Yalçin Savas

Underwater Research Society / Mediterranean Seal Research Group

The Bodrum Peninsula can be counted among the regions in Turkey where coastal natural habitats have, to a great extent, been ruined. The main causes for habitat destruction in the region are excessive urbanisation (mainly by secondary summer houses), domestic pollution which increases in the summer season, and both illegal and legal fishing methods over sea grass meadows in shallow coastal waters. Alongside habitat destruction, extensive human activities resulting from increased tourism facilities causes disturbance to surviving populations of endangered mammal, bird and plant species – such as the monk seal Monachus monachus, Audouin's gull Larus audouinii, Eleonora's falcon Falco eleonorae and the sea lily Pancratium maritimum – on the remaining undeveloped coasts and islands.

The numerous islands of the Aegean and its mainland coasts provide habitat for the largest surviving population of M. monachus (Sergeant et al. 1978). The monk seal has survived here for thousands of years and, even today, the seal’s historical influence upon the cultures of the region can be detected in the many geographical landmarks that bear its name (Johnson & Lavigne 1999).

The Bodrum Peninsula from Karaada island.

Bodrum’s sub-peninsulas and off-lying islands that have so far escaped development have the typical characteristics of Mediterranean monk seal habitat, and continue to host a small population of the species.

Bodrum Peninsula

Bodrum Peninsula is situated on the southwest coast of Turkey, in the eastern Aegean. The Peninsula extends 42 km in the E-W direction and 6 km – 23.8 km in the N-S direction between the bays of Güllük and Gökova. Covering an area of 649 km2, its highest elevation is measured as 690m (Kantarci 1998). The Bodrum Peninsula is surrounded by 32 islands and islets (Savas et al. 1998, Karauz et al. 1998) and forms a 174 km long coastline (Güner & Girgin 1998).

Click on maps to enlarge

The town of Bodrum, which was famous in history under the name Halicarnassos, is the administrative centre of the Peninsula.

The rich natural diversity of the area is particularly noteworthy. On the Peninsula, 398 km2 out of 649 km2 (61.3 %) are covered by woodland and maquis, which are registered as "forest areas" (Kantarci 1998, Güner 1998). A recent ornithological study identified 147 bird species in the region, including Eleonora’s falcon and Audouin’s gull, and concluded that the Peninsula’s most important bird areas are the islands, and the forested coastal strip between Torba and Güvercinlik, on the northern coast (Karauz et al. 1998). In studies of flora, 168 taxon were identified on the Peninsula, with the number rising to about 1000 in the wider area. The reptiles living on the Peninsula are represented by 36 species (Baran 1994).

The monk seal, one of the best known wild species in the region, continues to survive within the archipelago and along some of the unspoiled coasts of the Peninsula. At least four different individuals have been identified in recent studies (Savas et al., 1998).

Once upon a time in Bodrum: Seals, sponges, tangerines...

The first record of the monk seal’s existence around the Bodrum Peninsula was provided by Ottoman naval officer and geographer Muhiddin Piri Reis in his book "Kitab-i Bahriye". In this guide to Mediterranean coasts and harbors, a cove on the western coast of the Peninsula is named as "Ayi Baligi Körfezi" (The Seal Bay) (Piri Reis 1519).

Since the late 1970s, various researchers have provided data on the monk seal’s status around the Peninsula (Berkes et al. 1978, Gungor 1981, Berkes 1982, Marchessaux 1987, Mursaloglu 1992, Öztürk 1995, Kirac & Veryeri 1996, Savas et al. 1998). All are agreed on a year-round presence of seals in the area, and have suggested population sizes ranging between 8 – 3.

The Bodrum Peninsula became Turkey’s center for sponge diving in the early 1930s – an activity that thrived for half a century (Yilmaz & Buhan 1998). During this period, sponge diving and citrus plantations – particularly the cultivation of tangerines – were the main economic interests of the region (Bodrumlu 1945). Small tirhandils (a traditional Aegean wooden boat, 8-10 meters long) would set sail in late spring, packed with divers, a couple of sacks of hardtack and a lot of hope for the new, 6-month sponging season. Some set a course to the north to the Dardanelles and the Sea of Marmara, while others headed south to the Turkish – Syrian border. With the light morning breeze coming down the hills of Bodrum through the lemon and tangerine plantations covering the coasts, the boats would head off into the Aegean, the old sponge divers looking earnestly over the surface of the sea. They believed that the first animal to be seen at the very beginning of the first journey of the first day of the new season, should be a "foça" (a monk seal), since this would bring better luck for safe dives and a profitable season.

Today, it is a rather different story. The coasts are now dominated by secondary summer houses and touristic investments, the tangerine plantations have shrunk into insignificant patches, the sponge fishery has collapsed, divers have turned to tourism for their livelihoods, and that symbol of good fortune, the monk seal, is becoming rarer and rarer, having been transformed into a pest by fishermen and fish farmers.

Metamorphosis – from sponge fishery to tourist centre...

Up until the early 1960s, Bodrum was virtually isolated from the rest of Turkey and retained its character as a small fishing town (Güner 1998). Then the writer Cevat Sakir Kabaagaçli, who settled in the town after completing his prison sentence in Bodrum Castle, began to publish stories about sponge divers, fishermen, captains, sailors, seals and the daily lives of the locals. The stories introduced an unknown facet of life to the intellectuals living in Turkey’s big cities and appealed to their sense of curiosity. Kabaagaçli and his intellectual friends, in order to enjoy the unspoiled nature of the region and its local culture, began to organize boat tours every summer to the countless coves and bays around the Bodrum Peninsula, such as Güllük and Gökova Bays. Lasting one or two weeks, these boat tours were called "Blue Voyages" by Kabaagaçli and his friends Years later they brought fame to Bodrum, establishing the region’s most popular tourism activity.

Bodrum was provided with a better connection to the rest of Turkey after the dirt road to Milas was paved in 1968 (Güner 1998), and soon began to develop fame as a summer holiday resort. In the early 1970s, Bodrum was described as one of the "First Degree Tourism Development Centers" by the government (Güner 1998).

In 1974, the town was declared a "Monument City". Law No.1710 was designed to protect its unique architecture and urban landscape. Strict rules were applied to new constructions and the numbers of flats in a building were limited to two. Because of these restrictions on city centre development, investors turned their attention towards rural areas, particularly the coasts. As a result, land prices soared 5-10 fold. The locals began to sell their fields and plantations and to invest in tourist pensions, hotels and boats (Güner 1998).

Historically, most of the settlements on the Peninsula had been established inland, a few kilometres away from the coast to avoid raids by Christian pirates from the Aegean islands. After the mid-1970s however, as a result of the region’s increasing popularity, the number of buildings and the population on the coastal strip surged. Tourism activities and investments continued to accelerate during the 1980s. The area also became an important employment centre, attracting manpower locally and from other Turkish cities. Consequently, the human population of the Peninsula increased considerably. Today, it is known that 43.3% of the residents were not born in the region (Güner & Girgin 1998).

The regulations limiting house apartment numbers to two caused both the older towns and new settlements to develop laterally, and to occupy larger areas. As a result, 13.4% of the Peninsula (86,96 km2 out of 649 km2) and most of the coasts were covered by buildings (Güner 1998). Over the years, the areas allocated for tourism investments and the areas occupied by secondary summer houses increased more than two fold, exceeding even the areas occupied by towns (towns: 21,82 km2; tourism investments and secondary houses: 23,87 km2; area allocated for new tourism investments: 21,11 km2) (Kantarci, 1998). The Bodrum Peninsula has become the second largest centre in Turkey – after Kusadasi – for secondary houses. The number of secondary houses has now reached 120,000, equalling 5 apartments or houses per resident in the area (Gürdal 1998).

The coasts of the Bodrum Peninsula are now dominated by secondary housing.

By the mid-1980s, Turkey was introduced to ‘diving tourism’ in Bodrum which, among sea-related touristic attractions, achieved a popularity second only to the ’blue voyage‘.

Since the end of 1970s in particular, tourism has dominated traditional economies and consequently, some sponge divers, captains and seamen switched their occupations to yacht tourism and related businesses. This trend was spurred on after 1986, when sponge stocks in the Mediterranean were hard hit by an epidemic, and the local sponge fishery lost its economic importance (Yilmaz & Buhan 1998).

Besides tourism, aquaculture was another new industry that began to develop in coastal waters in 1980s. Starting from Yalikavak, the northern coasts of Bodrum Peninsula and Güllük Bay became Turkey’s fish farming centre. After a number of years, the contribution of the aquaculture installations to the Turkish economy exceeded the income generated by tourism investments in the region (although it should be noted that the tourist sector is a major market for the aquaculture industry). The Bodrum Peninsula provides 19.5% of the total annual aquaculture products of Turkey (Kinacigil et al. 1998).

The monk seal’s fate...

While secondary houses and touristic facilities were developing along the coasts, the monk seal’s habitat on the Peninsula was also being occupied by humans. In recent years – except for some sub-peninsulas and islands – almost all the coasts of the Bodrum Peninsula have been developed or allocated as "tourism development areas". Even the "Seal Bay" of Piri Reis has been urbanised.

The importance of the islands around the Peninsula as monk seal habitat has been highlighted since the first studies in the 1970s (e.g. Berkes et al. 1978, Güngör 1981, Berkes 1982). Recent studies indicate that the Peninsula’s islands and sub-peninsulas, currently spared from coastal development, are the remaining habitats of the seals in the region, and survivability of the species is strictly dependent upon their preservation (Öztürk 1992, Öztürk 1995, Kiraç & Veryeri 1996, Savas et al. 1998). Of the 144 seal sighting records collected around the Bodrum Peninsula between 1990-1999 by SAD-AFAG, 62.5% originated from the islands and islets, while 24.3% originate from the nearby Küdür Peninsula (map). It may therefore be concluded that the islands and Bodrum Peninsula coasts not yet ruined by coastal development should be preserved to protect the monk seal and the other threatened and endangered species of the region.

Excessive coastal urbanisation is not the only problem faced by Bodrum’s seals. Human activities stemming from the presence of tourism facilities, which are concentrated on some coasts and islands, cause disturbance to wildlife and destroy the vulnerable vegetation of sandy beaches. Almost all the islands in the archipelago are used for diving or other tourism-related activities.

For the monk seal, it seems that one of the greatest problems is diving in and around the coastal caves on the south coast of Karaada Island. Though this practice was prohibited by the annual Fishery Circulars following an appeal by AFAG in 1991, some dive centres continue to take their customers into the caves used by the seals. Although recorded in off-season months, seal sightings in this area during the summer season are mostly nonexistent. One cave, at the north of Karaada Island, which was known for its monk seals in earlier times is currently exploited by tourism interests for its thermal spring. The cave lost its importance to the seals with the construction of a nearby hotel and the building of a pier at the entrance of the cave, which facilitated the mooring of tour boats and acted as a dam to retain the cave’s thermal waters.

Although they were believed to bring bad fortune if killed and good fortune if met on the sea, seals were sometimes killed in the past. And while seal hide and blubber were used as drugs in traditional medicine, seals were not subjected to commercial hunting, either in Bodrum or elsewhere along Turkey’s Aegean and Mediterranean coasts. Even today, old people can still be found on the Bodrum Peninsula who jealously conserve their small fragments of seal hide or their few drops of seal oil in order to treat an illness they describe as "foça" (seal) sickness (Kiraç & Veryeri 1996).

A male monk seal sighted at the Islands of Çavus and Kiremit off the Bodrum Peninsula.

Today, the risk of deliberate killing of the region’s seals may be higher than in the past. Small scale fishermen and aquaculture investors see the animal as a pest – although, despite rumours over the last seven years, AFAG has yet to gather any firm evidence that fish farmers have targeted seals.

While the competition between the seals and small scale fishermen may be thought natural, its intensity is often heightened when fish stocks are overexploited – a common phenomenon along Turkish coasts.

The fish-farm problem can be solved relatively easily by technical means, even if the operators of these facilities are a potentially greater threat to the seals than Turkey’s traditional fishermen. The most effective way to keep the seals out of the fish pens is a ‘predator’ or ‘protection’ net, strong enough to withstand attack by seals. The first reported incident of seals causing damage and fish losses to aquaculture installations occurred during the winter of 1992–1993 in Yalikavak, on the NW coast of the Bodrum Peninsula. Since then, such attacks have occurred every winter in different regions of Turkey. Fish-farm owners have hesitated to invest money in predator nets, even though the value of their fish is worth at least 40–50 times more than the cost of the nets. Instead, they prefer to use shotguns as seal-scaring acoustic harassment devices, which seems ineffective in most cases. Sooner or later, the seals attack the fish pens in search of food, liberating the fish in the process.

On the north coasts of the Bodrum Peninsula, aquaculture and tourism investors are fighting each other over control of the bays, with both groups claiming that their sector is the most important economically.

Attempts to change the fate of the Bodrum Peninsula

Over the years, some efforts were made to implement conservation measures in the area. In 1971, a "Long Term Development Plan for Halicarnassos Sea Shore National Park" was prepared by the Authority for National Parks in cooperation with the United States National Park Service and with the assistance of the United States Agency for International Development (OGM 1971). However, it appears that increasing property values in the region doomed the plan to failure. The best chance of saving the Bodrum Peninsula was lost forever.

The first monk seal protection zone in Turkey was established in 1990, on the western shores of Küdür Peninsula by the Municipality of Yalikavak, and was confirmed by the Ministry of Development.

During the 1990s, some of the islands and the sub-peninsulas were declared 1st Degree Natural Sites by the Turkish Ministry of Culture. Some of these areas were proposed by local NGOs and through civil initiatives. In late 1998, the entire Küdür Peninsula was declared a 1st Degree Natural Site and a "seal habitat" as a result of AFAG’s proposal and study reports.

Gündogan Peninsula on the northern coast and the adjacent islands (about 14,95 km2) were declared a "wildlife protection zone" in 1997 by the Turkish Ministry of Forestry (Karauz et al. 1998).

Construction of a summer holiday village on Karaada Island was prevented in 1990 by AFAG and local NGO pressure.

Following the establishment of the Turkish National Committee for the Monk Seal, a local seal committee was established in Yalikavak, a small village on the northwest coast of the Bodrum Peninsula, in 1993. A year later, the Turkish Ministry of Agriculture (as a result of the Committee’s recommendation) prohibited intensive fishing methods (trawls, seines, etc.) within 3 miles of the coast in the vicinity of Yalikavak and Gümüslük towns, including Kiremit and Çavus Islands (KKGM 1994).

Quo vadis?

The Bodrum Peninsula continues to attract people and to retain its property values. Tourism investors seek new building sites and, as a result, new secondary houses are constructed. Only the protected shores, the islands and the forest areas are left undeveloped, and these are increasingly appealing to the tourism industry. The most recent fashion in Turkey is the marina. Marina investors are continually looking for unspoiled coasts, and claim that a marina’s economic value is much greater than a seal’s or turtle’s. Küdür Peninsula was saved just in time from a marina construction when it was declared a 1st Degree Natural Site.

Bodrum is one of Turkey’s more extreme examples of nature – tourism interaction. There are many other places along Turkish coasts where the question "Development or conservation?" should be a subject for discussion. While some monk seal habitats on the Turkish Aegean and Mediterranean coasts have been provided with some form of official protection in recent years, illegal construction and other pressures on these sites remain a cause for concern. SAD-AFAG and other Turkish NGOs continue to monitor illegal activities, but it seems that a great effort is still required in order to establish more stable and properly managed coastal protected areas in Turkey.


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Copyright © 1999 Yalçin Savas, The Monachus Guardian. All Rights Reserved