Saving the Sultan of Fish

One of Istanbul’s most loved fish the lüfer, also known as bluefish, is facing a risky future if over-fishing isn’t stopped quickly. To raise awareness of this among the public, the food industry and the government, Slow Food Istanbul is leading the Don’t Let the Lüfer Go Extinct! campaign, working with local fishing cooperatives, chefs and fishmongers to encourage action.

“The lüfer is a fascinating fish,” says Slow Food Istanbul’s founder Defne Koryurek. “It migrates from the Black Sea near the city of Samsung in Turkey and traverses the Bosphorus and the Agean Sea before finally entering the Mediterranean. All the way along the fish’s migratory path its flavors change according to the fish it feeds on and the diverse salt levels of these seas. In our culture we think that the lüfer is at its tastiest here in Istanbul, we even call it the sultan of all fishes in Istanbul.”

Local fishermen and researchers have noticed a drop in lüfer stocks which they say is largely due to the over-fishing of juvenile lüfer, leaving a lack of reproductive adults in the seas. The Turkish Seas Research Foundation has also observed that there is a narrowing of the specie’s genetic pool, which is a further sign that its future is vulnerable.

“Since 2002 we have been seeing a new kind of lüfer on our plates – baby lüfer”, says Koryurek. “Over the years, imperceptibly to most local residents, the fish have gotten smaller and smaller.” With a life span of 19 years, the lüfer reaches reproductive age at around three or four years but as Defne explains its reproductive age is better calculated by length; at 21 cm it begins to reproduce and at 48cm it is fully grown.

Unsustainable fishing practices have been a problem since 2002 when an important fishing code changed that had previously made a distinction between small lüfer (10-15cm), which in Turkey are called cinekop, and mature lüfer (over 20 cm). Not only was cinekop taken out of the book of codes but the minimum length for fishing lüfer was reduced to just 14cm.

Guided by local fishermen, who understand the long term troubles of catching undersized lüfer, and working with one of the city’s top chefs Mehmet Gurs, the Slow Food Istanbul has created a petition and are asking the city’s shoppers and restaurants to say no to fishing, serving and eating lüfer less than 24cm in length. “It has been only one month since we started and already we have more than 100 establishments and 3,000 people’s signatures. Restaurants and fish shops are displaying stickers in their windows showing that they support the campaign, which is creating a real presence in the city”.

“We would like to make connections between the traditional fishing community and the government and the traditional fishing community and consumers. Even though they make up 80% of the total fishing community in Turkey, it is the industrial fisheries that are more connected to government and therefore have more of a say, and are actually responsible for 90% of the lüfer caught.”

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