This is part of a TPF series on social entrepreneurs, in collaboration with Ashoka Turkiye.
Booming is the adjective most often used to describe Turkey these days. Ranked the 16th largest economy (and growing) in the world, the country saddled between Europe and the Middle East is looked as a sound investment and economic model for others, especially in the region. Yet, it is important to note that this Turkish economic miracle is regional, contained to Turkey’s west. What happens in Istanbul stays in Istanbul.
Turkey’s rugged southeast is comparatively poorer, with income and literacy levels way below the country’s average. Cities like Kars, Diyarbakir and Van have seen a huge wave of emigration; young people leaving for better educational and career opportunities elsewhere. Those left behind struggle to get by, resorting to traditional trades such as farming, animal husbandry and fishing. Fishing is particularly popular in Van, which sits on the famous lake named after it. So popular, that in recent years it started to become an environmental problem for the region.
By the mid-1990s overfishing of the Pearl Mullet started to jeopardize Lake Van’s ecosystem. Because so many fish were being caught, the species was disappearing. That threatened the ecology of the lake as well as the environment in the region. Mustafa Sari is a social entrepreneur who worked to address that problem.
The gregarious Mustafa arrived in Van in 1992. Since then he has been working with Van’s fishermen, families and government officials to map out a sustainable solution. It is a solution that is not only environmental in nature. While overfishing affects flora and fauna, its solution cannot be ecological alone. As Mustafa told me from his office in Van the other day, “people fish to work. It’s a way of life in this region.”
Mustafa’s solution is to connect those working on conservation, the scientists, with the fishermen who need jobs, and the government that must oversee it all. He has built cooperatives where fishermen pool efforts to catch and sell fish. Together, they reduce competition between individual fishermen and are much more targeted about where and when to catch fish. This is particularly important when fish are spawning. Mustafa has worked with the fishermen to encourage deep-water fishing during this period. Fishermen are not likely to catch spawning fish in deep water; spawning fish are usually at riverheads moving upstream.He has also worked to enact and, more importantly, enforce a law that prevents fishing when fish begin to spawn starting in mid-April.
Mustafa’s cooperatives also provide skills sharing that teaches the fishermen about the economics of fishing such as increasing the size of nets, techniques on slicing and deboning the fish, and letting smaller fish go. The results speak for themselves.
According to the leading organization supporting social entrepreneurs and innovators, Ashoka, where Mustafa was elected as a fellow in 2004, Lake Van’s Pearl Mullet are bigger today than six years ago: 19.5 centimeters long on average, up three centimeters from 1997. Bigger fish has meant bigger returns for Van’s fisherman. That is a win for the city’s residents as well as its ecosystem. Technology may be fueling Istanbul’s growth, but in Van fishing is preserving so much more.