In Türkiye, a sparkling model for community-led conservation

Indigenous managed protected area integrates traditional knowledge and multi-stakeholder partnerships

October 11, 2023

Aerial view of Cleopatra Island, Gökova Bay, where community leadership is driving success in marine ecoystem conservation.

Photo: Zafer Kizilkaya

Gökova  Bay, a sparkling blue body of water on the Mediterranean coast off Türkiye, is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots and one of the most successful marine ecosystem conservation initiatives. This is in large part thanks to Zafer Kizilkaya and the efforts of his organization, Akdeniz Koruma Dernegi, or Mediterranean Conservation Society (MCS) in English. A UNDP Equator Prize winner for 2014, MCS' earliest actions were supported by the GEF Small Grants Programme Türkiye

Zafer Kizilkaya and the Mediterranean Conservation Society (MCS) apply a 'bottom-up' approach to managing the Gökova Bay marine protected area.

Photo: Ozkan Anil

At its outset, MCS primarily focused on creating marine protected areas, which allowed fishing but limited development, and included no-take zones, which forbid all fishing and are critical to fully restoring marine ecosystem function after years of overfishing. The organization maintains the highest level of respect and reverence for small-scale fisherfolk, who have accumulated generations of knowledge about local fishing conditions that enable them to best understand how to navigate human-nature interactions in Gökova Bay. It is this integration of traditional knowledge with multi-stakeholder partnerships and enforcement mechanisms that has and continues to enable MCS to serve as a model for other marine areas around the world.

Mediterranean monk seal, Monachus monachus (left) and seagrass, Posidonia oceanica, and black chromises, Chromis chromis (right) are among the wildlife that make Gökova Bay a biodiversity hotspot.

Photos: Zafer Kizilkaya

Since winning the prestigious Equator Prize, MCS has continued to grow, successfully replicating its no-take zones (now called protected areas) and ecosystem restoration model in other areas of Türkiye and into Greece and Tunisia. This model of community-based enforcement strategies complemented by cooperation with regional and national authorities and scientific studies sets them apart as one of the very first initiatives in Türkiye to show community leadership in both economic management and ecosystem conservation. Their use of a bottom-up, co-management strategy has been highly effective at protecting and restoring degraded ecosystems and shirks a historical trend of top-down policymaking and regulations. 

A Mediterranean Conservation Society monitoring team surveys invasive sea urchins in Gocek marine protected area.

Photo: Zafer Kizilkaya

A crucial piece of the MCS model is the ranger system, a group of paid individuals who patrol these protected areas of Türkiye’s Mediterranean coast in an effort to prevent illegal fishing activities that damage recovering marine ecosystems. MCS is the only non governmental organization in the world patrolling day and night. With nine boats, 14 rangers and community respect, the ranger system has and continues to prove itself extremely effective at minimizing illegal activities.

“Right now in our area, there are no cases of illegal activities,” Kizilkaya said. “Over the 10 years since we won the Equator Prize, our ranger system has become very well known by all the people living here –  tourists, fisherfolk, charter boats. When illegal activity is noticed, we are often the first call made, even before the Coast Guard.”

Mediterranean Conservation Society ranger Emre Guren patrols the Gocek marine protected area.

Photo: Zafer Kizilkaya

Ömer Balci, whose family has been in Gökova Bay for generations, is one of the MCS rangers. Trained as a marine biologist, he speaks to both the importance of the rangers’ work and the dangerous nature of it. Most of his days are spent patrolling protected waters and documenting illegal activities. 

“We are always ready on the water,” Balci said. “We are always looking, always watching for illegal activity and observing how the protected areas are doing. We never patrol alone as it can be a dangerous job.”

Marine ranger Ömer Balci conducts patrols and takes part in underwater clean-up activities in the Gökova Bay marine protected area.

Photos: Ömer Balci

Whenever the MCS rangers get a call or come upon illegal activity, their job is to take out a phone and record the activity using an application that time stamps and provides a geo-tag for the exact location. This way, when they send the video to the Coast Guard, there is documentation of where and when exactly the activity was taking place, and the perpetrators can be disciplined appropriately.

Fisherwoman Semiha hauls up her long line in Gökova Bay marine protected area. Community-based conservation measures aim to maintain the long-term viability of local fisheries.

Photo: Zafer Kizilkaya

Even with conservation and restoration efforts, the effects of climate change continue to be seen and felt in the Mediterranean Sea. According to Kizilkaya, each year the thermocline level (the level of cold water) continues to diminish as waters warm, slowly turning the Mediterranean Sea into a tropical sea. This warming increases the range of invasive species in the area, greatly taxing the local ecosystem and fisheries sector. 

“Based on annual monitoring, the biomass of invasive species is increasing 2 percent every year,” Kizilkaya said. “By 2030, more than 30 percent of the whole fish population in our ecosystem will be invasive species. The good news is that, within protected areas, there are 15 percent less invasive species than non-protected. This is a great sign that the protected regions are a kind of sentinel, laboratories of high resilience.”

A fisherman displays his white grouper catch. The species makes up more than 40% of the local fishing livelihood in Gökova Bay.

Photo: Zafer Kizilkaya

To address the growing population of invasive species in the area, which in some areas now account for over 70 percent of the total catch in Gökova Bay fisheries, Kizilkaya and MCS have taken steps to promote the consumption of said invasive species, transforming their sale into a commercially viable sector for fishermen. Lionfish are particularly popular.

“Over the last 10 years, there has been an amazing uplift in the invasive species market," KIzilkaya said. “We work with some very famous Michelin star chefs in the country, so we can buy these invasive species from local fishermen and sell them to around 60 fine-dining restaurants to put on their menus.”

In April, Kizilkaya was a recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize for his work with MCS in creating this expansive network of marine reserves off Türkiye’s coast. Kizilkaya is grateful for the recognition, particularly as the Prize has spotlighted MCS efforts and drawn global and national attention from politicians who have the ability to effect policy change crucial to long-term goals related to marine conservation.

“Even the President and First Lady [of Türkiye] called to congratulate me on the Goldman,” Kizilkaya said. “Right now, I have more access to higher level governmental officials and other institutions who want to support [our mission] with funding of new programmes and projects.”

Zafer Kizilkaya surveys local fishers in Gökova Bay.

Photo: Susanne Masters

Currently, MCS is in the process of changing their institutional structure from a society to a foundation. This will mean tax exemptions and more funding from domestic sources in an effort to continue its unconventional bottom-up approach of engaging and empowering different levels of local community with ownership in their ecosystems and natural resources. 

While Kizilkaya acknowledges the significance of MCS’s bottom-up approach to conservation efforts, which involves the local community, engaging them in protecting their own resources, he does also recognize that at some point, particularly in more developed countries, bottom-up approaches reach a threshold where top-down practices are both helpful and often necessary as a supplement.

Marine biologist Inci Tuney sets up a seagrass monitoring system in the Kas-Kekova marine protected area.

Photo: Zafer Kizilkaya

“The clock is ticking, and every single moment we are losing these ecosystems,” Kizilkaya said. “Now the efforts that must be made are so clear, so crisp. We have to protect these areas, no matter the method to do so. Entire ecosystems, entire future generations, are at stake.” 

MCS is poised to support the launch of a similar initiative in spring of 2024 with Indonesia’s Sea Centre Foundation. With over 50,000 square kilometres of protected marine area, the Raj Ampat marine area project will be the largest-scale replication of MCS’s training and managerial model outside of Gorkova Bay since the organization’s inception in 2012. Although protected on paper, the governmental authority who manages this marine area, home to the world’s centre of marine biodiversity, has limited resources and is currently unable to effectively monitor and patrol this vast area. 

For fisherwoman Memduha Dinc in Bozburun Marmaris, work begins early in the morning.

Photo: Zafer Kizilkaya

Kizilkaya is hopeful that implementing MSC’s model of bottom-up community engagement and education, particularly with the ranger system, will allow for more long-term sustainable protection of these fragile and crucial biodiversity hotspots as well as potentially lead to solutions for the degradation of these ecosystems. Indonesia appears to be somewhat of an outlier –  although the waters of Raj Ampat are warming just as all bodies of water worldwide, there has been no significant bleaching event in its corals. 

“Sixty-five percent of the Great Barrier Reef died from bleaching, so why don’t the corals in Raj Ampat die from warm waters?” Kizilkaya wonders. “I have a hypothesis about these corals becoming resilient to warm water. I believe if you take these corals to the Great Barrier Reef and other areas in need of restoration and propagate them, they will stay healthy. Maybe Raj Ampat will be the solution to save all coral in Southeast Asia. That’s why we will go there next, for monitoring and experiments to continue the conservation efforts globally.” 

Marine rangers patrol off Tersane Island in the Gocek marine protected area.

Photo: Zafer Kizilkaya