At an illustrious awards ceremony last night, HRH The Princess Royal presented Zafer Kizilkaya with the highly prestigious Whitley Gold Award, worth £50,000, for his outstanding work to protect Turkey’s marine environment.

Zafer is President of Akdeniz Koruma Derneği (The Mediterranean Conservation Society – Fauna & Flora International’s partner in Turkey). Together with his team, he has been working with local fishing communities, the coastguard and the government to promote conservation and sustainable fishing practices in Gökova Bay.

Thanks to Zafer and his team, Critically Endangered monk seals have returned the bay in numbers not seen in living memory.

This stunning area, where sheer mountains drop down to turquoise waters filled with rocky coves and bays, provides important nursery grounds for charismatic species like the Critically Endangered Mediterranean monk seal as well as many commercially-valuable species. It is also the only known breeding spot for the Endangered Mediterranean population of sandbar sharks.

Communities taking control of their waters

Over 200 small-scale fishermen depend on the bay for their livelihoods, but – before the Mediterranean Conservation Society stepped in – overfishing had pushed local fish stocks to the point of collapse.

In 2009, following a successful community conservation project led by Zafer and his team, the Turkish government declared six no-fishing zones to protect fish breeding and nursery grounds; however, due to the size of the area, proper enforcement by the coastguard was difficult and illegal activities were commonplace.

With support from Fauna & Flora International, the Mediterranean Conservation Society built a partnership with local fishers, enabling them to take an active role in patrolling and monitoring the no-fishing zones to minimise illegal fishing activity and promote the recovery of fish stocks and habitats. The team has also been raising awareness locally of the need to protect the marine environment for the benefit of livelihoods.

Since Zafer won his first Whitley Award in 2013, the project has had a profound effect on biodiversity and people living in Gökova. The coastguard and the ministry are now actively cooperating and supporting the effective patrol team of community rangers established by Zafer.

The road to recovery

New technology is at the heart of Gökova’s transformation. Zafer and his team have employed a new high tech monitoring system – possibly the first time this technology has been used in a marine context. Patrol boats are equipped with specialist police cameras and GPS, allowing illegal activity to be live-streamed to the coastguard so they can respond immediately, and so that the evidence recorded is admissible in court. The community keeps detailed reports on numbers and species of fish caught and even has a mobile app for recording data.

More sustainable fishing practices have also now been established in the bay, and – since the expansion of the purse seine ban in September 2016 combined with the existing trawler ban – Gökova Bay is now the among the largest marine areas where industrial fishing is prohibited in the Mediterranean. As a result, fish stocks have recovered and biomass has risen by 800%.

Following a campaign that encouraged people to eat invasive species found in the bay, demand for these species has increased, tackling a major problem in the bay and contributing to a 400% rise in fisher income.

Sandbar sharks are now also regularly sighted in the bay.

Critically Endangered monk seals have returned the bay in numbers not seen in living memory, while sandbar sharks and loggerhead turtles are being regularly sighted – a sign that this once damaged ecosystem is on the road to recovery.

Replicating success

With his Whitley Gold Award, and continued support from Fauna & Flora International (FFI), Zafer will consolidate efforts in Gökova Bay and scale up his successful approach in nearby Fethiye Bay with a new project – Guardians of the sea: securing and expanding marine reserves along the Turkish coastline. Zafer’s long term vision is to replicate his work throughout the Mediterranean.

FFI’s Eurasia regional director Paul Hotham said, “When I first met Zafer, I immediately saw his potential as a future conservation leader and, combined with the biodiversity importance of the area, the need for FFI’s engagement and support was clear. We are so proud of what he has been able to achieve since our partnership began in 2012.”

For more information about Zafer and other award winners, visit the Whitley Fund for Nature’s website.

Main image © James Finlay.