The Mediterranean is the most overfished sea in the world and Turkey’s ‘turquoise coast’ is no exception. This fragile marine environment is home to a wealth of wildlife including threatened species such as Mediterranean monk seals, sandbar sharks and dusky groupers, as well as vital carbon-storing seagrass meadows, but the pressure from unsustainable fishing practices is compounded by the impact of invasive species, climate change and coastal development. 

Since 2012, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and local partner, Akdeniz Koruma Derneği (AKD) have been supporting ecosystem recovery in this area. To reduce the threats posed by destructive and illegal fishing practices, AKD patrols a number of no-fishing zones and engages with communities in Gökova Bay. With support from the Endangered Landscapes Programme, this successful protected area model is now being rolled out across the coastline, with plans for further expansion.

No-fishing zones in Gökova Bay help to protect marine life and promote fisher livelihoods. Credit: Kieran Murray/FFI

Since joining AKD in 2019, Funda Kok has played a pivotal role in the expansion of the Gökova Bay model of marine protection across the near-shore and coastal seas of south-west Turkey. Community engagement remains a key feature in the management of this new network of MPAs, which stretches along 500 kilometres of coastline and includes several no-fishing zones. Funda devotes a great deal of time to building these relationships, as well as leading the coordination of sandbar shark and Mediterranean monk seal monitoring and research into the health of key habitats such as seagrass.

Funda is working to expand marine protected areas and help protect rare marine wildlife. Credit: Akdeniz Koruma Derneği

Against the backdrop of COP27, the latest, crucial UN climate conference currently unfolding in Egypt, we asked Funda to give us an insight into AKD’s current priorities and her own thoughts on how best to address the climate emergency. 

How did you first get involved in marine conservation in Turkey? 

I first got involved in conservation through volunteering at The Educational Volunteers Foundation of Turkey from 2006-2008. They are an NGO who provide non-formal education to children of primary school age, sharing the importance of nature and sustainability through workshops and activities. I then started my professional career in conservation with AKD in 2019. 

What work are you doing at AKD to protect Turkey’s seagrass meadows?  

We are monitoring seagrass habitat, including measuring the impacts of climate change and anthropogenic activities, so we can represent solid, science-based evidence to decision-makers and develop robust national policies on seagrass protection.  

Additionally, we are members of several marine groups in the Mediterranean, including MedPAN and Med Sea Alliance, that extend beyond the boundaries of Turkey’s seas. This allows us to exchange knowledge, participate in global campaigns like 30 by 30 [a worldwide initiative to bring 30% of land and sea under formal protection by 2030] and hold global leaders to account. We strongly believe in the power of collective action for nature protection. 

Why is it important to protect seagrass meadows? 

Seagrass meadows provide food and shelter for many marine species and support biodiversity. Acting like the lungs of the sea, they photosynthesise to create energy, absorbing carbon from the water and generating oxygen – this is vital. By slowing down the water movements, they also protect coastal areas from storms. 

How does protecting seagrass benefit local communities? 

Seagrass meadows provide socioeconomic benefits, both directly and indirectly, especially for those who depend on fisheries and marine resources for their livelihoods. Being one of the primary producers at the base of the food web, they support biodiversity, create shelter for juvenile fish and invertebrates and increase fish stocks. This uplifts community livelihoods. As a critically important carbon sink, seagrass meadows are essential in the fight against climate change, which is a crucial benefit to local communities.

Building collaborative relationships with the community is vital to ensure these marine havens are protected. Credit: Akdeniz Koruma Derneği

How will climate change affect seagrass meadows? 

Rising seawater temperatures negatively affect seagrass growth, making them more vulnerable to diseases. Yet, they are the most potent weapon against the effects of climate change.   

Some representatives from AKD are currently at COP27 in Egypt. What is your message to decision-makers? 

Our message is that it is essential to work together to make meaningful progress on the climate crisis, limiting the devastating effects on people and planet by using science and nature-based solutions and ensuring we are all taking concrete steps to conserve and restore nature. We also want to demonstrate the vital importance of protected areas and the positive impact of conservation activities.

AKD representatives at Barcelona Convention COP22, Antalya. Credit: Akdeniz Koruma Derneği

Why do you think it’s essential for organisations like AKD to attend global conferences like COP27?  

These conferences bring together a wide range of parties including scientists, NGOs, governmental bodies and academics to learn from each other and work together to solve a common problem. It reminds us of the power of collective work, paving the way for efficient networks and alliances, holding our leaders accountable to their promises, motivating them to commit to ambitious yet achievable goals and take action. AKD aims to be to be one of the leading actors in and beyond Turkey to help nature thrive.