Case Study

July 1
11 mins

Advocating for small-scale fishers’ rights and sustainable marine conservation in Türkiye: The Association of Istanbul Fishing Cooperatives (Istanbul Birlik)

Pinar Ertör-Akyazi & Irmak Ertör
Overfishing and the overcapacity of the industrial fishing fleet are putting immense pressure on marine ecosystems and fishers' livelihoods in Türkiye. In response, small-scale fishing cooperatives in Istanbul, organized under Istanbul Birlik, are rising against this threat. They are working to build an alternative economic model to protect small-scale fishers' fish, seas, identity, and livelihoods.
Figure 2: WFFP Coordination Meeting held in Istanbul, organized by Istanbul Birlik in 2023 (Photo: Facebook account of Istanbul Birlik)

Türkiye is surrounded by the Black Sea, the Sea of Marmara, the Aegean Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea. Since the 1970s, the overcapacity of the large-scale industrial fishing fleet in Turkish fisheries has been building up, supported by government subsidies and investment in infrastructure such as large fishing harbors. The Mediterranean and the Black Sea have the second most overfished stocks globally (FAO, 2022). Marine catches in Turkish fisheries increased rapidly from the 1970s onwards, peaking in the mid-1990s, followed by a sharp decline and stagnation thereafter. Additional pressures such as climate change, marine pollution, invasive species, illegal fishing, and urban development along coastal areas have further undermined the sustainability of fisheries in these seas. Over the last 20 years, while overall fishing efforts have increased, average catches have fallen significantly (Demirel et al., forthcoming). Fish stocks in the seas surrounding Türkiye show signs of depletion, with declines in the mean trophic level of the catch since the mid-2010s, indicating a shift from larger predators to smaller prey species (Pauly et al., 2020; Demirel et al., forthcoming). In the Sea of Marmara, at least 22 fish species have become commercially extinct over the last 50 years (Ulman et al., 2020).

Turkish fisheries have the largest fleet size in the Mediterranean region. While 90% of the fishing vessels in Türkiye are under 12 meters and classified as small-scale, the remainder belong to the industrial fleet, which is equipped with advanced technological equipment such as radars, fish finders, and GPS devices (Knudsen, 2009). Industrial fishers and small-scale fishers often compete for fishing grounds in the seas around Istanbul. Although small-scale fishers constitute the majority of fishing vessels in Türkiye, their share of total catches amounts to only 10 percent (Ünal & Göncüoğlu, 2012), and their catches have been steadily declining.

The following statements (Ertör-Akyazi, 2020) reveal the challenges faced by the small-scale fishers in Türkiye:

“Our house is on fire. We have no other choice but to teach everyone about sustainable fisheries before the fish are gone forever. We need to give the fish the opportunity of laying eggs at least once in its lifetime.” (Head of Istanbul Birlik, 2016)

“In the past, being a small-scale fisher was a prestigious job, but now, no parent would allow their children to marry a small-scale fisher. The younger generations do not want to become fishers anymore due to economic difficulties.” (Small-scale fisher from Istanbul Birlik, 2016)

“The fisher must be able to run his/her own business. Our job is not respected, not among citizens, not among policy-makers, especially not in banks. We are seen as second-class [inferior] citizens. The consumers do not respect us either.” (Small-scale fisher from Istanbul Birlik, 2019)

“We cannot marketize the fish we are catching, although this is the responsibility of the cooperatives. Our proposal [of opening up direct sales shops in urban districts of Istanbul] will rely on sustainable [small-scale] fisheries. This proposal will increase [ex-vessel] prices that fishers receive by about 25%, and the annual profit distribution will further improve fishers’ livelihoods at around 10% [increase in profit]. Eliminating middlemen will break the debt cycle. The new system will create employment for the families of fishers, especially women and the younger generation.” (Head of Istanbul Birlik, 2018)

Small-scale fishers are experiencing decreasing fish stocks and worsening economic conditions while contending with the strong political and economic power of industrial fisheries and intermediaries in the supply chain. Their interests are not adequately incorporated into the decision-making processes of central governments, which primarily consider and act in line with the interests of industrial fishers. For instance, while small-scale fishers organizations are ‘consulted’ in fishery notification meetings, their concerns are often not reflected in the final fisheries policies (Ertör-Akyazi, 2020). Central governments view coastal small-scale fishing as backward and do not prioritize it, as it is not a main contributor to the country’s economic growth (Knudsen, 2009). Additional challenges include a general lack of awareness about marine issues and fishing culture among the public, the low level of education among fishers, and the reluctance of younger generations to work in the small-scale coastal fishing sector. These difficulties further hinder small-scale fishers in defending their seas and livelihoods.

Since the 1950s, government authorities in Türkiye have supported the establishment of fishing cooperatives by offering incentives such as cheaper loans. Consequently, the number of fishing cooperatives increased in the following decades. However, many of these cooperatives have struggled to operate effectively and support their members due to issues like corruption among cooperative heads and a lack of solidarity culture among members (Knudsen, 2009).

Figure 3: Small-scale fishers in Üsküdar Cooperative, Istanbul (Photo credit: Pınar Ertör-Akyazı)

Istanbul Birlik has recently been an exception. Founded in 1980 as a regional association of fishing cooperatives in Istanbul, Istanbul Birlik is now comprised of 36 fishing cooperatives from Istanbul with about 2,500 fisher members. However, it was only after 2011, when the current president was elected, that things changed for the better and it became an effective organization. The changing leadership provided a new vision for representing the interests of small-scale fishers in Istanbul. In the face of the aforementioned economic, social, and environmental pressures, Istanbul Birlik leaders started to make huge efforts to resist the threat posed by industrial fisheries and defend their fisher identity, reclaim their rights as fishers and livelihoods, and advocate for marine sustainability. 

As one of the few European members actively engaged in the global small-scale fisheries movement, the World Forum of Fisher Peoples (WFFP), Istanbul Birlik has fostered strong connections with La Via Campesina and various transnational food sovereignty platforms. Positioned at the nexus of local, national, and international efforts, Istanbul Birlik is dedicated to advancing equitable and sustainable fisheries practices. Collaborating closely with environmental NGOs and marine scientists, Istanbul Birlik fishers frequently journey to Ankara, Türkiye’s capital, where they engage with key decision-makers in the central government. Additionally, Istanbul Birlik conducts annual capacity-building workshops designed to educate fishers on a range of crucial topics, including marine sustainability, responsible fishing techniques, cooperative financial management, legal considerations linked to cooperatives, solidarity economy principles, and leadership development. Among the short-to mid-term objectives of Istanbul Birlik’s ocean defenders are the elimination of intermediaries in the supply chain, establishment of direct sales outlets for urban consumers in Istanbul to circumvent middlemen, ensuring fair and decent incomes for fisher members, enhancing awareness among Istanbul residents and civil society, preserving the cultural heritage of small-scale fishing, and bolstering the capacity of fishing cooperatives across Istanbul and Turkey. 

Achieving direct positive outcomes in terms of the sustainability of fisheries has been challenging due to the strong opposition and vested economic interests of industrial fishers and intermediaries. However, their advocacy and resistance efforts have contributed to the self-organization of small-scale fishers in Istanbul and made the policy-makers acknowledge the presence and importance of small-scale coastal fisheries in Istanbul and Türkiye. Despite this, making the importance of small-scale fisheries and their rights visible to the larger society remains difficult. Small-scale fishers in Türkiye are still very vulnerable, as they are in many other coastal regions globally. Given the authoritarian political climate that easily excludes and marginalizes economically weak ocean defenders in Istanbul, even the small gains to protect small-scale fisher interests and marine sustainability are important successes. Below, we discuss some of the most visible activism efforts of Istanbul Birlik and their successful collaboration with other ocean defenders from civil society.

Among the most visible political activism efforts of Istanbul Birlik are two campaigns to protect culturally, economically, and ecologically significant fish species. The first campaign aimed at the sustainable fishing of the blue fish (tr. lüfer, Pomatomus saltatrix) and was highly visible in Turkish fisheries history. It involved collaboration with NGOs such as Slow Food and Greenpeace, as well as restaurant chefs, food activists, artists, journalists, and academics (Ertör-Akyazi & Ertör 2022). This campaign raised public awareness about the suitable catch size of species like blue fish and mullets, sustainable and unsustainable fishing practices, and the various fisheries actors. Protests against illegal trawl fishing at night in the Bosporus, led by Greenpeace and supported by Istanbul Birlik and the media, were also part of this effort.

The second campaign, named “Protect the Torik (bonito) Campaign,” was initiated by Istanbul Birlik but was disrupted by the Covid-19 outbreak. It resumed in the spring of 2021, though it did not receive the same level of public attention. Despite this, the campaign increased Birlik’s visibility and strengthened alliances with civil society, universities, and municipalities, contributing to individual and community recognition, as well as fisher rights and identity (ibid.). However, due to the current authoritarian political climate in the country, organizing visible protests on the streets or at sea is challenging. Consequently, fishers within Istanbul Birlik are reclaiming their rights through other legal means, such as writing official complaint letters and participating in national regulatory meetings.

Figure 4: Picture from the campaign “How long is yours?” from 2011. The campaign was organized by Istanbul Birlik, Greenpeace Turkey, and Slow Food. Taken from: https://www.change.org/p/seninki-ka%C3%A7-santim

With a long-term vision, Istanbul Birlik has actively enhanced its political agency and fostered national and international alliances. These efforts, while not yielding immediate gains, are underscored by close collaborations with universities, academics, and international food sovereignty platforms like WFFP and Nyeleni (FAO, 2024). A significant achievement in their advocacy was successfully halting a legislative change that threatened their control over fishing harbors, crucial for their economic stability through income from boats and harbor management (Ertör-Akyazi, 2020). This success has preserved their autonomy over the harbors (authors’ interview with the head of Istanbul Birlik, 2023). Additionally, Istanbul Birlik plans to launch a project to establish Co-op Shops across various districts of Istanbul. These shops will enable fishers and cooperative members to directly sell fresh and cooked fish to urban consumers, bypassing middlemen (Ertör et al., 2020). By eliminating intermediaries, fishers stand to increase their income by 30% and create employment opportunities for their families, particularly benefiting women and younger generations (Ertör-Akyazi & Ertör, 2022).

In sum, the strategies adopted by Istanbul Birlik fishers open up new spaces for political contestation for small-scale fishers in Istanbul as they struggle to sustain their livelihoods and fisher identity and culture, both of which depend on sustaining marine ecosystems in the seas surrounding Istanbul. Istanbul Birlik’s alliance with marine scientists, civil society, and transnational movements provides small-scale fishers in Istanbul with an additional source of inspiration in terms of resistance, and advocacy for fisher rights. Istanbul Birlik is the most politically active regional association in Türkiye forming part of the national SÜRKOOP (The Central Association of Regional Fishing Cooperatives in Türkiye), which enables them to become a stronger social actor with their social and ecological justice demands. Becoming more visible with national and international alliances makes them better heard by national decision-makers as well as municipal authorities with which they have positive collaborations, especially for valuing local fresh fish and direct sale mechanisms. These collaborations and political activism continue even in a complex and challenging political environment in Türkiye, which still gives hope for sustained marine ecosystems and decent livelihoods for small-scale fishers.

Figure 5: The small cafeteria and gathering space of small-scale fishers in Beykoz Cooperative, Istanbul (Photo credit: Pınar Ertör-Akyazı)


Ertör-Akyazi, P., & Ertör, Irmak (2024). Advocating for small-scale fishers’ rights and sustainable marine conservation in Türkiye: The Association of Istanbul Fishing Cooperatives (Istanbul Birlik). The Ocean Defenders Project. Online at https://oceandefendersproject.org


Demirel, N., Ertör-Akyazı, P., Yıldız, T. (forthcoming). Fishing Subsidies and Their Impacts on Marine Ecosystem Health in the Mediterranean Sea: The Case of Türkiye. In Environmentally Harmful Subsidies. Publisher: Plan Bleu.

Ertör, I., Brent, Zoe W., Gallar, D., & Josse, T. (2020) Situating small-scale fisheries in the global struggle for agroecology and food sovereignty. Transnational Institute: Amsterdam.

Ertör-Akyazi, P. (2020). Contesting growth in marine capture fisheries: the case of small-scale fishing cooperatives in Istanbul. Sustainability Science, 15(1), 45-62.

Ertör-Akyazi, P., & Ertör, I. (2022). Blue Justice and Small-Scale Fisher Mobilizations in Istanbul, Turkey: Justice Claims, Political Agency, and Alliances. In Blue Justice: Small-Scale Fisheries in a Sustainable Ocean Economy (pp. 569-587). Cham: Springer International Publishing.

FAO (2022). The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2022. Towards Blue Transformation. Rome: FAO.

FAO (2024). Civil Society Consultation, Istanbul, Türkiye

Knudsen, S. (2009). Fishers and scientists in modern Turkey: The management of natural resources, knowledge and identity on the eastern Black Sea coast (Vol. 8). Berghahn Books.

Pauly D, Zeller D, and Palomares M.L.D. (Editors) (2020) Sea Around Us Concepts, Design and Data (www.seaaroundus.org).

Ulman, A., Zengin, M., Demirel, N., & Pauly, D. (2020). The lost fish of Turkey: a recent history of disappeared species and commercial fishery extinctions for the Turkish Marmara and Black Seas. Frontiers in Marine Science, 7, 650.

Ünal, V., & Göncüoğlu, H. (2012). Fisheries management in Turkey. The State of the Turkish Fisheries, Publication, (35). Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/281087696_Fisheries_Management_in_Turkey  


Declines of Biodiversity, Degradation or reduced supply of Ecosystem Services, Disruption of Marine Foodwebs, Fish Abundance and Productivity, Impacts on Species , Small-scale fishers , Fisheries , Awareness and communication campaigns, Legal and policy interventions , Arrests and Imprisonment, Economic marginalization, Political marginalization , Lack of Economic Benefits, Social and Cultural Impacts, Traditional and SSF livelihoods

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