Film shows Istanbul’s legendary fish under threat

Joshua Bruce Allen
February 13, 2017

The Bosphorus waterway has long been a hub for migration, both for human empires and the animal kingdom. One of the largest movements is the annual exodus of the bluefish (lüfer) from the Black Sea to the Marmara Sea, the Aegean, and the Mediterranean. In fact, 70 percent of the world’s bluefish catch comes from Turkey. But as scientist and filmmaker Mert Gökalp’s new film Bluefish shows, this fish is in grave danger from irresponsible fishing and consumption.

Tickets are on sale for screenings at the !f Istanbul Independent Film Festival on February 18 and 20.


“We chose the bluefish because it’s the symbol for migratory fish. Those migrations have been important in this region for more than 8,000 years. That’s why this area was first inhabited, because there was a lot of food from the land and the sea,” Gökalp told The Guide Istanbul. Ancient Greek scholars from Strabo to Aristo wrote about the bluefish migration, which even a generation ago was a huge event.

Disaster on the horizon

Today the fish volume is starkly different. Fishermen of all kinds, from anglers on the Galata Bridge to crews on industrial fishing boats, say the same thing: the bluefish is dying out. They also know this is not a natural phenomenon. One of the main reasons for this decline is catching undersized fish. When fishermen catch the bluefish before it can breed, the fish cannot restore their population for the next year.

BluefishBluefish do not reproduce at any size smaller than 27 centimeters, meaning that catching any fish under this size reduces the bluefish population. Greenpeace Mediterranean launched a campaign in 2007 to raise the legal fishing size, which was 16 centimeters, up to 20 centimeters. But even this rule is not being enforced, according to Gökalp. “The Greenpeace campaign was the reason I started this documentary. That was the most effective nature campaign in Turkey. People all of a sudden started understanding that we have to do something about the seas, and we can’t eat the small fish. Of course it’s not enough, because in the market people are still buying 15 centimeter or 13 centimeter bluefish,” he says.

What must be done?

As undersized fish in the markets show, there must be stricter enforcement of regulations. “In Istanbul, there are around 12 people on board checking the fishermen. Think about the amount of people in this business – and there are only 12 people checking them?” he says. According to Gökalp, the huge profits generated by industrial fishing are trumping environmental ethics. But there will be no more profits, and no more fish on our tables, when the stock is completely wiped out.

Perhaps some of the greatest responsibility also lies with consumers making informed purchasing decisions. Greenpeace Mediterranean has created a ruler showing the proper sizes for different kinds of fish. Next time you go to the market, be sure to buy fish that is above the sustainable size.

In Turkish, the lüfer has different names at different stages of its growth. This makes it easy to identify undersize fish in the market.

OrtaköyBluefish names:

Defne 0-10cm
Çinekop 15cm
Sarıkanat 20cm
Lüfer 30cm
Kofana 40cm
Sırtıkara 50cm
The most mature bluefish can grow up to 1 meter in length.

Gökalp spent three years researching and filming in İzmit, the Marmara Sea, the Black Sea, Kefken, İğne Ada, the Dardanelles, and Bodrum. While following the bluefish he encountered scientists, activists, industrial fishermen, artisanal fishermen, and restaurateurs. All of these people touch the fish on its journey. By looking at a fish that is usually seen only as food and profit, Gökalp wants to highlight the threat facing the entire ecosystem. “People are really trying to protect the dolphins. Don’t get me wrong, I like dolphins and love protecting them. But protection is something that you need as a whole, in the environment … that’s why I’m trying to do this for the bluefish, because they don’t have a voice,” he says.

There are more independent films showing all week, from February 16-26. Check here for more worthy films from the 16th !f Istanbul Independent Film Festival. 

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