Winner of the Whitley Award donated by The William Brake Charitable Trust

Jacques Cousteau was a childhood hero and it was Zafer Kizilkaya’s own first scuba diving experiences in the Mediterranean that brought him into contact with many of the critically endangered species he now works with, including a face-to-face encounter with a monk seal pup in a marine cave in his native Turkey. Efforts to rehabilitate the stranded seal pup, which itself subsequently became something of an icon amongst local fishermen, led to Zafer’s commitment to Gökova Bay, which today is the focal point of his conservation work.

An engineer and underwater photographer as well as a marine researcher, Zafer is also the President of the Mediterranean Conservation Society, an NGO which aims to conserve natural habitats and restore degraded coastal ecosystems in Turkey. He leads a series of conservation projects in the area including working with local fishing communities to promote alternative sustainable livelihoods.

Gökova Bay is one of the most spectacular marine-scapes in the Aegean Sea and the turquoise waters of this 45 miles long bay make the area a hot spot for sailing boats in the summer. Designated as a Special Environmental Protected Area (SEPA) in 1988, many important protected species are found here including critically endangered Mediterranean monk seals and sandbar sharks.

Over 200 small scale fishermen depend on the bay for their livelihoods, but the depletion of fish stocks in recent years has had a serious impact on the local economy. In 2010, following a successful community conservation project led byZafer and his team, the Turkish government officially declared six No Fishing Zones (NFZs) providing an excellent opportunity to protect fish breeding and nursery grounds. However, due to the size of the area, proper enforcement by the coastguard is difficult and illegal fishing activities continue to be commonplace.

Community based conservation schemes, like establishing a marine ranger system, could offer one of the best solutions to these dilemmas and such local stakeholder engagement is already proven to work in other parts of the world. Communication and education are also vital tools in raising awareness of the importance of the role of marine protected areas amongst local people and showing what can be achieved by collective action. Demonstrating the positive impact that NFZs can have in reversing the degradation of both marine ecosystems and fisheries that depend on them is one of the best measures of success.

Despite initial opposition from the fishing community about the decision to declare part of their traditional fishing grounds a marine reserve, the gradual recovery of fish stocks has gradually changed attitudes and won support for the pioneering conservation work of Zafer and his team.

Zafer’s Whitley Award winning project aims to:

  • Improve enforcement in NFZs through a community-led marine guard programme.
  • Raise awareness on the benefits of NFZs for recovery of fish stocks.
  • Initiate participatory marine biodiversity monitoring in protected areas.
  • Work with fishing communities to promote sustainable livelihoods.

Why it matters:

  • Less than 1.7% of the world’s oceans are protected.
  • 73% of all Turkish fish species can be found in Gökova Bay.
  • Subsidies for world fisheries reach $35 billion annually resulting in unsustainable overfishing.

Full winners list