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A War of Knowledge to Save Sharks

A graduate student battles to stop shark slaughters in Turkey

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Derya Akkaynak hails from a town called Urla in Turkey, and like most graduate students who come from foreign lands to study oceanography in Woods Hole, she keeps track of goings-on back home. Earlier this year, a screaming Turkish newspaper headline made her want to scream: “They went to catch sardines, but caught 100 sharks," it read.

The article painted a picture of adventurous fishermen heroically ridding their waters of the rapacious sharks that competed for their fish. Two weeks later, she read a Turkish news report of another 50 sharks caught in a fishing net, and she found other websites with photos of fishermen proudly displaying dead sharks.

With improving technology, Turkish fishermen seemed to be killing more sharks, Akkaynak said. And acting out of ignorance about sharks, they seemed to be increasing the potential to upset the delicately balanced marine ecosystem in which sharks play a crucial role.

Akkaynak felt compelled to try to bring some oceanographic enlightenment back home, but in Turkey, ecology and conservation issues are generally overshadowed by pressing economic, cultural, and political matters, she said.

So what can a lone sardine in a big ocean do to have an impact? Join together to create a school of fish, and share knowledge, in this case, through the rising tide of social media.

Akkaynak had already connected with a group called Slow Food Istanbul, part of Slow Food, a grassroots organization with supporters in 150 countries. It was founded in 1989 “to counter the rise of fast food and fast life” and to protect traditional, local, and sustainable food.

Akkaynak knew that Slow Food Istanbul’s founder, Defne Koryürek, had led a campaign to protect the lüfer, a beloved regional bluefish. It had been drastically overfished when officials reduced the minimum length of fishable lüfers to 14 centimeters in 2002. That drastically compromised lüfers’ ability to reproduce, since they don’t attain sexual maturity until they are over 24 centimeters, and experts said the species was headed to extinction within just a few years.

Slow Food Istanbul began to work hand in hand with small-scale fishermen, chefs, restaurant owners, and consumers.

“Thousands of signatures were quickly collected on a petition, the fish markets were visited regularly to check the situation, and publicity started appearing all around the city,” according to a Slow Food news release. “The faces of some of the city’s top chefs appeared on posters urging shoppers to say no to eating lüfer less than 24 centimeters long, and stickers appeared in the windows of supporting restaurants.”

In April 2011, the Ministry of Agriculture increased the minimum catch size to 20 centimeters, a significant step up toward the goal of 24 centimeters.

“If I hadn’t witnessed the progress the bluefish campaign had made,” Akkaynak said, “I wouldn’t have proceeded.”

“We became comrades, sisters-in arms,” said Koryürek, who connected Akkaynak with a Turkish journalist who seemed open-minded to environmental issues.

Akkaynak herself was not an expert on sharks, so she contacted somebody who was: Li Ling Hamady, her classmate in the MIT-WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography. Hamady supplied her with a wealth of scientific papers and articles.

Thus armed, Akkaynak talked with the journalist, Tan Morgül, who had previously reported on a PEW Charitable Trust meeting that included information on sharks being caught accidentally by fishermen. She told him that up to 100 million sharks are estimated to be killed annually (many to feed the Asian market for shark fin soup). She countered prevailing local beliefs that sharks were invasive, detrimental species; instead, they are crucial apex predators in the ecosystem, whose disappearance would inevitably lead to a cascade of unanticipated, untoward consequences. She debunked superstitions that shark meat helps cure cancer. She explained how sharks take years to become sexually mature and have few pups, and so they cannot reproduce fast and recover quickly from overfishing. She pointed out that ways existed for fishermen to change gear or techniques to avoid catching sharks by accident without incurring economic penalty.

In February 2013, Morgül published an article conveying the information—“the first major pro-shark article in Turkish media,” Akkaynak said. “I’m very proud of that.”

“Now he [Morgül] is educated, and he helped educate others,” Koryürek said. “That is how we start a campaign—find audiences and ask them to become our partners, start laying seeds. It’s a huge investment in bit and pieces. We have to be prepared for a long journey and have courage.”

Akkaynak is now working through the legal requirements for a new idea: “I'm going to organize a competition for school children, with a small cash prize, and ask them to design a poster that can be distributed to restaurants, fishmongers, fishermen, all across the country. This way, we can reach many school children who can learn early on how important sharks and other top predators are for the ocean ecosystem, and that they should be protected. If it works, I want to do it every year with a slightly modified theme. For the first year, I’ll pay for the prize myself, but perhaps it will be popular enough that in the future, there'll be sponsors and the prize will grow, attracting more and more students.”

“Knowledge is power, but it’s a slow process,” Akkaynak said. “I know this is a small start, but it is a start. Maybe if we talk again in three years, I can say we have accomplished something.”

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