As climate change hits the Turkish coast, more marine reserves are needed (commentary)

  • The Mediterranean Sea’s marine life is facing many threats, not least of which is the rapidly rising water temperatures.
  • The sea is warming faster than the global average, and with that warmth comes unwelcome tropical visitors like lionfish, which prey on native marine biodiversity, spurring conservationists to focus fishing pressure on these voracious predators, but that’s not all they’re doing.
  • “We believe the expansion of the marine protected area network is now an essential next step, and we are working with the Turkish government to make this happen,” one such conservationist writes in a new op-ed.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.

Growing up, I lived in Ankara, far away from the coast, but the best time of year for me was always the summer months when I would travel to the south with my family to camp and spend time in nature. We loved enjoying the sea on the Mediterranean coast and I remember how rich the biodiversity was, spotting all kinds of fish, seagrass and macroalgae in the crystal-clear water.

I was in college the first time I visited Gökova Bay – one of the most beautiful parts of Turkiye’s Turquoise Coast. It was amazing to wake up with the sounds of birds and see small fishing boats early in the morning. I would think to myself how incredible it could be to live here, to be a part of nature.

This Mediterranean coastline is one of the Earth’s most precious havens for marine biodiversity. From monk seals to seagrass, sandbar sharks to dusky groupers, there was once so much life in these waters. But, the decline in biodiversity is increasingly visible to our eyes today. The Mediterranean’s marine life is facing many threats, not least from the boiling of its very own home.

Funda Kök (left) with 2023 Goldman Environmental Prize winner, Zafer Kızılkaya, who is another conservationist active on Turkey’s coast. Photo courtesy of Akdeniz Koruma Derneği.
Funda Kök (left) with 2023 Goldman Environmental Prize winner Zafer Kızılkaya, who is another conservationist active on Turkey’s coast. Photo courtesy of Akdeniz Koruma Derneği.

Summer 2023 has seen scientists report record-breaking sea temperatures around the world, bringing home the reality we are living in. Climate change is accelerating at a rate we cannot control, and the effects are severe – for people, nature and the planet. The ocean is an extraordinary carbon sink, able to absorb excess heat and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, slowing the overall rate of global warming. But the warmer the ocean gets, its capacity to absorb carbon dioxide diminishes, and the negative impacts for biodiversity worsen, too.

In southwest Turkiye’s coastal waters, Akdeniz Koruma Derneği (AKD) – the Turkish conservation organization I now work for – and our international partner, Fauna & Flora, have been monitoring the rising temperatures of the eastern Mediterranean since 2015. We’re seeing that the Mediterranean is warming much faster than the global average, and it is rapidly being tropicalized – with visible consequences for both communities and wildlife.

One of the biggest threats we’re facing is the introduction of invasive species. As a result of rising sea temperatures, non-native tropical species including lionfish, long-spined sea urchins, pufferfish and jellyfish are expanding their ranges and colonizing our warming waters – causing extensive damage to the local ecosystem.

Unfortunately, a history of unsustainable levels of fishing, coupled with the other impacts of climate change such as deoxygenation and acidification, has meant the marine habitat here is not robust enough to cope with the additional pressures brought by invasive species. Less healthy habitat means fewer native species to support the proper functioning of the local ecosystem, and also means less native catch for the many small-scale fishers that depend on marine resources for their livelihoods.

This area, which includes my childhood dream destination, Gökova Bay, is of course a popular hotspot for both national and international tourists. But again, this industry is being threatened by the growing presence of invasive species, for example, pufferfish and lionfish – and their toxic nature – put people off going in the water.

Seagrass is an important stabilizer for the seafloor, too. Image by Dimitris Poursanidis / Ocean Image Bank.
Seagrass meadows like this one in Greece are important habitats for marine biodiversity and stabilize for the seafloor, too. Image by Dimitris Poursanidis / Ocean Image Bank.

Not only are people’s livelihoods and marine biodiversity being damaged by rising seawater temperatures, but our ability to mitigate and adapt to climate change is also fading away, as the once thriving seagrass meadows that line the coastline are being destroyed. Posidonia oceanica, a type of seagrass found across the Mediterranean Sea, is a vital marine habitat and an efficient carbon sink, but it is being suffocated by warming sea temperatures.

Research has suggested that across the Mediterranean, the amount of carbon sequestered by seagrass meadows could be the equivalent of 42% of the CO2 emissions produced by Mediterranean countries since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. If we lose them, we lose a significant carbon sink, inevitably causing even more warming.

This might seem like a bleak picture. It’s a real picture of how climate change is impacting communities and nature today, and how it has been for many years now.

But there is hope. Communities are coming together to fight back, supporting climate solutions and adapting the way we live.

AKD and Fauna & Flora have been working with the local people in this area for over 10 years to develop and implement these solutions. One of the biggest and most successful measures we, in collaboration with the public authorities, have taken is the introduction of marine protected areas across over 500 km of coastline, including a series of no-fishing zones. I work with local fishers and other community members to ensure they can play an active role in patrolling and monitoring the zones, helping to minimize illegal fishing activity and promote fish stocks and habitat recovery.

See related: Can we control marine invaders by eating them?

For invasive species like lionfish whose damage to the ecosystem can far outweigh any benefits from fishing it, there are few options other than an economically unsustainable fishery that aims to reduce its population as much as possible. Image by Luis Malpica-Cruz.
A basket of lionfish being readied for serving at a restaurant: this non-native species can damage the Mediterranean’s marine ecosystem but is also good table fare, and 11 tons have been harvested in the past few years. Image by Luis Malpica-Cruz/Oceanographic Research Institute of the Autonomous University of Baja California.

As a result of these protected zones – and the invaluable efforts of those who support their enforcement – we’re continually seeing an increase of native fish biomass, which is essential for both the ecosystem and the economy.

We’ve also been working alongside local communities to develop strategies to reduce the invasive species, while improving livelihoods, making lemonade from the lemons. Previously, lionfish, one of the most pervasive invasives in our waters, had no commercial value and was simply discarded when caught by fishers. But what if we could make use of the lionfish, and target this species instead of dwindling native fish?

Since 2020, AKD and Fauna & Flora have been working with local fishers, restaurants, consumers to encourage them to catch, cook and eat more edible invasive species, including the lionfish. Steadily, we’re seeing the results and fishers have started targeting edible invasive species more and more. We’ve utilized our own secret weapon of over-exploitation to target the invasive species, and in the past three years we’ve removed approximately 11 tons of them from our coastline.

False killer whales in the Mediterranean. Image by Vincent Kneefel / Ocean Image Bank.
False killer whales in the Mediterranean. Image by Vincent Kneefel / Ocean Image Bank.

People changing their diets is, of course, not going to reverse climate change. But we can adapt, and we can reduce further damage to nature by making just a small change to our lifestyles. It’s better to do something than to do nothing at all.

While our work may seem locally targeted, we believe the impact is global. In the area we work, we typically see the effects of global warming before it has cascaded to the west. Through regular scientific monitoring, we can see the first signals of change and we can take action.

We believe the expansion of the marine protected area network is now an essential next step and we are working with the Turkish government to make this happen. The actions we take now in Turkiye, will – I hope – have positive effects for the rest of the world for years to come.

The fight is on now. We must do everything we can to protect and restore our marine life, for people, for nature, and for the future of our planet.


Funda Kök is conservation manager for Akdeniz Koruma Derneği (AKD).

Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: French activist and Goldman Prize winner Claire Nouvian discusses her organization’s historic victory over deepwater trawling in the E.U., listen here:

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