Turkey declares war on toxic puffer fish

The puffer fish has been spreading in the Mediterranean Sea for years and, despite capture efforts due to its voracity and toxicity, it is multiplying very rapidly.

Now, the Turkish government wants to resolutely confront this fish of the species Lagocephalus sceleratis, whose consumption can cause serious poisoning and even death.

One of the fishermen affected by the toxic fish is Cengiz Balta. He has been fishing on the Turkish Mediterranean coast of the Gulf of Antalya for 35 years, like his father and grandfather. He is the head of a fishermen’s cooperative in Antalya, made up of about 100 members.

For some years now, he and his colleagues have been taking more and more puffer fish from the sea.

It is Sunday morning, Balta and other fishermen are in the port repairing nets. There are five hand-sized puffer fish on the dock. The sun has dried and hardened them. “Not even the seagulls eat them,” says the man as he throws the dead fish into the water.

Around a hundred puffer fish end up in the cooperative’s fishermen’s nets every day. In Antalya, in general, up to a thousand are caught per day. “But they don’t fill either the wallet or the stomach,” Balta sums up the situation.

The problem is that puffer fish is poisonous and the tetrodotoxin in its liver can paralyze the muscles and become deadly. That is why it is not marketed and does not end up in any dish in Turkey.

On the other hand, the puffer fish menu looks like a seafood restaurant menu: it eats squid, crabs, prawns, octopus. And you don’t even have to go out looking for these delicacies, since you use the catch directly in the fishing nets, which are usually also destroyed.

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For fishermen this represents huge losses. “Each fisherman loses about 450 euros ($ 530) a year,” says Ekin Akoglu, a marine biologist at Odtü University in Ankara. He adds that it is a huge loss, considering that the average monthly income from artisanal fishing is approximately 340 euros.

Akoglu explains that although the puffer fish only has four teeth, it has a very strong bite, and it is not uncommon to find bitten hooks in its stomach. This species is native to the Red Sea and entered the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal, inaugurated in 1869.

As it has hardly any predators in the Mediterranean, it has been able to spread without being disturbed. Global warming and the increase in temperature in the Mediterranean have also facilitated the spread of this fish, which is not only a nuisance for fishermen, but also destroys the ecosystem of the sea due to the abundance of specimens. The fishermen directly kill the caught puffer fish and return them to the sea.

The puffer fish can measure more than a meter and weigh up to seven kilos. However, the specimens that Balta and her colleagues capture usually measure between 30 and 40 centimeters. A fisherman from the cooperative refers to his personal record: about three years ago he caught a nine-kilo puffer fish.

The puffer fish swells its stomach with water when it feels threatened. In this way it not only appears larger but also does not enter the mouth of potential enemies.

By presidential decree, the Turkish government has declared war on puffer fish. You will pay five lira (about 58 cents) for each Lagocephalus sceleratus puffer fish that fishermen deliver at designated points, and half a lira for other less common puffer fish species. Similar measures have been implemented previously, but for a limited time and not for all species of these toxic fish.

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The fish can also be dangerous to humans, as demonstrated in 2109 when a nine-year-old girl from the southern province of Mersin lost part of a finger after being bitten by a specimen of this species.

“The fish is not aggressive in itself, but it is a wild animal that defends itself when it feels attacked,” Akoglu details. Younger fish especially prefer to stay on sandy bottoms and are therefore often found on frequented beaches as well.

Akoglu does not believe that the puffer fish threatens tourism in Turkey. However, incidents like the one in 2019 could be more frequent if this species continues to spread. The closer to the Suez Canal, the denser the population. “So it is not just a problem for Turkish fishermen, it is a problem for many Mediterranean countries,” warns the marine biologist.

Balta and the other fishermen believe that, for now, the Turkish government’s move makes sense and that the sum of money is also appropriate.

On the other hand, the fisherman says that he has several ideas about what could be done with the fish. “Sure you can make knives with your teeth or use the poison to produce medicine. But there are also enterprises that make bags with the skin of fish,” he says. Finally, he emphasizes that he has devised a special capture system for puffer fish.