Turkey - Sustainable Fishing and Consumption of Pearl Mullet

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Pearl everlasting?

The Pearl Mullet is the jewel of Lake Van in Turkey. Found nowhere else in the world, this fish thrives in the lake's salty and carbonated waters, which are inhospitable to other forms of fresh-water and marine fish. In May and June of each year the Pearl Mullet travels upstream through the lake's tributaries to lay eggs, flying through the air like salmon. And there lies the problem.

Many locals have become accustomed to the ease of sticking out bags and catching troves of fish as they jump out of the water. They catch so many Pearl Mullets in May-June that they don't have to fish for the rest of the year. And locals prefer to catch the fish during reproduction season, when the females are filled with eggs, which are considered a delicacy.

This is also the best recipe for killing off the species. Despite a government ban on fishing during reproduction season, this kind of fishing has become a big business. In the 1960s only 600 tons of Pearl Mullets were harvested annually; today that figure has jumped to 15,000 tons. Hence a project of the Nature Observers Society, funded by the Global Environmental Facility's Small Grants Programme (SGP) and implemented by UNDP, started in 2001 to help find solutions to ensure that if the fish are to be caught, they should not be caught with their eggs.

The first phase of the project focused on supporting the enforcement of the ban. Project staff informed the gendarmerie about when the ban goes into effect and explained to the local inhabitants that fishing the Pearl Mullet during reproduction season is illegal. If caught, fishermen were fined and their catch confiscated. But this did not stem the fishing because it was such a valuable source of income for the villages living around Lake Van.

Later the project changed course. It recognized that as long as it tried to tackle the problem through enforcement, it would continue to fail. Hence it started to educate the local inhabitants about the risks of fishing during reproduction season in terms of the threat this posed to the future of their livelihood. It encouraged them to fish during the other months of the year, and the project built canning and cold storage facilities to help ensure a smooth source of income year-round. And by 2006 the project staff was working to change the nutritional habits of the local inhabitants by meeting with women to teach them equally tasty methods of cooking the Pearl Mullets without the eggs.

The project has now had some success. Out of 15 villages located near Lake Van, 12 have switched to fishing during the non-reproductive season. Whereas in 1996, 80-90 percent of fishing was done during reproduction season, by 2006 this has fallen to 60 percent. Still too much, but a strong start. By moving away from a focus on enforcement, the project has achieved greater success. "You cannot protect an ecosystem by disregarding all the people who are living off of it", said Ozge Gokce of SGP.


Pearl Mullet
Pearl Mullet

Sustainable Fishing and Consumption of Pearl Mullet.

Focus Areas

Geographic Scope

Lake Van, Turkey


UNDP is providing support to this particular project through the GEF Small Grants Programme (SGP), that it implements on behalf of all three GEF Implementing Agencies, i.e. UNDP, UNEP and WB. With its commitment to the conservation of the global environment and its direct support to implementation of the SGP, UNDP contributes to the achievement of MDG7, the sustainable development objective of the Millennium Summit. Established in 1992, SGP embodies the very essence of sustainable development. SGP channels financial and technical support directly to NGOs and CBOs for activities that conserve and restore the environment while enhancing people's well-being and livelihoods.

SGP aims to develop effective and replicable community level strategies and implement technologies that reduce threats against the global environment, gather lessons from community-level experience and initiate the dissemination of successful strategies as well as lessons learned, in a participatory manner involving all stakeholders for an effort to support and strengthen the capacities to address global environmental problems and to promote sustainable development.

With this particular project, SGP tries to support a local initiative aiming to demonstrate that an over harvested local resource can only be conserved with the involvement of the very people responsible from its over consumption. The project does this with several methods, via raising awareness of the locals, helping the local enforcement authority, the gendarmerie to implement the reproductive period harvest ban, providing alternative income generation opportunities to locals and via demonstrating the healthier and more hygienic methods of consuming the fish.

The efforts regarding pearl mullet have been ongoing since 1992. After determining the current situation and developing an alternative fishing management model, it was time for some action. At the beginning of the application a state-centred approach was used, but this was not completely successful. With its second phase, a fisherman and fishmonger centred approach was adopted, but this time, ignoring the government’s involvement to the project was the reason for failure. Finally during the third phase a NGO centred approach incorporating both fishermen and the state but also other stakeholders was adopted. At this stage, with the support of GEF Small Grants Programme (SGP) implemented by UNDP, in 2001, training programmes for fishermen, public officers, security guards and farmers (not knowing the right irrigation techniques) were launched, those (people and associations) leading successful attempts and actions were rewarded. This way, an alternative fishing management model could be built on strong foundations. The project received continuous guidance from the National Coordinator and the National Steering Committee members, which contributed greatly to its success.

Project’s objectives were built step by step, by dealing with local problems as they come along during decade long conservation efforts. Participation, as we understand is, “those that are accepting the problem and contributing to its solution”. For those who do not accept their problem, we believe by redefining the problem we can make them accept it and then they will be able to begin the participation process.

We are relying on the participation from the government, local authorities, other NGOs, the private sector and local people for determining and achieving these goals. More so as the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (MARA) and the Ministry of Environment and Forestry (MoEF) have legal obligations when it comes to protecting pearl mullets. In a meeting organised by the Protection and Control General Directorate of MARA in April 2001, it was decided to develop a “Van Lake Fishing Management Plan” that would also constitute a model for other lakes in Turkey.

Another meeting was organised by the call of the MoEF (Ministry of Environment then), in May 2001 about the constitution of a protection action plan. These two meetings demonstrated the government’s participation and determination to pearl mullet conservation efforts.

As a local organization, we are collaborating with fishermen’s cooperatives; as they have expressed their acceptance and willingness before and during the project. Van Trade Stock Exchange has declared its interest by organizing a meeting on the marketing issues of the pearl mullet in March 2003. They have also made collaboration with Nature Observers Society for the development of alternative income generation opportunities and their realisation.

Yuzuncu Yıl University’s facilities are also used for the benefit of this project. Aquaculture Department of its Faculty of Agriculture is directly involved.

Another CBO cooperating with this project is the Pearl Volunteers Group of Van Yuzuncu Yıl University’s Faculty of Agriculture.

Moreover, Van and Bitlis Governorships and district offices of Muradiye, Ercis, Adilcevaz, Ahlat, Tatva, Gevas and Edremit are providing their continous support to the project. Festivals celebrating and “migration watch” of the pearl mullets were organized with their help. For the last 3 years, the migration wathces attract an increasing number of people, an important reason for involvement of the Governorships. Information about Pearl Mullet can now is inserted to the official city guide of Van Culture and Tourism Office as an extension of their support to the project.


Zeynep Bilgi Bulus, National Coordinator of the GEF Small Grants Programme (SGP) in Turkey

Assoc. Prof. Mustafa Sari, Nature Observers Society


Background and Significance

The Challenge(Need for Action)

The Pearl Mullet is an endemic species living only in Van Lake. It is the most hunted member of the cyprinidae family that lives in Turkey’s inland waters. Normally it measures 19.5 cm and weights 80 g. Although the fish comfortably lives in Van Lake’s salty and carbonated waters, it cannot reproduce there. Therefore during its reproductive period, the fish migrates to freshwater streams around the lake, against the current, jumping like the salmons. (Photo 1).

The fish is traditionally hunted (harvested) and consumed salted with eggs during the reproduction period. In the course of time this over harvesting became a threat to Pearl Mullets and is a health threat to humans. While in the 1960s only 600 tones of fish were harvested, today the number reaches to 15,000 tones. With its 2003 prices, the pearl mullet has 7,000,000 $ turn over per year.

Project Rational

1. The Pearl Mullet is threatened by reproduction period hunting

As the Pearl Mullet cannot lay eggs in its original habitat, the Van Lake, they migrate to rivers by shoals when spring comes. 1996 figures show that 93% of the hunting was done during this migration period. 12,000 of the 15,000 tones were hunted illegally during the reproduction period.

2. Infrastructure for winter fishing as an income source is not yet in place

The winter fishing (or fishing outside the reproductive period) is showing an upwards trend. Therefore it is important to use the information obtained from previous projects on winter fishing and the dissemination of the prototype boat model to support this trend.

3. The ecotourism potential of the pearl mullet migration is unknown and the infrastructure is inadequate

In recent years, national televisions and newspapers have started to watch and follow pearl mullets trying to pass over natural barriers during their migration. Migration Observation Days are organized in Erciş-Deliçay, one of the best places to watch. Approximately 200 people watch the migration every day with the help of information materials prepared with this project. Near Muradiye-Yalınduz Village, a place where the egg laying can be observed with naked eye without disturbing the fish, is still totally unknown. Other sighting places in the streams are unknown too.

4. The risks and potential health effects of unsustainable consumption habits and sustainable consumption methods are unknown

Salted fish which is an unsustainable consuming habit has a very long history in the region, which makes “salty fish with egg” part of local culture. While it is accepted that a cultural factor to be change or abandoned, even in long term, the project believes it is of utmost importance and is possible to change this consumption habits, because it also entails potential health risks, which is one of the very few factors that can cause a drastic change in peoples nutritional habits, turning it into a sustainable and healthier one.

5. Efforts on raising awareness to achieve the social change necessary for sustainable fishing are insufficient

The resistance to give up reproduction period fishing has several reasons, but the main source is socio-cultural. A fact obtained as a result of the first phase of this project is that villages insisting to go fishing during this period have a lower education level than others. In introverted communities this resistance develops naturally.

Goal and Objectives

Goal: Sustainable Fishing and Consumption of Pearl Mullet

Project Objectives: For a sustainable pearl mullet fishing,

  • Preparing infrastructures for sustainable living resources
  • Presenting sustainable consuming habits


1. Developing and presenting infrastructures for salted and canned fish factories for a sustainable living resource

2. Developing infrastructure for migration watching tourism as an alternative living resource

3. Presenting sustainable consuming habits

4. Strengthening basic protection principles supporting a social change for sustainable fishing

Photo by Mustafa Sarı

The Experience: Challenges and Solutions


Since 1992, the priority effort was to prevent illegal and over fishing during reproduction periods. Trainings were organized to inform public officers, security officers, managers, villagers doing illegal fishing, fish sellers and buyers.

Therefore, with previous projects experience and results, this particular project focuses on the points below:

  • Preparing and disseminating infrastructures for sustainable living resources
  • Developing infrastructure for migration watching tourism as an alternative living resource
  • Presenting sustainable consuming habits
  • Strengthening basic protection principles supporting a social change for sustainable fishing
  • Cooperating with firms for setting up canned fish factories


Project Coordinator:

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Mustafa Sari

Project team and areas of expertise:

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Mustafa SARI-Fishing management, GIS, fishermen training

Asaf ERTAN- Fishing management, fishermen training, volunteer training

Şahika ERTAN- Fishing management, fishermen training, volunteer training

Yasin YILMAZ- Fishing management, fishermen training

Erizan AYSAN- Agricultural products management, environment training

Ayşegül BİTİKTAŞ- Ecological agriculture, environment training

Asuman SEVİNÇLİ-environment training, organic animal husbandry

Project advisors:

Nasuh MAHRUKİ- (AKUT)- Search and Rescue, Nature Sports, Mountaineering

Prof. Dr. Ali Fuat DOĞU- (YYÜ Faculty of science and literature)- Geography, Geomorphology

Assist. Dr. Efsun KARABUDAK- (Başkent University)- Nutrition and dietetics

Project Partners

Nature Observers Society - Coordination with other partners, the government and UNDP, preparation of educational materials and surveys, development of alternative consuming habit methods and infrastructures

Yüzüncü Yıl University Faculty of Agriculture Aquaculture department - Preparation of educational materials, development of alternative consuming habit methods and infrastructure, local knowledge and experience exchange, providing technical knowledge

Faculty of Agriculture Pearl Volunteer Group - Preparation and conduction of surveys, participation to local biodiversity protection training


The project takes place in the world’s biggest carbonated lake, near Turkey’s east border: Lake Van. The Project area is in Eastern Anatolia, which is a socio-economically underdeveloped region. These provinces average per capita income is one of the lowest in Turkey (per capita incomes share/part in the Turkish average (1997, %) Van-27.4, Bitlis-25.3).

The regions economy is predominantly based on agriculture. A high natural population growth is one of the main problems in the area. In the project area approximately 14,000 people earn their living from the pearl mullet.


Sustainable pearl mullet fishing management efforts have been carried out since 1992


  • 1992-1997 The impact of the existing fishing management on pearl mullet populations was determined by a stock estimation
  • 1997-1999 The model that was developed was submitted to the government for its implementation, but efforts remained fruitless.
  • 1999-2001 The efforts were re-directed to fishermen and fish sellers, these were not successful either/
  • Since 2001 an NGO focused approach was adopted
  • In 2003, a new participative model was developed and introduced to fishermen villages. Thereby 12 villages out of 15 adopted a new fishing management model.
  • The first phase of the project (2003-2005) was mainly to determine the links between the local people’s social, cultural and traditional structure and reproduction period fishing but also the fishermen’s villages sociological structure. In the same period, opinions of the local people on new and alternative income generation sources to prevent illegal hunting were determined. A women-oriented health education programme on the relation between salted fish vs. health and proper nutrition was initiated and implemented. On the other hand, events were organised to reintroduce basic conservation principles for a sustainable fishing into traditional culture.
  • After the first phase, completed in 2005, the second phase started February 2006
  • The Project will be completed in June 2007

Results and Impact

Lake Van, with its salty and carbonated waters and unique biodiversity, is one of the most interesting ecosystems in the world. Its highly carbonated water (pH 9.8) makes the environment unsuitable to live for animals of higher order, therefore no fresh water or marine fish species with the exception of Pearl Mullet (Chalcalburnus tarichi), is able to exist in the lake. The pearl mullet is a member of the cyprinidae family. leaves the lake for reproducing in rivers in the spring. Hunting of the fish is usually done during the reproduction migration in May and June. Continuous efforts in the area towards conservation of the species have succeeded in decreasing the number of reproduction period fishermen, however there are still some that keeps on harvesting the fish. Part of the reason for this persistence is insufficient income levels and the local habit to consume salted fish with eggs. In the previous phase of the project, some income generating activities were developed and attempts were made to change the eating habits to healthier alternatives.. To prevent migration period hunting, winter fishing, fish salting facilities and ecological tourism were determined as potential alternative income generating activities. However, it is important to note that in order to promote winter fishing and make it a reality, the project still needs to resolve demand issues in the market, processing and storage facilities for fish and build shelters for boats. The project has taken the lead in bringing in the private sector to the conservation and initiated fish salting ateliers to be established. These will both allow the fish to be marketed after it is processed, while at the same time preventing the locals from salting the fish with eggs under unhygienic conditions and will offer a consistent quality in the way the fish is processed and marketed throughout the year. This way, not only the fish would have an added value, but also a whole new income source will be generated. As for tourism, which is a completely new notion for local people, people coming from other places to watch pearl mullets migration is another extra income source as well as pride and raising of awareness regarding the importance of the fish with respect to the regions biological diversity.

While developing these new opportunities, their compatibility with the socio-economical and traditional values of the local people has a crucial importance and should be verified. Sample activities should be organised to show people the possibilities, an event presenting new fish cooking methods can support villagers in changing their nutritional habits. On the other hand, to make all these results sustainable, gatherings should be organised, where discussions on traditional nature-protecting values and heritage but also on the conservation of fish and nutrition to reach the local people.

Lessons for Replication

The impacts of excessive pearl mullet fishing that were clearly measured back in 1996 were reduced and the stock improvement became traceable. If alternative income generating activities can become applicable and consumer habit changing initiatives can achieve success, a great improvement on pearl mullets sustainability would be provided. This way, the “Local Fishing Management Model” that is successfully implemented and reviewed with lessons learned from the Van Lake case, will be applicable and replicable in other inland waters of Turkey where over fishing is a serious threat to the ecosystem and particular species.

Main Results


  • In 1996, 93% of the total fishing was being done during the reproduction migration; in 2006 it had regressed to 60%.
  • Only 3 villages out of 15 are still insisting on reproduction period fishing, the 12 others have abandoned it.

Table 1. Pearl mullet’s situation at the start of the protection programme and 2005
Parameters 1996 2005
Number of the beach seine net for reproduction fishing (illegal) 92 32
Number of the estuarine renting during reproduction fishing 12 0
Number of the villages against to conservation studies (totally 15 villages) 9 3
Number of the professional fishermen 101 165
CPUE for professional fishing (kg/100 m/per day) 2,622 8,500
Mean fork length (cm) 16,74 19,8
Number of the fish per kg 16-18 10-12
Total endorsement of the fisheries (USD) 3 659 000 7 143 000

Achievements concerning the first output:

  • 3 locations areas were determined for canned and salted fish production
  • 2 potential investors are identified regarding a can factory and a salted fish production
  • Trial canned fish and salted fish (with alternative, hygienic method on fish WITHOUT eggs) were produced
  • These sample productions were presented to villages
  • The healthier fish salting methods were presented in 12 villages

Achievements concerning the second output:

  • 5 places were determined to watch the pearl mullet migration
  • Notice boards were placed in “migration watching spots”
  • 2 walking routes and 2 bicycle paths were determined on the migration route
  • 15 local guides were trained from the young people in the area for these pathways
  • 2 tourism training sets were prepared
  • 2 booklets about the islands were prepared

Achievements concerning the third output:

  • Nutrition habit trainings for women were organized in 12 villages
  • A booklet on the importance of fish in proper and healthy nutrition was published
  • 2 events demonstrating “new fish cooking methods” were organized

Achievements concerning the fourth output:

  • A movie showing the nature-human being relationship was shown in 5 villages
  • A web site presenting the pearl mullet in 4 languages was prepared

Outlook (Conclusions and Next Steps)

Here are some lessons we have learnt:

  • The local people and those who are affected by the project should participate to its preparation phase.
  • The project management core team should live in the region. People should reach the project team directly if they are happy or angry.
  • A sociological research is compulsory for a project aiming alternative income generating activity development. Otherwise it’s likely to be confronted with troubles.
  • The project’s aims and activities should respect the local traditions.
  • If there’s a teacher-oriented activity, it’s worthwhile first to build personal contact instead of using official channels. Otherwise, the training can be perceived as “one of the usual forced tasks – an extra burden”.
  • Sometimes, local powers can be uncomfortable with the project target groups improvements and they may put pressure on them. In this case, while most of the villagers were aware of the damages caused by reproduction period fishing, due to pressure put by some fish wholesalers’ on the fishermen, illegal fishing is still practiced.
  • From preparation to execution, each phase of a project, public institutions should not be neglected, because they are the legal authorities and NGOs can’t do anything without them.

Here’s NGO’s opinion towards the future:

Started with a right fishing management goal, the project soon became an “integrated rural development and nature conservation” project, a process during which the local people noticed their inner strength and learned to rely on this power. These results obtained at this phase of the project give an idea on how the project should continue. The main problem is not the resistance to let go of reproductive period fishing, it is the resistance or better put adaptation to social change. That’s why for future projects, our goal is to prepare the infrastructure for alternative income generating activities while speeding up the social change in villages.

Testimonies and Stakeholder Perceptions

Some stakeholders’ opinion about the project:

  • Ubeydullah Demir (Fish wholesaler)

“Professor, when you told us to stop reproduction period fishing we said “ok” just not to let you down, but once you left, we discussed how impossible this is. Passing years have shown us you were right. We now earn more money from fish selling.”

  • Mirza Teran (President of Dereağzı-Altunsaç-İnköy Aquaculture Cooperative)

“I was the first one to start fishing outside the reproduction season. I started using fishing nets that I brought from Istanbul. Of course, at the beginning I had worries on how to dissuade this many reproduction period fishermen from doing this. To be honest, I didn’t expect this kind of success with such short time, but now reproduction period fishing has diminished. Fish became abundant. Now, I fish nearly 20 kg with a 200 m net. How could we survive without this project?”

  • Fisherman’s wife (Didn’t want to give her name)

“I have now learned that this fish is coming here to lay eggs. We shouldn’t hunt it. I didn’t know that the fish was not becoming water (a local expression meaning dying).. They return to the lake and next year they come back to lay eggs. I wish I have known that before.”

  • Muhittin Başak (Van City Council Member)

“I’m 53 years old and I was born and grown up in Van. But I have never seen this fish migrating and climbing up these cascades before. I now understand, apparently they were always here but we couldn’t see them because of illegal hunts. I’m now experiencing the happiness of watching the world’s greatest moment: the migration of pearl mullets.”

  • Mehmet Arslan (A former reproduction period fisherman)

"I gave up on fishing pearl mullets during their reproduction period and I bought a boat for our young fishermen. They go fishing in the lake out of the reproduction season. We had no income during the winter. Now the fish we hunt in the winter became an income for my children and me."

Photo by Mustafa Sarı

Timeframe & Status

12 months from February 2006 to February 2007 in the second phase of the SGP project. However, it is important to note that both the SGP support to the project and the project owner group’s dedication, has been going on since 2001 continuously. The pearl mullet conservation in the area dates back to 1999.


See also

Water Knowledge Fair 2006

External Resources

Interviewees and Key Contacts

Key Contacts:

Dr. Mustafa Sarı +90 432 225 14 01

Şahika ERTAN (Expert, Project team member) +90 216 413 88 18

Asaf ERTAN (Expert, Project team member) +90 216 413 88 18

Prof. Dr. Ali Fuat DOĞU (Project Advisor) +90 432 225 10 02

Dr. Efsun KARABUDAK (Project Advisor) +90 312 234 10 10

Erizan AYSAN (Expert, Project team) +90 432 225 14 01

Ayşegül BİTİKTAŞ (Expert, Project team) +90 432 225 14 01

Yasin YILMAZ +90 432 225 14 01


Ubeydullah DEMİR +90 432 212 16 75

Mirza TERAN +90 432 622 20 20

Muhittin BAŞAK +90 432 216 24 84

Mehmet ARSLAN +90 432 351 17 22


 Turkey Sustainable Fishing.doc

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