Known as the Green Nobel Prize, the Goldman Environmental Prize honours people around the world who take extraordinary actions to protect the planet. In Zafer’s case, those actions have focused on Türkiye’s so-called Turquoise Coast. This stunningly beautiful seascape harbours a number of threatened species including the Mediterranean monk seal, sandbar shark and dusky grouper, as well as vital carbon-storing seagrass meadows.
Zafer works closely with local fishing communities in Türkiye to protect these species and support the recovery of their marine habitat, which is threatened by overfishing, coastal development, tourism and invasive species. A civil engineer by training and commercial deep-sea diver, he switched career paths and became a respected underwater photographer and marine researcher working in the tropical seas of the Indo-Pacific. On returning to Türkiye, he settled on the Mediterranean coast. Shocked at the state of marine life on his doorstep, he has since dedicated his life to restoring Türkiye’s waters.
Zafer Kizilkaya has dedicated his life to restoring Türkiye’s waters. Credit: Goldman Environmental Prize
How did you get started in conservation?
I grew up watching Jacques Cousteau documentaries. Diving and filming underwater was my biggest passion. During my university time, we established a sub-aqua society and started working on turtles and monk seals. Later I noticed that fishing and coastal development of all kinds are major threats to marine life. This is how my conservation life started.
How did you begin working with Fauna & Flora?
Fauna & Flora came to visit us when I was working for a different NGO. When I left to establish AKD in 2012, I had the Gökova Bay project in mind, which is how we started working in partnership with Fauna & Flora. It was one of the first projects in their new, expanded marine programme.
Why do you think the partnership has been so successful?
It was a great time and place where the partnership started. We had a good project and determined minds for implementing it. We were less than a year old when Fauna & Flora came with support. The actions we took were all timely and perfect. In three years, we achieved both biodiversity conservation and socioeconomic success. During that time Fauna & Flora supported us not only financially but also institutionally.
Fauna & Flora and AKD have worked to establish six Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in Gökova Bay. Credit: Kieran Murray/Fauna & Flora
What do you value most about the partnership?
Fauna & Flora has always been a big brother for AKD. Whenever we need any kind of support Fauna & Flora is there. Our capacity-building, institutional development and strategy were shaped by the leadership of the charity’s team. We have worked with them to expand and upscale our projects since the very beginning. Today, we still work very closely on several issues, new projects and opportunities.
What impact has marine protection had in Türkiye in the last 10 years?
The highly protected areas have shown a big difference in terms of fish biomass and rare species. We have more than 11 monk seals in Gökova Bay alone and sandbar sharks swimming in groups in Boncuk Bay. The seawater temperature increase in summer brings thermal stress for certain species and supports the spread of invasive species, but the protected areas already have enough resilience to cope with that. Our analysis of data from ten years of monitoring shows a steady increase in invasive species every year, but that’s 15% lower in fully protected areas.
Gökova Bay is a vital haven for the Mediterranean monk seal, one of the world’s most endangered marine mammals. Credit: Zafer Kizilkaya
Why are healthy seascapes so important for coastal communities?
Coastal communities have been exploiting marine resources over thousands of years, but in the past 50 years industrial-scale, high-technology fishing fleets have been catching every last fish and threatening the livelihoods of coastal communities. Healthy, fully protected seascapes are the only way to ensure sustainable levels of fishing.
What was key to the success of expanding Türkiye’s marine protected area network?
We had to show local communities how marine protected areas (MPAs) would improve their livelihoods, and convince government bodies and policymakers of the necessity and urgency for more MPAs. Government support is key for future expansion of MPAs. Having a successful example in the hand gave us crucial leverage.
How is climate change affecting AKD’s work?
That is one of the major challenges we face every day. The Eastern Mediterranean has been warming up much faster than the global average. Rising seawater temperatures and more frequent marine heatwaves accelerate the mass mortality events and dispersal of invasive tropical species. Lionfish, long-spined sea urchins and pufferfish inflict extensive damage on the local ecosystem and fisheries sector. Climate change is turning the Eastern Mediterranean into a tropical sea, but protected MPAs are more resilient to its impacts.
The yellow-spotted pufferfish, Torquigener flavimaculosus, is one of many invasive species in the Mediterranean. Credit: Zafer Kizilkaya
How do you see our partnership evolving in the next ten years?
Our experience, scientific knowledge and conservation goals are growing and covering not only coastal ecosystems and sustainable fisheries management but also extending towards terrestrial parts of the MPAs. Our partnership with Fauna & Flora is now capable of handling large-scale ecosystem restoration and exporting our knowledge to other parties. I could see us expanding our work to integrate terrestrial and marine ecosystem conservation and restoration. We will aim to do more scientific research and conservation-based studies in collaboration with new experts. Our decade of experience in handling local communities, government institutions and other stakeholders provides the blueprint for dealing with new challenges.
What are the key opportunities for marine restoration in the Mediterranean in the coming years?
Scientifically, we know that MPAs, strongly enforced and at the proper scale, can save biodiversity and depleted fish populations. Bigger MPAs have the potential to transform the Mediterranean from its impoverished state. Currently, just 0.04% of the entire Mediterranean is fully protected. MPAs make up just 8% – and that’s only on paper. There is a lot to do to align with 30×30 targets. And before we create more MPAs, we need to ensure proper protection for the existing ones.
How will this prize help you with your mission in future?
First, the prize will be great leverage for us domestically to reach policymakers and for more robust cooperation with government institutions. The marine conservation success will be heard by the public and we have the opportunity to expand our goals to new levels with broader local and international support. More funding and partnership opportunities will help our research and restoration work. We need to increase our staff capacity on the conservation side for new projects. The prize will attract documentary makers to our work and we will have a chance to share the lessons learnt and point the way forward for a blue economy that protects biodiversity and supports humanity sustainably.
Zafer Kizilkaya and his team on patrol. Credit: Goldman Environmental Prize
Why should we keep trying to protect marine ecosystems?
There are so many things worth saving when we look at the marine ecosystem. But the way we use and manage its resources is not working, for sure. It is time to change our attitude to the ocean, and view it not just as a source of food, but as an indispensable life-support system for the planet. The ocean is our best friend; it makes this planet unique and liveable and we need to do everything we can to help our best friend now.
Fauna & Flora has witnessed first-hand how Zafer has built AKD – and its pioneering conservation projects – from the ground up, and seen the massive impact he has had for nature and communities. Drawing on the deep knowledge of local fishers, involving them in the design of the protected areas, and also employing them as marine rangers to ensure they are part of the enforcement effort have all been critical to success. This conservation model is now being replicated across the Turkish coastline. Thanks to Zafer’s infectious love of the ocean and his fierce determination to protect it, Türkiye is now firmly established as a leader in marine conservation in the most overfished sea on the planet.