Istanbul Birlik was established in 1980, but it has been especially active in the last decade. In this time Birlik focused on building its members’ capacity, participating in different social and political circles, and building alliances with other social actors like universities, NGOs, municipalities and journalists to confront the situation they have been facing as a SSF community. The election of a new board and a new head of Istanbul Birlik in 2011 was a key step in this process. The new leadership took a more active approach, focused on community-building, active participation, defining structural and political goals, and strengthening communication between fisher people from different cooperatives; with policy-makers at different administrative levels; and with other social actors such as researchers, NGOs, journalists, and municipalities.
In this period, conflicts between small-scale and industrial fishers have also become more visible, especially in debates over the law that stipulates the legal distance from the coast where purse seiners and trawlers are allowed to fish. On November 3rd, 2011, purse seiners and trawlers organised a protest in the Bosphorus Strait, with their vessels, claiming that they should be allowed to fish closer to the coastline. Meanwhile, small-scale fishers and NGOs like Greenpeace and Slow Food Istanbul branch (Fikir Sahibi Damaklar) openly denounced trawlers fishing illegally in the Bosphorus, as well as the sale of illegally caught juvenile fish.7 Industrial fishing actors and other powerful intermediaries colluded closely in well-organised networks which, during this time, used increasingly violent and illegal tactics in defense of their interests. Intimidation and coercion were directed against outspoken groups of environmental defenders which included SSF communities, ecologists, consumer groups, and NGOs. These intimidation tactics even included an attack on the head of a cooperative in Istanbul.8
In such an environment, the cooperation of Istanbul Birlik with a range of civil society actors – including NGOs such as Greenpeace and Slow Food; consumer groups; restaurant chefs; journalists; and academics from different fields including biology, fisheries economics, fisheries and aquaculture engineering and the social sciences – became an important inflection point for their visibility, helping to strengthen their voice in different political and social spaces. Istanbul Birlik co-organised campaigns with other organisations which included: (i) a campaign against illegal fishing in order to prevent the catching and selling of juvenile fish with the slogan, promoted by Greenpeace, “How many centimetres is yours?”9, and (ii) a 2011-2015 campaign10 to protect the traditionally and culturally significant blue fish species of the Bosphorus called “lüfer” with the slogan “Lüfer protection team”.11
Internally, Istanbul Birlik also organised ongoing capacity-building activities among its members. Each year they host 2-3 multi-day workshops, which are attended by the boards of member cooperatives, who attend in order to then share information with their own cooperative members. These workshops have aimed at: improving the management structure of cooperatives by sharing the principles, legal structures and responsibilities of cooperatives; promoting sustainable fisheries; and discussing how to improve the situation of their members. Improvements are understood both in terms of the infrastructure and facilities provided to fisher members, but also more holistically through protecting the SSF identity. These workshops have facilitated a fisher-to-fisher learning system, strengthened collaboration among members of Istanbul Birlik, and developed their internal organisational structures. Meanwhile, they also allowed cooperatives and their members to communicate and collaborate more closely with researchers and university professors. Fishers were able to get feedback and support from academics by exchanging ideas on a range of topics including legal structures, cooperativism, the relation of fisheries and aquaculture, marine plastics, and Blue Growth, among others.
Despite the previous political and economic dominance of industrial fishers, Istanbul Birlik has succeeded in making small fishers ever more visible in the last decade. During this period, they achieved recognition as important actors in this sector, and have slowly been included in discussions about the amendments of national fisheries legislation, which is renewed every 4 years, with the last one in effect until 31st of August, 2020.