Bluefish: Saving the Prince of Bosphorus

Lüfer is the local name given to adult bluefish in Turkey, a symbolic species in the movement against overfishing in the Bosphorus and Marmara Sea. Indeed, lüfer may soon be extinct in Turkish waters. The documentary Bluefish: Prince of the Bosphorus tells the story of this species.


Fisherman along the Bosphorus © Mert Gökalp


The scene of fishermen lined up along the Bosphorus in Istanbul is both timeless and picturesque, with street vendors selling grilled fish sandwiches directly from the authentic boats over the Golden Horn. Fishing has been a fundamental part of the city’s culture for thousands of years, yet despite the iconic image it presents to tourists, the majority of seafood eaten in Istanbul today is imported.

The Bosphorus and the Marmara Sea suffer from poorly-regulated overfishing, and stocks have dwindled in recent decades. Mert Gökalp, director of Bluefish, has documented the annual migration of lüfer through powerful visuals, from the perspective of the people who aim to save it. His documentary will be one of the pictures shown this year at Slow Fish, along with other films and conferences at the main stage. We spoke to Mert to get a clearer picture before he comes to Slow Fish.


Lüfer © Mert Gökalp


How did you come up with the idea for this documentary?

“A few years back, I was following the activism of Greenpeace and Slow Food. They never hesitated to go out in the middle of the night to inspect illegal trawlers. I had never seen any other community dedicate themselves to this cause so much, and I was impressed by their impact on public. I thought I could be helpful to them in combining some solid marine science with influential graphics. I met Defne Koryürek, leader of Slow Food Istanbul at the time. They were hosting the Lüfer Festival three years ago. That’s where I started to gather material for the documentary.”


Trawlers along the Bosphorus © Mert Gökalp


Back in 2010, Slow Food Istanbul branch Fikir Sahibi Damaklar (Thinking Palates) launched the Don’t Let Lüfer Go Extinct campaign together with TUDAV (Turkish Marine Research Foundation) to raise awareness on the matter by gathering chefs, scientists, consumers and fishers in a “Lüfer Protection Team”. Greenpeace also joined with another campaign How Big Is Yours to encourage consumers to inspect fish sellers by distributing rulers that show the minimum catch size for different species.

Subsequently, many chefs stopped serving lüfer in their restaurants and supporters of the campaign inspected the sizes of lüfer sold in fish markets and supermarkets to remind everyone that any lüfer shorter than 24 centimeters should not be caught, since it won’t have had time to breed yet. There is ongoing battle to restrict the legal catch sizes of lüfer and other local species. Although the issue has been made public and there has been moderate legal progress, trawlers continue to catch undersized fish.


© Mert Gökalp


What can the government do about the overfishing problem?

“Industrial fishing is tolerated by the government because of the profit it generates. There is no doubt that there is a political side to this. This matter could be resolved if necessary examinations and inspections were done, and legislation revised. The legal minimum catch size for lüfer was only 20cm, yet ideally it should be at least 30cm. The bluefish will vanish from our seas if we don’t change path.”

Since the 1950s, due to heavy industrialization and a growing urban population, the number of migrating fish schools has been steadily diminishing. Despite the apparent decline, there is still great demand for bluefish on the world market, and nearly 70% of the global bluefish catch comes from Turkey.


© Mert Gökalp


Are the fishers aware of the importance of protecting species?

“Many small-scale fishers complain about the vanishing of species, since they have been witness to their gradual disappearance over the years. I’ve also met industrial fishers who were understanding of the cause. Like we’ve said, it’s the government’s responsibility to impose stricter regulations.”

What can our readers do to help support the cause of the lüfer?

“We are hoping that public awareness will help convince the government authorities to take a new approach to the issue. They need to be told what they are doing wrong and any public reaction will be helpful.”


Bluefish: Prince of Bosphorus will be screened on Friday 19th of May at 7:30pm at Casa Slow Food’s Fish Community Space. Mert Gökalp will give us a brief presentation of the movie before the screening.


by Buket Soyyilmaz





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