portrait of Zafer Kizilkaya in front of a waterfront

‘Nobody believed us:’ Turkish conservationist wins Goldman Prize for expanding marine-protected areas

“We don’t have much time to convince all the stakeholders in the world,” said award recipient Zafer Kizilkaya about the urgency of protecting marine life.

The World

Winners of The Goldman Environmental Prize, the highest award of the year that goes to environmental activists leading grassroots campaigns, were announced on Monday.

One of the recipients, Zafer Kizilkaya, is the first winner ever from Turkey.

Kizilkaya is a trained civil engineer, marine conservationist and underwater photographer. He is being recognized for his work for more than a decade of creating a community-managed, 300-mile-plus marine-protected area along the Turkish coast of the Mediterranean Sea.

Aerial view of Gökova Bay, Turkey
Aerial view of Gökova Bay, TurkeyZafer Kizilkaya

In 2007, after returning from maritime work in Indonesia, Kizilkaya saw a problem as he dived into Turkey’s Gökova Bay.

“I noticed that there was a nuclear war that happened underwater,” Kizilkaya told The World. “There [was] nothing. Rocks [were] bare; there [was] no fish or algae.”

What he saw was a result of overfishing, illegal fishing, invasive species, such as the lionfish, and the effects of climate change. The Mediterranean Sea is one of the world’s most overfished bodies of water, and it became apparent to Kizilkaya that action needed to be taken to help protect Turkey’s degraded ecosystem.

This led to him launching his own nonprofit, Akdeniz Koruma Dernği (the Mediterranean Conservation Society), in 2012, with the help of local fishing communities.

But it wasn’t easy at first for Kizilkaya to win over the entire community.

“Nobody believed us,” he said. “The fishing communities are hard people to get, negotiate or even communicate with sometimes.”

He explained that the perception was that he was seeking to close some favorite fishing grounds forever. Though income in fishing areas was already collapsing from the degradation, closing even more areas down from fishing could exasperate the problem.

Invasive lionfish in coastal rocky habitats underwater
Invasive lionfish in coastal rocky habitatsZafer Kizilkaya

“One disadvantage I had, there was no good example in front of me for Turkey,” Kizilkaya said. “Even if I am telling them good examples [of marine protected areas] from other parts of the world, it [didn’t] mean anything to them at that time.”

Fortunately, other stakeholders, government institutions and certain fishing community members believed what he and his team said.

Divers underwater cleaning up discarded fishing nets stuck in the water
Cleanup of discarded fishing nets, Bozburun MPA, Marmaris, TurkeyZafer Kizilkaya

With their support and negotiations for over a year, the first protected areas in Gökova Bay were officially established in 2012.

Fishermen have continued to fish in the protected areas knowingly and unknowingly, and much of Kizilkaya’s work has been spent educating local communities on marine-protected areas. He has been able to convert local fishermen and have them work with his organization as marine rangers to help stop fishing in those parts.

Zafer Kizilkaya and team on a small motorized boat in the sea on patrol
Zafer Kizilkaya and team on patrolGoldman Environmental Prize

“It is great to establish those areas and immediately start patrolling [them],” Kizilkaya said. “We don’t have much time to convince all the stakeholders in the world.” 

Because of his work, the Turkish government expanded the network in August 2020 by over 150 square miles, with an additional 27 square miles of no-fishing zones, totaling 310 square miles of marine-protected areas along the Turkish coastline, since Kizilkaya began his grassroots endeavor.

Yellow and orange sponge species in Gökova Bay restoration area
Diverse sponge species in Gökova Bay restoration areaZafer Kizilkaya

There is currently a worldwide campaign for 30% of all oceans to become protected areas by 2030, and that at least 10% within that campaign should be fully protected areas. Kizilkaya said that less time should be spent on negotiation and more immediate action should happen in order to meet this goal.

 “On the Mediterranean scale, the total of fully protected areas is 0.04%,” Kizilkaya said. “It’s not even 1% yet, and there’s too [long of a ways] to go.”

Related: You can ring this ‘fish doorbell’ to help marine life in the Netherlands

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