspiring illegal fishermen. ‘If there is no enforcement, forget about the protected area,’ he explains. ‘The coastguard is so busy with so many other important things; stopping illegal human trafficking, all these humanitarian crises, helping people dropping in the ocean. They said, “We cannot help you at all, or do any kind of enforcement in no fishing zones”. So we decided to set up our own model for enforcement.’Instead of relying on the over-worked coastguards, the Mediterranean Conservation Society employed local community volunteers, trained them, equipped them with boats, uniforms, badges, radios and the latest real-time tracking technology, and sent them out to sea to operate alongside the official authorities. ‘They work with the coastguards,’ he continues. ‘They are the extension of the coastguards. They have no authority at all, for fining or confiscating anything.’
This success in restoring local fish stocks gained the overwhelming backing from local residents, who began to profit economically from the significantly larger stocks of fish they were able to sell, by up to 400 per cent. Distant communities began to recognise the benefits of the NFZs, meaning Kizilkaya has repeatedly been asked to create similar projects in other regions of the Mediterranean. ‘We have already had requests from other communities,’ he recalls, ‘because they hear of amazing fishing in Gökova, that people are making a crazy amounts of money from fishing – while they’re starving over there. So they call us, “Why don't you come and establish no fishing zones here?”’ Kizilkaya has helped several fishing communities eliminate some of the most destruction fishing practices, such as trawling, and helping reduce by-catch, which also help protect the sensitive fish stocks.As well as the financial and development benefits, much of the rest of the natural environment has returned to Gökova as well, such as sandbar sharks, loggerhead turtles, and monk seals – a critically endangered species which is down to less than an estimated 400 individuals in the world. Utilising underwater cameras has shown a steady recovery of the marine ecosystem. ‘The numbers are just skyrocketing, because nobody disturbs them, nobody is going fishing. There are no people around,’ says Kizilkaya.
All of the above have been key factors in the awarding of the 2017 Gold Award to Kizilkaya, which comes with a £50,000 grant to continue the success of Gökova Bay and the Mediterranean Conservation Society’s other projects. One core goal going forward is to attempt replications of the NFZs in other parts of Turkey’s waters – such as Fethiye Bay, to the southeast of Gökova – but also further afield. ‘We have a big network, not only in the Mediterranean,’ he explains. ‘Last month we had a meeting with the North American and Caribbean marine protected areas. So it’s going to snowball, we are exchanging ideas and strategies.’
Other winners at the 2017 Whitley Awards were Purnima Barman for helping protect India’s greater adjutant, Alexander Blanco for conserving Venezuela’s harpy eagles, Sanjay Gubbi for reducing deforestation in India’s tiger corridors, Indira Lacerna-Widmann for safeguarding the Critically Endangered Philippine cockatoo, Ian Little for protecting South Africa’s threatened grassland biodiversity, and Ximena Velez-Liendo for enabling coexistence of Andean bears and farmers in the Bolivian mountains.