Agroecology and Food Sovereignty

The Role of Small-Scale Fishing Cooperatives in the Istanbul Region

Irmak Ertör

In recent decades the situation for Turkish small-scale fishers (SSFs) has become critical, threatening their economic and physical survival. Overfishing and illegal fishing have led to the collapse of important fish stocks. Pollution due to high levels of urbanisation and industrialisation, and insufficient environmental controls has contributed to falling fish stocks and catastrophic biodiversity loss, especially in the Marmara Sea. Finally, the marketing structure of fish and seafood has trapped many SSFs and their co-operatives in a cycle of accumulating debt. Current fish and seafood markets are based on intermediaries and commissioners (as well as bigger fish businesses concentrated in few hands) which utilise their market power to pressure SSFs to accept too-low prices, leading to a spiral of indebtedness. As a result of these pressures, small-scale fisheries became more and more marginalised. Younger generations lost interest in fishing and civil society was largely ignorant about fishers’ identity and culture.

In the face of these difficult conditions, SSF are finding their voice and highlighting the role of fisheries in broader food system change. The Association of Istanbul Fishing Cooperatives has become key fisher voice in global conversations about food sovereignty and agroecology. They participate in FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) and IPC (International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty) meetings with other organizations fighting for food sovereignty such as La Via Campesina, and play an important role representing regional and global fisher movements in the international arena. These meetings and gatherings have facilitated a process of collective learning among a range of Small-Scale Fisher (SSF) movements, as well as other agroecology and food sovereignty movements composed of peasants, pastoralists, beekeepers, and global and regional climate justice movements. How did these Turkish fishers come to play such a central role in giving agroecology and food sovereignty meaning in the context of fisheries?1

Small-scale fisheries in Turkey and the experience of Istanbul Birlik

Small-scale fishing cooperatives in many regions are important social and political actors in strengthening localized food systems, sustainability of fish stocks, and just food regimes. The Association of Istanbul Fishing Cooperatives (henceforth “Istanbul Birlik”2) is one of these actors. It represents 34 fisheries cooperatives with about 2,500 members mostly consisting of small-scale fishers around the Istanbul region in Turkey. It was founded in 1980, and the fishing areas of its members are mostly on the coastlines of the Marmara Sea or the (South Western) Black Sea.3

Istanbul Birlik also forms part of SÜR-KOOP, which is the national central association of fishing cooperatives in Turkey. Founded in 2004 SÜR-KOOP is made up of 15 regional members. Istanbul Birlik, which has about 243 cooperative members representing approximately 19,000 individual fisher members4, is a very active regional member. SÜR-KOOP, however, consists of both industrial and small-scale fishers. Therefore, the regional associations have distinctive characteristics, and their own positions and activities.

Historically, industrial fishers and industrial fisher cooperatives have been economically and politically influential actors, active in meetings with policy-makers, especially with the General Directorate of Fisheries and Aquaculture under the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. However, small-scale fishers were previously less represented in these spaces and processes. The active participation and organisation of small-scale fisher cooperatives has made them stronger and more visible especially since 2012, ‘when around 200 Istanbul Birlik fishers attended the fishery notification meeting in Ankara to the surprise of industrial fishers and policy-makers. […] This was the first time that such a meeting was attended by any small-scale fisher organisation.´5

In Turkey, the vessels of small-scale fishers are usually between 5 and 12 meters long. Most are wooden boats using gillnets and/or longlines. Small-scale fishing boats form 90% of the country’s fishing fleet, but their total catch is usually less than 10% of the total yield of the fishing sector.6 Thus, there is a significant discrepancy between the catch obtained by industrial fishers, and that caught by small-scale fishers. This discrepancy also takes the form of a dramatic difference in the environmental impact and pressure on fish populations created by the two kinds of fisheries.

The national and international politicisation of Istanbul Birlik

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.

Engagement with other food sovereignty movements

While Istanbul Birlik has been strengthening its collaborations in Turkey, it has also entered existing international networks, and built new relationships and collaborations. In particular, it has worked with other local, regional and global actors ranging from social scientists and scholar activists to the peasant movement La Via Campesina and other SSF movements striving for agroecology and food sovereignty. This international activism and network-building has helped to raise awareness of fisheries issues within the broader international movements for food sovereignty and agroecology, strengthened the political voice of SSFs, and given rise to new opportunities for collaborations and joint work.

After participating in the ICAS-Etxalde conference and an associated ocean grabbing workshop in Vitoria/Gasteiz in the Basque Country in April 2017, Istanbul Birlik hosted a workshop of SSF organisations from Europe in September of that year. Regional members of World Forum of Fisher Peoples (WFFP) and representatives from Spain (APROAMAR), France (Plateforme de la Petite Pêche Artisanale Française), Russian indigenous platform (Aborigen Forum) and Saami (Saami Council) SSF representatives participated. This exchange became an important moment facilitating a deeper understanding of problems and struggles common to fishers throughout Europe, and encouraged the fishers to look for ways to further collaborate in international spaces. These collaborations led Istanbul Birlik to attend the 7th General Assembly of WFFP held in New Delhi, India, in which the WFFP celebrated their 20th anniversary. In this General Assembly, Istanbul Birlik became a member of WFFP coming together with more than 50 other country representatives.

Another key gathering was the 7th Urgenci International Symposium in Thessaloniki, Greece in November 2018, which brought together 324 participants from 40 different countries representing agroecological consumer groups, food justice networks and small-scale food producers. This network and its meetings have historically focused on Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) groups, but Community Supported Fisheries (CSF) and related initiatives were also featured in this year. A panel on SSFs and food sovereignty stimulated discussions about how to strengthen the collaboration between CSAs and CSFs, and how to form a joint movement around food sovereignty. The main panelists – Local Catch Network (and Fish Locally Collaborative) from USA and Istanbul Birlik from Turkey – shared experiences, ongoing projects, and lessons learned about how to construct stronger networks of collaboration among agroecological consumption cooperatives or consumer groups and local fishers, and how to increase public awareness and attention regarding the situation at sea and in local fisheries. Although both initiatives mentioned significant challenges that they have faced and are still facing, learning from each other’s experiences and seeking new ways to collaborate further was an important outcome of this meeting.

These encounters gave rise to a new project: — Urgenci, Pleine Mer (France), Local Catch Network (USA), the Transnational Institute, and Istanbul Birlik will collaborate in a multi-year project on Community Supported Fisheries. The program aims to further develop fisher-to-fisher trainings, to empower SSFs, their communities and their local food systems, and to map and connect regional CSF networks so that they can strengthen their own movements and establish stronger alliances. ‘[T]hese transnational alliances constitute a source of inspiration for Istanbul Birlik in terms of new ideas (e.g., food sovereignty and agroecology), organisational structures, or even procedural details such as how to run an effective meeting and how to ensure participation of a diverse set of stakeholders’.12

Putting ideas into practice: Direct Sales Model and Co-op Shops

Facing the ecological and social crisis in their region, especially with falling fish stocks and high levels of indebtededness of SSFs to intermediaries, Istanbul Birlik has initiated a new project focusing on a “Direct Sales Model”. This model aims at increasing SSFs control over the fish they catch and the food they provide to consumers. Instead of depending on intermediaries who buy the fish for very cheap prices and add commissions at several points along the value chain until it reaches the final consumer in supermarkets, fish shops or restaurants, they intend to establish networks of direct sale. These would both give value to the producer and provide fish for cheaper prices to the final consumer, helping to make fish more accessible not only to middle or upper class consumers but also to poor and working class people. According to the head of Istanbul Birlik, the model will help to change the dominant perception in the current (capitalist) market system: “people would perceive fish not as a commodity, but as food”.13

The planned Direct Sales Model includes opening Co-op Shops (see Image 2) in different districts in Istanbul. Fish caught by Istanbul Birlik’s SSF members will be bought by the co-operatives themselves, at a fixed and fair price for fisher people. Istanbul Birlik would own its own transportation system with refrigerated trucks, and fish would then be sold in physical Co-op Shops. This direct access to the local markets will improve the economic situation of SSFs, and reduce their dependency on intermediaries who currently decide the price of fish.14 Co-op Shops would provide not only a market place but also some space for processing, cooking, and sale of the value-added products produced. The objective would be to employ especially women and young people, giving them more visibility and offering employment linked to the SSF sector.

Part of this Co-op’s space would be dedicated to cultural events such as fisher festivals, seminars, exhibitions, activities for children, and debates. These would help to increase awareness about SSF traditions, local species, the specific characteristics of the marine territory (i.e. the Northern Marmara Sea, the Bosphorus, and the Southwestern Black Sea) as well as the idea of CSFs. Design and construction of the space will be undertaken in collaboration with other stakeholders such as agroecological consumer initiatives; researchers; district municipalities; and interested civil society groups.

This project aims first at improving the situation of SSFs, beginning with the co-operative members of Istanbul Birlik. However, at the same time, it is a broader project to improve public knowledge about the seas, traditional ways of fishing, fisher communities, and the dynamics and social actors around fisheries food system. In recent decades thriving organic, agroecological, and/or local food movements have helped communities to discover the many rewards of rebuilding relationship with small-scale food providers.15 Reconnecting communities to traditional and small-scale fishers can provide many benefits.16 The name of the project – ‘Know Your Fisher Project’ — (see Image 1 below) alludes to this. The two main goals are: (i) to improve the contribution of SSFs to sustainable fishing, (ii) to improve consumers’ knowledge about SSFs and their practices, as well as to enable the access of consumers to cheap, high quality and just fish.

The flyer of the “Know Your Fisher Project”

The experiences of CSF networks from United States and estimates for the alternative seafood marketing project and the proposed Co-op Shops (see Image 2 below) indicate that SSFs could expect a 30% increase in their income by implementing such a model.17 This would be an important step to overcome the indebted and marginalized economic situation of SSFs based on alternative economic models. To realise this plan, Istanbul Birlik has been meeting with district municipalities over the course of the last year to obtain a physical space with the support of the municipality, avoiding inflated commercial rents.

The design of a possible Coop Shop of 200 m2 with its suitable places for selling, processing, cooking and eating fish and for cultural activities (Source: Flyer of the “Know Your Fisher Project”)

Community Supported Fisheries (CSF) networks: fishers’ alliances with the agroecological consumer groups and municipalities

Since the most recent municipal elections, in Spring 2019, Istanbul Birlik has continued reaching out to the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (IMM), aiming to realise Co-op Shop models in 10 to 25 districts. Regular meetings have taken place between the IMM, agroecological consumption co-operatives and initiatives, and fisher co-operatives in order to collectively design such farmer/producer markets.

Today, there are about 30 agroecological consumer groups in Istanbul region. The first one was BÜKOOP (The Consumption Cooperative of Members of Bogazici University) founded in 2009, which was followed by others flourishing especially in the last 5 years. These are key allies to the ‘Know Your Fisher Project’ and SSFs and Istanbul Birlik are joining conversations and debates about how to link these initiatives to construct a social and solidarity economy, and about what kind of a structure would be possible in the context of Istanbul.

Such citizen and consumer initiatives, learning collectively and working to establish broader CSAs and CSFs, are critical players in the movement towards a just and more socially and ecologically sustainable food system, based on shared ideas on food sovereignty. Thus, this project and the initiatives of the Istanbul Birlik are becoming a crucial part of food sovereignty struggles around fisheries in Turkey and beyond.

Limitations and challenges for fisher co-operatives’ movements

Istanbul Birlik and the fisher co-operatives that are its members have been working hard to realise this project. They have designed it physically, developed financial estimates, and communicated internally to build consensus with and support from other members and possible allies. One of the main challenges is to find a suitable physical space, which would be in a central district but not impacted by speculative rental prices, which are usually very high within the city limits. This is where good communication becomes even more essential so that the project will be supported by the local municipalities and preferably the metropolitan municipality.

A second main limitation or challenge is related to issues of gender equality since very few fisherwomen are members of fisher co-operatives. Historically, most fisherwomen participating in fishing activities were not co-operative members either because their husbands were members and the structure of the co-operatives were not welcoming them, or because their activities were not recognised as fishing, because they were not going fishing on boats even though they engaged with fishing activities in their households. Recently, there have been attempts to gain more visibility for fisherwomen. For example, a fisherwoman who was not a member of the co-operative before — since her husband was a member — recently became a member of one of the co-operatives in Bosphorus and received a prize from one of the district municipalities for her contribution to the fishing sector. She was also honoured by Istanbul Birlik in its annual workshop in 2019 and was asked to share her story of going to fish secretly with her father and then with her father-in-law even though her husband was not supportive of her fishing.

Gender issues and the move towards gender equality in fisher co-operatives are complicated due to the patriarchal structures that have been very dominant until now. Addressing these issues to better recognise and support fisherwomen will require significant and sustained efforts both within member co-operatives and in Istanbul Birlik. However, being exposed to women in leadership positions, especially among indigenous WFFP members, has had a positive impact on this process. Meanwhile, collaborating with other CSAs and food sovereignty movements that have already been working on gender equality for some decades has had, and will continue to have, a positive impact in raising awareness and in finding ways to implement a gender balance within activities and organisations.

Steps towards Food Sovereignty in Local SSF Contexts

The initiatives and projects of Istanbul Birlik demonstrate the importance of democratic co-operative structures for small-scale fisheries and their dedication to improve members’ situations in order to confront the ecological, social, and economic crisis they are confronting. The alliances with other food sovereignty actors strengthen these movements and reinforce the politicisation that they are undergoing. One key element is the fisher-to-fisher learning enabled by regional and global fisher movements. A second is alliance building with other social actors, such as researchers, consumer groups, and movements for food sovereignty both locally and internationally. Therefore, strengthening internal structures, as well as constructing broader networks of solidarity where CSAs and CSFs intersect, are key tools to empower their movements and reach their goals. By forging this path, Birlik is building new connections between consumers and SSFs that are accessible to people of all economic backgrounds, while protecting traditional fisher cultures, and providing an alternative vision of just, sustainable, fisheries.


Irmak Ertör

Irmak Ertör is a researcher working on fisheries and aquaculture, food and marine politics, and environmental justice. She holds a PhD from the Autonomous University of Barcelona, the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA-UAB), where she investigated the political ecology of marine finfish aquaculture in Europe as part of the ENTITLE (European Network of Political Ecology) project. She worked in the same institute as a postdoctoral researcher by focusing on fisher movements and environmental justice and contributed to the mapping and analysis of fisher folks conflicts in the ENVJUSTICE project. Currently, she is teaching political ecology, environmental politics and history in Bogazici University, Istanbul, and forms part of the consumer cooperative of the university as well as collaborates with the association of fishing cooperatives, Istanbul Birlik.

1  This short article draws on participant action research resulting from close collaboration with Istanbul Birlik, especially in international gatherings with the World Forum of Fisher People (WFFP) representatives and other food sovereignty movements from France, Spain, India, and Belgium, among others. In March 2019, interviews were conducted with fisherwomen, fishermen and the board members of Istanbul Birlik at their annual workshop in Antalya, Turkey. Additionally, secondary literature and previous research by the authors have been used as the basis for this article.

 İstanbul Birlik webpage (2019). Available at:

3 See Ertör Akyazı, P. (2019) Contesting growth in marine capture fisheries: the case of small-scale fishing cooperatives in Istanbul. Sustainability Science, 1-18. Available at: for a discussion on small-scale fishers’ role in contesting Blue Growth policies in Turkey and alliances they have established with political actors struggling for food sovereignty.

4 SÜRKOOP webpage (2019) Available at:

5 Quote from the head of Istanbul Birlik in Ertör Akyazı 2019, 16

6 Ünal, V. & Göncüoğlu, H. (2012) Fisheries management in Turkey. In: Tokaç A, Gücü AC, Öztürk B (eds) The state of the Turkish fisheries. Turkish Marine Research Foundation, Istanbul, pp. 516–550.

7 Ertör, I. (2012) Sustainable Local Management of Common-Pool Resources: The Environmental Conflict on Fisheries in Güzelce. Poster presentation.

8 Avrupa Postası (4 February 2012). Available at:–h4729.html; and TurkSail (30 January 2012) Available at:

9 See the Greenpeace Bulletin, No. 44. Available at:

10 Ertör Akyazı 2019

11 See the campaign calling for not fishing the juvenile bluefish below the size of 24 cm. Available at:

12 Ertör Akyazı 2019, 13

13 interview with the head of Istanbul Birlik, 2016

14 Ertör Akyazı 2019

15 David Goodman and E. Melanie DuPuis, “Knowing Food and Growing Food: Beyond the Production–Consumption Debate in the Sociology of Agriculture,” Sociologia Ruralis 42, no. 1 (2002): 5–22,

16 Urgenci – Deck to Dish (2019) Available at:; WFFP and KNTI report (2017) Available at:

17 Witter A, Stoll J (2017) Participation and resistance: alternative seafood marketing in a neoliberal era. Marine Policy, 80:130–140.; Ertör Akyazı 2019