Birgül Çivit (Credit: Sevilay Saraçlar)

On a sunny day in Finike, a district of Turkey’s southern province of Antalya, fisherwoman Suheyla Alp explains the origins of her close relationship with the sea.

“I used to live on the Karaoz coast in Antalya and my father had a small rowing-boat,” she told Inside Turkey. “The first time he took me out on the water, I dropped in a line with a hook. The next thing I know, the line was pulling so I took it in. I’ll never forget how surprised I was when a massive fish came out on the end.”

Jobs linked to the water run in Alp’s family. Her father and grandfather both worked at a nearby lighthouse, guiding ships to safety. Her own career in fishing began when she met her husband, Azim, who is fixing and sorting lines as she speaks. 

The couple are just one of the 100,000 or so households in Turkey who make a living from aquaculture, producing more than a thousand tonnes of marine products each year. 

According to Funda Kok, fisherwomen’s programme director for the Mediterranean Conservation Society, women play a crucial role in independent aquaculture – even if their contributions are often overlooked. 

Funda Kök - Mediterranean Conversation Association nature conservation manager and women fishermen program coordinator (Credit: Her own archive)
Funda Kök – Mediterranean Conversation Association nature conservation manager and women fishermen program coordinator (Credit: Her own archive)

“A woman who marries a fisherman automatically becomes a part of the workforce, whether she wants to or not,” Kok said. “A lot of women will end up going out on the water with their husbands and taking serious responsibility for cleaning, weaving nets, preparing hooks and lines and selling the fish.” 

According to Alp, fishing isn’t a lifestyle that suits everyone. 

“Not all fishermen’s wives can go out on the water, they often get seasick. When me and my husband go out on the water, we’ll stay at sea for 15 to 20 days. I wouldn’t get homesick if I never came back from the sea, I always sleep better on a boat than at home,” Alp said.

The Mediterranean Conservation Society aims to increase the visibility of women in the industry and to help them take up decision-making roles. Kok and her colleagues meet fisherwomen and listen to their grievances.

Funda Kök – Mediterranean Conservation Association nature conservation manager and women fishermen program coordinator (Credit: Her own archive)

One of the most common issues is that women tend not to be registered with cooperatives, which are common within small-scale fishing. Of the 3,009 fisherwomen surveyed by the organisation, 2,656 did not officially belong to cooperatives. 

“In fishing couples, the boat will often be registered under the man’s name, so a lot more men will be part of cooperatives,” Kok said. “Women often don’t get enough of a say in decision-making processes. This is where we, as a society, will try to step in and help.”

Social security rights are among the gaps the society tries to help fill.

“When a boat is registered under the man’s name, women might end up getting denied retirement rights despite having worked their whole lives. Or they might lose access to healthcare if they get divorced,” Kok said. 

Birgul Civit, another fisherwoman in Finike, told Inside Turkey that she and her husband worked collaboratively, dividing up tasks together. 

Süheyla Alp (Credit: Sevilay Nur Saraçlar)

“My job has taught me to be independent,” Civit said. “I can’t go out fishing every day due to health problems. I’ll take a rest day if I’m tired, but on the other hand, I don’t have anything else to keep myself busy. The sea air is comforting to me.”

Civit is familiar with a long stretch of Turkey’s coastline spanning the Aegean and Mediterranean, she said, adding that she has learned how the sea behaves. 

“Say it rains today, it’s a sure thing that it’s going to be windy the next day, or for two days even. You’ll need to wait for it to calm down on the third day,” Civit noted. 

But the environment these fisherwomen work in is changing. Over time, Alp has observed a significant drop in the number of fish in the sea, along with a sharp rise in the number of boats. 

“I used to throw in three lines with a hook and catch all these large fish. We used to catch dusky groupers and white groupers – there were no hunting bans back then,” Alp said. “We were the only people in sight when we went out on the water. But times changed, and the people grew in number too. Now, you see more leisure boats on the water than fishing boats.” 

The arrival of invasive species from the Red Sea has led to hunting bans in the past decade on native species like groupers. Kok says that groupers are protective of their territory and are therefore needed to help fight off the newcomers. 

One invasive species, puffer fish, keeps getting caught in nets and breaking fishers’ lines in recent years, Alp told Inside Turkey. 

Civit, meanwhile, says that sea pollution has worsened over the years, putting further pressure on catches. 

“There’s not as many fish anymore but it’s enough for us,” she says, adding that she hopes the sea will remain “bountiful”.

Civit has her own stance on how to approach endangered species and invasive fish. 

“If they’re caught in our nets, we’ll take out any species that we weren’t targeting to make sure they’re not hurt. If it hasn’t died and is still living, we’ll set it free, we won’t harm it,” Civit said, adding that she and her husband also try to scoop up rubbish they come across in the water, bringing it back to land. 

Endangered seal and dolphin species can also sometimes get stuck in nets, because they try to tear through them to eat the fish caught inside, Civit explained.

“It’s up to chance whether you’ll run into seals. There’s nothing to be done if you run into them and they eat your fish, you can’t stop it, there’s no boundaries in the sea. You get what’s meant for you,” she said. 

As Civit wraps up her remarks in the fishers’ shelter on shore, her husband is getting ready to set sail. He finishes up weaving his net, but stops in his tracks, having spotted a black plastic bag floating in the water. He scoops it up and throws it on board, before heading off for another day of work.