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Contesting growth in marine capture fisheries: the case of small-scale fishing cooperatives in Istanbul


The expansion of industrial fishing via technological advancements and heavy subsidies in the Global North has been a significant factor leading to the current global fishery crisis. The growth of the industrial fleet led to an initial increase in global catches from the 1950s to the 1990s; yet, today, several marine fish stocks are harvested at unsustainable rates, and catches are stagnating. As a result, industrial fishers increase investments and fishing effort, reaching farther and deeper, while small-scale fishers face the threat of disappearance as both their catches and livelihoods worsen. The emergent international emphasis on Blue Growth is likely to put further pressure on marine capture fisheries. This paper explores how the growth imperative in the seas has manifested itself in Turkey since the 1970s and how industrial and small-scale fishers responded to this growth spiral in the seas. Based on participant observation methods and in-depth interviews, this paper problematizes the expanding boundaries of industrial fishers and examines the reactions of small-scale fishing cooperatives in Istanbul, in particular their proposed alternative economic model, as a response to the growth imperative. Overall, the paper demonstrates that the crisis that small-scale fishers are facing not only presents economic and ecological difficulties, but also represents an existential threat to the identity and traditional ways of life as a fisher. The strategies adopted by small-scale fishers in response to this crisis in Turkey, especially in Istanbul, are politicizing fishers as they open up new spaces, collaborations, and demands for environmental, social, and economic justice. However, their efforts constitute an ongoing process prone to numerous tensions and contradictions. This paper concludes that challenging the growth paradigm in fisheries via the Blue Degrowth framework can be useful for analyzing emerging alternative imaginaries to the growth-driven capitalist economic system among small-scale fishers.

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Fig. 1

Source: Fisheries Acquis Centre (2007); Turkstat (2019)

Fig. 2


  1. In this region, 62.2% of stocks were harvested at unsustainable levels in 2015 (Food and Agriculture Organization 2018).

  2. Originally proposed for non-renewable resources, “extractivism” implies extraction of natural resources in huge quantities, which are sold/exported often unprocessed. However, extractivism also applies to renewable resources such as marine fish catches, since current industrial fishing practices undermine the regenerative capacity of marine resources, rendering them increasingly “non-renewable” (Acosta 2013).


  4. This can be traced back to the fact that the population and economy was stagnant in the aftermath of the War of Independence, and that the Greek communities who had been primarily occupied with fishing in the Marmara region had emigrated (Knudsen 2009).

  5. Eight fishing boats (between 12 and 21 meters long), eight fish transportation boats (between 16 and 31 meters long), four research vessels, diesel engines, fishing nets, equipment for canned fish factories, cold storage facilities, and laboratories, the total value of which amounted to 2.7 million dollars, were provided to Turkish fisheries within the scope of the Marshall Plan (Arpa 2015).

  6. The economic values of total fish and water produce exports reached around 1 billion dollars in 2018, while the new official goal is to reach 2 billion dollars in 2023. According to the Minister of Agriculture, “Via opening up of new fish production spaces, Turkey’s seas will not constitute mere water anymore, they will become spaces which contribute more to the production and employment” (Minister of Agriculture 2019)

  7. As of June 2018, there were 42 large-scale vessels (19 trawlers and 23 purse seiners) in Mauritanian seas, with length varying between 22 and 49 m (Öztürk 2018).

  8. The most recent FAO report acknowledges that 43% of Eastern Central Atlantic fish stocks are at biologically unsustainable levels (Food and Agriculture Organization 2018). IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) recently warned that many marine species (such as Maderian sardine) are close to extinction due to illegal and over-fishing in West and Central African Seas, as a result of which food security for local communities is in danger in the region.

  9. One large European vessel with big freezing facilities can catch and process in a single day what 56 traditional local boats would catch over 1 year (Guardian 2012).

  10. For a video documenting the conflict between Turkish and Senegalese small-scale fishers:

  11. The Turkish government continues to support deep-sea exploration for natural gas around the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean and intensive aquaculture, especially in the Aegean Sea, even though these policies are not pursued in the name of Blue Growth, per se. Turkey’s deep-sea natural gas exploration policies and more local intensive aquaculture projects are currently leading to international and local ecological conflicts, respectively. This may be an indication that the international Blue Growth agenda, if adopted fully by the government in the future, may further exacerbate ecological distribution conflicts in the country.

  12. The regulatory authority attempted to reduce overcapacity by stopping licensing of new vessels since 2002 and initiating buy-back programs since 2012; yet, the incentives involved in the program were not large enough to appeal to the owners of large-scale vessels (Ünal & Ekmekçi 2015).

  13. These projects heavily reshape the coastal zones and damage the best fishing spots of small-scale fishers (SÜR-KOOP 2018).

  14. There were 15,352 vessels in total in 2018; 13,783 were small-scale (General Directorate of Fisheries and Aquaculture, 2019). Small-scale vessels constitute around 90% of the whole fishing fleet in the country, while its total catch amounts to less than 10%. Small-scale vessels are usually between 5 and 12 m long, and most of them are wooden and use equipment such as gillnets and longlines (Ünal & Göncüoğlu 2012).

  15. In 2017, 48% of all fish caught in the seas surrounding Turkey was sold by middlemen, whereas only 1% reached consumers directly via cooperatives (Turkstat 2019). The same year also marked a substantial rise in the fish sold to fishmeal factories; their share rose from 26% in 2013 to 41% in 2017 (Turkstat 2018).

  16. One has to note that, although the tendency is there, due to data availability problems for small-scale fisheries, this statement cannot be generalized to all coastal small-scale fisheries. However, bycatch figures for purse seiners in Turkey are significantly large at about 37–54% (Düzgüneş 2019).

  17. The members of the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM) (including Turkey) have recently formally acknowledged that small-scale fisheries have an important role for improving livelihoods and enhancing social inclusion as well as environmental and social sustainability. (

  18. Co-management can be defined as a community-based mechanism in which fishers and policy-makers work together to sustainably manage marine resources (Gutiérrez et al. 2011).


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Correspondence to Pinar Ertör-Akyazi.

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Ertör-Akyazi, P. Contesting growth in marine capture fisheries: the case of small-scale fishing cooperatives in Istanbul. Sustain Sci 15, 45–62 (2020).

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  • Degrowth
  • Coastal fisheries
  • Industrial fisheries
  • Alternatives
  • Blue Economy
  • Food sovereignty