This interview –to mark International Women’s Day 2023 – was conducted before the calamitous earthquake that has caused widespread devastation and the tragic loss of so many lives in Türkiye and Syria. After careful consideration, we have decided to go ahead and publish the interview, which tells one of the many personal stories behind the vital marine conservation work that continues even in the face of unimaginable adversity. Our thoughts are with our Turkish friends and, in particular, with the women and children who so often bear a disproportionately heavy burden in the aftermath of such natural disasters.
Türkiye’s Mediterranean coastline is home to a wealth of wildlife including Mediterranean monk seals and sandbar sharks, as well as globally important, carbon-guzzling seagrass meadows. Yet this fragile marine environment faces many threats, including unsustainable fishing, coastal development and invasive species.
Since 2012, Fauna & Flora’s in-country partner Akdeniz Koruma Derneği (AKD) has led conservation efforts in Gökova Bay, the site of Türkiye’s first and – until 2020 – only actively managed marine protected area (MPA). Today, Gökova Bay has six designated no-fishing zones, which AKD rangers patrol and monitor.
No Fishing Zones (NFZ) in Gökova protect marine life and promote fisher livelihoods. Credit: Zafer Kizilkaya
Ayşenur Ölmez joined AKD in July 2022, at which point she was Türkiye’s first and only female marine ranger.
What does a typical day look like?
We may go out to sea very early in the morning or very late in the day. We try to adjust our patrol hours to those of other people working at sea, so we have unpredictable working hours. We try not to share details of these with anyone other than the collaborating rangers and the field managers that they report to, so that we can achieve our goals. In some cases, we also respond to instant notifications. That’s why we always have to be ready.
Daily patrols help to reduce the threat of destructive and illegal fishing practices. Credit: Akdeniz Koruma Derneği
Where and how do you patrol?
Depending on the weather, we usually go out five or six days a week. Marine rangers patrol each of the protected areas in turn. We go out to sea with at least two people on our boats, for safety and security. With the radio and telephone system we use, we are in constant contact with both our field manager and the coastguard so that we can immediately report any situation that we encounter.
What kind of information do you collect?
We collect data about illegal fishing, boat numbers and the fish species that are seen and caught. At the same time, if we see other creatures such as dolphins, Mediterranean monk seals and sea turtles, we check and record their health if we can. When we come across areas where environmental pollution is intense, we communicate with the necessary places. If we encounter situations like wildfires, lives at risk, or a broken boat at sea, we help where we can.
Ayşenur Ölmez on patrol. Credit: Akdeniz Koruma Derneği
What motivated you to become a ranger?
Previously, I was working for many years as a fisher in Gökova Bay. My family’s occupation is fishing and I grew up on a boat. You can see that there has been a decrease in the fish catch over the years. We didn’t need scientific data to see the changes in marine biodiversity. The increase in invasive alien fish species and the decrease in fish species with high economic value made me question the sustainability of fisheries. And while I was thinking about what I can do, I came across the opportunity to work as a protector at AKD. My faith in changing things got stronger. Protecting the sea, which I see as my home, is what motivates me.
What is the hardest thing about being a ranger?
Being a woman. Wanting to do this job as a woman. This was the biggest issue I had as a fisher. As a ranger, it still is. For years, I have tried to explain that my gender is not very relevant to my ability to work at sea. As a fisher, I spent years getting people to take me seriously. When I first started as a ranger, it was the same. But of course, that has changed over time. Being at the sea is my favourite thing in this life – because I’m home. I don’t see the problems I encounter as serious either, because I can solve them by taking very firm steps over time.
What message would you like to send to others wanting to work in marine protection?
Deciding to work in marine protected areas means that your life has come to a certain point. The desire to do something not only for yourself, but also for your environment, your future, your next generation, and someone you don’t know somewhere in the world. If you have this desire, please don’t wait. Don’t stop. It will be a task that relaxes you and is good for you. Protect your home, and be happy.
Thanks to AKD’s collaborative, community-led approach, fish biomass within Gökova Bay’s no-fishing zones has grown, thereby improving small-scale fisher income. With Ayşenur and her teammates at the tiller, AKD is on course to replicate the resounding success of this protected area model, which is now being rolled out across a further 350 square kilometres of Turkey’s Turquoise Coast thanks to funding from the Endangered Landscapes Programme.
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