Istanbul's fishermen

As the Bosporus stretches out in all its glory, they set out while the whole city sleeps. Istanbul's fishermen... Eager to fill their cases before the city awakens to a new day, they go in pursuit of fish. Every day, over and over and over again...

There are still a few more hours until daylight. Anchoring on the shore at Büyükdere, the Poyraz has only its deck light on. There is no one around and the streets of Istanbul are quiet. Even the gulls are still sleeping. In the dark silence the Poyraz's engines suddenly start up and a phantom ship begins to advance from the Bosporus to the Black Sea. Approximately one hour later the Poyraz's 15-man crew awakens from sleep and gathers for breakfast. As the tea is being refilled, the captain's sonorous voice thunders over the intercom: “Attention!”

The fish in Istanbul's waters fall into two groups, local and migratory. Entering the Black Sea every spring and breeding there, the migratory fish return to winter in the Marmara and the Aegean. Fishermen with large vessels follow them from the Black Sea to the Aegean and even as far as the Mediterranean since these fish can be caught en route through the Istanbul Bosporus. The local fish on the other hand populate Istanbul's waters year round. Among them those of commercial importance are blue fish, tunny, mackerel, chub mackerel, red mullet and striped red mullet, gray mullet and the ever plentiful horse mackerel. But the Black Sea and the Marmara have unfortunately lost their former abundance and diversity of fish and the earnings of the net fishermen who fish from boats within the boundaries of Istanbul are falling by the day. Fishing by advanced radar and computerized systems has not only prevented the fish from reproducing but led to their extinction in large numbers as well. The catching of fish and baby fish during the spawning season especially makes for a meager catch the following season. The fishing season, which officially lasts about eight months (September to May), has consequently been shortened in practice to almost four.

Interrupting their breakfast in an instant on the captain's command, the Poyraz's crew immediately don their oilskins and boots to protect themselves from the sea water that will soon rain down upon them. Everyone scurries about in silent flurry like ants. This time the captain's shout is more vigorous: “Lower the boat!” Almost simultaneously the boat at the back of the vessel drops into the water and, tracing a circle the length of the net at high speed, surrounds a school of fish. Its engines constantly running, the boat is kept tied to the larger vessel to keep it fixed in place and away from the net.

Fishing in Istanbul was an important source of livelihood already in the Byzantine period when the tunny that passed through the Bosporus every year on their migration from the Black Sea to the Aegean were a virtual symbol of the city. The 'Golden Horn' especially was rich in tunny. The importance of fishing for Byzantium is evident from the fish figures on the coins that were struck in the city. The famous geographer and philosopher Strabo mentions the abundance of tunny in the Bosporus when he describes how the current swept them from in front of Chalcedon towards Byzantium on the opposite shore; indeed, he reports, tunny were so plentiful in the Golden Horn that one could literally catch them by hand.

The net tossed from the Poyraz now has to be hauled slowly in. Everybody is at their appointed place, struggling to stow the net which is hauled in by a winch. The fishermen are very careful, keeping a watchful eye on each other, because even the slightest mistake could result in a serious accident. Attention is imperative to prevent the risk of a foot getting caught in the net and crushed by the giant winch. But more than such risks perhaps, working in this cold wet environment is uncomfortable for the fishermen. Sea water rains down on them continuously as the nets are hauled in. And exposure to the wind and the fact that the sea surface is always colder than that of the land naturally make the work even more difficult; but there is no other solution, for the net will be pulled in and the cases filled with fish.

Net fishermen in Istanbul generally come from the Black Sea as seasonal workers. There are also those who come from Turkey's East and Southeast and even from the Balkans and other Black Sea countries. Since the owners of the vessels generally prefer to hire the same workers year after year, there are no major changes in the crews apart from extenuating circumstances such as age and sickness. And in such cases it is again the owner of the vessel who comes to the aid of those in trouble. Furthermore, it is tradition now for the sons or other relatives of ailing and departing fishermen to take their places.

The most important harbors for fishermen in Istanbul are Rumeli Feneri, Rumeli Kavağı, Büyükdere, Poyrazköy. Şile and Yenikapı. As the net sinks to the bottom, muscle power replaces that of the winch. Lining up side by side, the Poyraz's fishermen begin hauling in the net keeping tempo in unison. This appears to be the most exciting and pleasurable part of the job. Finally they have their eye on the catch, estimating with their wrists the weight of the fish that will rise to the surface. A fish coming to the net is added to the vessel's basins with a final flourish. Finally the fish are divided up by type and size and placed in different cases accordingly. Depending on the weather and the distance to be traveled, these cases are stored if necessary in the ice house on board. It's time now to rest until the next “Attention!” The main deck is the gathering place. Here, everybody savors the pleasure of a little 'down time' while trying to warm up. The tea glasses left unfinished at breakfast are refilled, conversation abounds and card games are played.

Fishing became an industry in Turkey in the second half of the 20th century. With government incentives towards the end of the 1980s, the amount of fish caught and the earnings derived reached the highest levels. But fish stocks declined drastically in subsequent years due to wrong fishing. Only 55 out of 200 fish species in the Marmara, 163 in the Black Sea, 300 in the Aegean and 540 in the Mediterranean can be commercially caught and sold today. Nevertheless, the Chairman of the Istanbul Regional Union of Seafood Cooperatives, Ali Güney, reports that 2.4 million people serve the sector working on land and sea. Similarly, the number of licensed vessels, which was around 8,500 at the end of the 1980s, is pushing 19,000 today. The sea and the fish have not changed, so earnings have inevitably fallen as competition has intensified with the increased number of vessels. The earnings the vessels bring in at the end of this whirlwind of activity that lasts all season is parceled out to the fishermen by the captain.

It's getting dark and the Poyraz scans the entrance to the Black Sea with its radar before casting one last net. Data such as the location of the fish schools and the depth of the water is available instantaneously from monitors in the captain's cabin. When the last net has been hauled in the cases are full up and it's time to return to port. The Poyraz approaches Büyükdere, where the vessel's land crew and pickup truck are there to meet it. The land crew is in continuous contact with the vessel and is therefore ready and waiting wherever it approaches port. Its job is to transport the fish cases as soon as possible to whatever market the captain indicates. Among those meeting the vessel some are clutching plastic shopping bags, expecting a 'cut' in return for carrying the cases and icing the fish. It's an old fishing tradition. Even though they have not had a hand in the work, it is customary to give a fish to those who witness the catch being brought in. The Poyraz crew hand the fish over safe and sound, but the job isn't done yet. The cleaning of the nets and the washing down of the vessel commence and the deck is hosed down from one end to the other. After dinner, which is consumed in the late hours of the night, the bunks in the cabins seem as comfortable as feather beds to the weary crew members, and the fishermen drift off to sleep in the satisfaction of having earned some money to take home to their families at the end of the season. But they know that the sea is temperamental, that no one knows what tomorrow will bring or where the fish will be. As Istanbul wakes up to another day, the fishermen have long since hauled in their first nets and are sipping their tea, watching from the deck of the Poyraz in the middle of the Bosporus as the city once again comes to life.