Report from the field: well enforced ‘No Fishing Zones’ in Gökova Bay provide refuge for sandbar sharks

At the end of August, community marine rangers in Gökova Bay, Turkey, detained a professional fisherman setting his nets inside English Bay ‘No Fishing Zone’. Red mullets and sea breams were found in the confiscated nets, as well as ten baby sandbar sharks – a surprising and promising find for the No Fishing Zone. Thankfully, all the sharks were alive and were released back to the sea safely.

Adult sandbar sharks measure up to 2.5 m in length, and weigh a maximum of 118 kg. They live up to 35–40 years, reaching maturity at around 15 years of age. Females have young only every two or three years. Since the litter size is correlated with the length of the mother (i.e. larger individuals give birth to more young), it is very important to secure critical habitats for the species to mature and reproduce.

Globally, sandbar sharks are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List; however the species’ slow breeding rate combined with high levels of continuous fishing pressure (both direct and through by-catch), habitat degradation and human disturbance have led to it being considered Endangered in the Mediterranean.

Boncuk Cove in Turkey’s Gökova Bay is one of the few nursery grounds for sandbar sharks in the entire Mediterranean basin, making this a key area for the species’ survival in this region. Marine surveys conducted in 2008 and 2012 clearly show that the cove is regularly used by sandbar sharks – not only during the breeding season, but all year round.

English Bay No Fishing Zone provides not only habitat protection but also critical food for the baby sharks to grow in these nursery grounds.

As part of our wider project to improve the effectiveness and sustainability of marine resource management in Gökova Bay Marine Protected Area, this summer Fauna & Flora International’s local partner – The Mediterranean Conservation Society – joined forces with the Gökova Sailing Club to conduct an underwater clean-up of so called ‘ghost nets’ (abandoned or lost fishing gear) from all No Fishing Zones, including Boncuk Cove. Ghost nests – especially at the bottom of the sea – can pose serious threats to juvenile sharks and other marine wildlife through entanglement.

A dusky grouper has a lucky escape after divers from the Mediterranean Conservation Society and Gökova Sailing Club release it from a ghost net.

Sharks are considered to be good bio-indicators. The loss of sharks from areas may be indicative of an ecosystem being out of balance. A local fisherman, who now works as a community ranger, remembers that in the 1980s Boncuk Cove had dozens of sandbar sharks that were easy to spot and observe.

Our goal is now to make this a reality once again, by working alongside local communities and sea users to improve compliance and enforcement in the network of No Fishing Zones within the larger Gökova Bay Marine Protected Area to restore the health of the marine ecosystem for the benefit of its diverse wildlife, and for us all.