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 routes.
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 the fish.
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, universities and research groups in the area who advocated a move to a more professional style of fishing.
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 local co-operatives.
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 effective.
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.”
This article was originally published by the SETimes on June. 6 2012.