The Turkish government has announced plans to extend two no-fishing zones in Gökova Bay Marine Protected Area by 700 hectares to protect critical sandbar shark habitat. This is great news for the species, which is listed as Endangered in the Mediterranean.

As well as affording greater protection for sandbar sharks, Gökova’s two extended zones at Boncuk-Karaca and Bördübet will help to safeguard important seagrass beds and areas of rocky reef ecosystems. What’s more, purse seining, trawling and alamana (similar to purse seine but with an open bottomed net) – fishing practices that can damage marine habitats or capture vulnerable species as bycatch – will now be completely prohibited across the whole of Gökova Bay.

Small scale fishing boat in Gokova Bay. Credit: AKD.

Small scale fishing boat in Gokova Bay. Credit: Sophie Benbow/FFI.

Surveying sandbar sharks

Although found in subtropical and warm temperate waters around the world, sandbar sharks are classified as Endangered in the Mediterranean, due to high fishing pressure, its slow growth and reproduction, historical evidence of declines in the Mediterranean and the lack of conservation management measures.

Gökova is one of only two known nursery grounds for the species in the Mediterranean, so adequate protection of the bay is vital for ensuring the survival of the species in this part of the world.

In a bid to better understand how sandbar sharks are using this critical area, a research team from Akdeniz Koruma Derneği (AKD, also known as the Mediterranean Conservation Society) has been carrying out underwater camera surveys to assess the shark’s population and habitat within Boncuk-Karaca no-fishing zone, capturing some beautiful footage in the process and contributing to the government’s decision to extend the zone. This research was initially funded through the Conservation Leadership Programme (a partnership comprising Fauna & Flora International (FFI), BirdLife International and the Wildlife Conservation Society) and later by Arcadia.

Fishing for success

FFI has been working in Gökova Bay since 2012 and, together with local partner AKD, has helped to establish and manage six no-take zones.

The emphasis has been on strengthening management and enforcement within Gökova Bay by hiring ex-fishers as marine rangers for the no-fishing zones. This model of local management was novel for Turkey where all marine protected areas (MPAs) had previously been centrally managed.

Gökova Bay is now showing strong signs of recovery, and last year two loggerhead turtles were observed under the jetty in English Bay; they now appear to be consistently feeding in the area. Excitingly, two wild juvenile monk seals were also sighted within Gökova in April and May 2015 – the first time in nearly 50 years.

Underwater cameras captured this photo of a monk seal. Credit: AKD.

Underwater cameras captured this photo of a Mediterranean monk seal. Credit: AKD.

Alongside these charismatic species, the abundance of groupers has also skyrocketed, something that has helped to generate a great deal of support for the no-fishing zones among local fishers.

However, despite this good news, some concern has been raised about government plans to implement a nationwide ban on white groupers – a commercially valuable species that forms the backbone of the Gökova fishery. Although government statistics show a decrease in the species nationally, research from Gökova has shown an exponential increase in numbers within the bay thanks to sustainable stock management underpinned by the no-fishing zones.

As AKD’s Founder and Director Zafer Kizilkaya explains, “While we applaud the government taking such a proactive stance on protecting important species, blanket bans are not the only way to achieve this. In Gökova Bay, the evidence shows that when key habitat areas are protected from fishing, the population is able to recover quickly – so much so that they spill out of the no-fishing zone and support a healthy fishery that is crucial for local livelihoods.”