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Turkish marine conservationist Zafer Kizilkaya diving in Gokova Bay.

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In 2006, Zafer Kizilkaya, a marine conservationist and photographer who had been working in Indonesia, returned to Turkey to see his parents. While he was there, a monk seal pup washed up on an Aegean beach. The cute little pinniped became an instant celebrity, partly because it was so rare – there are only about 400 monk seals in the whole Mediterranean.

Mr. Kizilkaya, who is now 51, took responsibility for the female seal, which he named Almond. He and his friends built a rehabilitation centre for her in the town of Foca, near Izmir, and later transferred it to a pen they built in Gokova Bay, about 250 kilometres south of Izmir, where they nursed her back to health before setting her free.

Before Almond’s release, Mr. Kizilkaya explored the bay, which was supposed to be pristine. After making a few dives, he realized it was anything but. “From what I saw, there wasn’t any life at all,” he said in an interview via Zoom in December. “It was a dead zone. The fishery had completely collapsed.”

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Aerial view of Gokova Bay.

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At that point, he decided he would devote his life to bringing Turkey’s coastal areas back to life. The effort would pit him against the powerful local fishing industry, which believed that conservation would make their lives worse, not better, because they would lose fishing rights to certain areas.

It took a while, but his efforts have paid off – to the point that the work of his team at the Mediterranean Conservation Society is considered a model for maritime rehabilitation. The turquoise waters of Gokova Bay now have six protected areas, covering 28.8 square kilometres, where all fishing is prohibited, as well as 268 square kilometres where small fishing boats are allowed but trawlers and purse seine boats (which employ vast nets to encircle schools of fish) are banned. Mr. Kizilkaya and his team have even built artificial breeding platforms in a couple of the bay’s caves.

gokova bay protected marine areas

Black Sea

BULGARIA

Istanbul

Ankara

GREECE

Izmir

TURKEY

Athens

Detail

CYPRUS

SYRIA

0

200

LEB.

Med. Sea

KM

Akyaka:

4.8 sq. km

No fishing zones

Akbuk:

1.4 sq. km

Gokova

Camli:

2.8 sq. km

Gokova Bay

Boncuk-Karaca:

6.1 sq. km

Prohibited for

trawling and

purse-seining

TURKEY

Degirmenbuku:

6.2 sq. km

Marmaris

Bordubet:

5.7 sq. km

0

5

KM

john sopinski/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN;

OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU; Zafer Kizilkaya

gokova bay protected marine areas

Black Sea

BULGARIA

Istanbul

Ankara

GREECE

Izmir

TURKEY

Athens

Detail

CYPRUS

SYRIA

0

200

LEB.

Mediterranean Sea

KM

Akyaka:

4.8 sq. km

No fishing zones

Akbuk:

1.4 sq. km

Gokova

Camli:

2.8 sq. km

Gokova Bay

Boncuk-Karaca:

6.1 sq. km

Prohibited for

trawling and

purse-seining

TURKEY

D400

Degirmenbuku:

6.2 sq. km

Marmaris

Bordubet:

5.7 sq. km

0

5

KM

john sopinski/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN;

OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU; Zafer Kizilkaya

gokova bay protected marine areas

Black Sea

BULGARIA

Istanbul

Ankara

GREECE

Izmir

TURKEY

Athens

Detail

CYPRUS

SYRIA

0

200

LEB.

Mediterranean Sea

KM

No fishing zones

Akyaka:

4.8 sq. km

Akbuk:

1.4 sq. km

Gokova

Camli:

2.8 sq. km

Gokova Bay

Boncuk-Karaca:

6.1 sq. km

Prohibited for

trawling and

purse-seining

TURKEY

D400

Degirmenbuku:

6.2 sq. km

Marmaris

Bordubet:

5.7 sq. km

0

5

KM

john sopinski/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP

CONTRIBUTORS; HIU; Zafer Kizilkaya

Fish stocks in the protected areas and waters nearby have rebounded, with biomass rising an estimated 800 per cent since 2010. “In the end, we had a blueprint for marine ecosystem restoration,” said Mr. Kizilkaya, whose efforts have won him several international awards, including the 2013 Whitney Fund for Nature Award, where Sir David Attenborough is a trustee.

In August, after years of lobbying by Mr. Kizilkaya’s group and its partner, Flora & Fauna International, a conservation charity based at Cambridge University, the Turkish government approved a big expansion of the protected zones. Five new coastal areas, stretching from south of Gokova Bay to the town of Kas, about 200 kilometres to the east, have been designated either no-fishing or restricted-fishing zones. The additions fulfill Mr. Kizilkaya’s dream of establishing a string of almost contiguous protected areas, improving the chances of a marine life renaissance along Turkey’s entire southwest coast.

“What he has been doing in Turkey is truly innovative,” said Tundi Agardy, an American marine conservationist and the executive director of Sound Seas, a group that supports the creation of marine protected areas. “He has harnessed political will and community fishers’ interests not only in protecting marine ecosystems but actually restoring them.”

Mr. Kizilkaya is an unlikely marine environment champion. He was born in Ankara, the capital, which is about as far away from the sea as you can get in Turkey, and earned a degree in civil engineering. Engineering work didn’t capture his imagination, so he picked up a degree in coastal zone management, learned scuba diving and worked for 10 years in Indonesia and other parts of the Indo-Pacific on conservation and underwater photography assignments for National Geographic.

Mr. Kizilkaya has brought back marine life along the Turkish coast by establishing a string of no-fishing zones.

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The Almond rescue and his discovery that the waters off the Turkish Mediterranean coast had been exploited to near death convinced him to launch his ambitious project to bring back the fish.

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The Mediterranean is the most overfished sea in the world – has been for more than 2,500 years. Monk seals, for their part, were slaughtered with alacrity during the Roman and Medieval eras and again in the 20th century, to the point that they face extinction – although few fishermen cared because the seals ate their catch and damaged their nets.

Pollution also helped destroy Mediterranean fish stocks. In 1979, famed French oceanographer and explorer Jacques Cousteau produced a film called Mediterranean: Cradle or Coffin?, which found the sea off Marseilles to be a toxic wasteland, devoid of fish. Only a few decades earlier, those same waters had teemed with marine life.

In recent decades, climate change has been added to the dreary mix. As the Mediterranean heated up, it became an ideal breeding ground for invasive species such as rabbitfish, which arrived from the Red Sea through the Suez Canal. Rabbitfish are voracious eaters of algal forests, leaving barren rocks behind and driving out native species.

Mr. Kizilkaya’s first challenge was convincing Gokova Bay’s fishermen that they would benefit in the long run if they respected the off-limits areas. Ms. Agardy said he did so by “taking the time to listen, to build trust and to create a path towards sustainability that would benefit both them and the wider ecosystem they rely on.”

The next challenge was finding a way to enforce the no-fishing zones. Ideally, the Turkish coast guard would have taken on the job, but its boats had more pressing duties, like rescuing migrants whose rafts had foundered on the way to the Greek islands. “So we established our own ranger patrol system,” Mr. Kizilkaya said. “It’s really working well, stopping 90 per cent of illegal fishing.”

Sponsored by Turkey’s wealthy Koc family and later Flora & Fauna International, the patrol system uses four fast boats, each about six metres long. Their pilots use police-style cameras to record illegal fishing, and the video is sent to the coast guard, which may investigate and impose fines. Some of the pilots are fishermen, who know the tricks of the illegal fishing trade.

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A decade after they were established, the no-fishing zones of Gokova Bay have produced a win-win situation. Marine life has bounced back, and the numbers of endangered species such as the monk seal, sandbar shark and dusky grouper are creeping up.

The fishermen are happy because of the spillover effect – the rising fish populations have spread beyond the protected areas, where they can be legally caught. According to the local fishing co-operative, monthly income per boat rose sixfold between 2010 and 2018. And that has made it easier to sell the idea of protected zones elsewhere on the Turkish coast.

Mr. Kizilkaya hopes his model will be cloned elsewhere in the Mediterranean, which is almost entirely devoid of no-fishing zones. Tunisia, Albania, Algeria and some Caribbean states are studying the Gokova Bay model. “They see that it is working in Turkey,” he said. “We have to prevent the cascading collapse of marine ecosystems.”

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