The Istanbul Fishing Market

Where the used power tools and bathroom fixtures of Istanbul's Karaköy district bleed into the neighborhood's famed fish market, an interesting thing happens. The two types of goods - seafood and hardware - actually mix. How?
Welcome to the rusty, funny world of the Istanbul fishing market, where outboard motors and anchors sit in loose piles on the dockside, waders hang in shop windows and seagulls call overhead.
The Bosphorus has some of the best fishing in the world, though it's a strictly seasonal thing. Here's a primer. The straits connect two immense bodies of water, with very different ecologies: the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Every year, entire populations of fish migrate from one sea to the other, looking for warmer water in the Mediterranean winter and nutrient-rich, less salty feeding grounds in the Black Sea summers. The narrow banks of the Bosphorus, along which Istanbul crowds, are only about half a mile apart. So, each fall and spring, billions of fish pass right by the city - and the locals want to be ready with rod and net.
Right now it's anchovy and mackerel season. The black sea anchovies are much more like sardines than their less "grown up" mediterranean selves, and are big enough to catch with a hook. The mackerel are a local favorite. They provide the aroma along the wharfs and seaside squares, being grilled for balik ekmek.
Boats pull up along the waterfront near the fishing market, their captains stepping onshore for a bite to eat, a cup of tea or a spare part.
The men on their lunchbreaks who line the bridges and angle in the rocky shallows are only casual customers. Most shops in the fishing market sell heavier-duty wares, like thick cable and sixty-pound anchors. The street that lies along the heart of the district - Makaracılar Caddesi - bypasses the more crowded alleys selling Makita drills and wrenches, cutting down beneath a row of empty buildings that lines a muddy waterfront. The shops aren't too busy, the proprietors and customers seem more interested in their teacups than the boats in the water.
We had lunch in the district, at a narrow, two story fish "lokantesi" called Tarihi. Karaköy is famous for its small restaurants and the locals' food, and the places along the water can get busy at lunch. The fish market eateries attract most of the crowd, though, and there are some great spots hidden among the grittier parts of the waterfront. Tarihi is at the end of what seems like an alley. Inside, a man expertly grills fish kebabs and the mustachio'd waiter delivers piping hot bowls of balik corbasi, a soup thick with seafood and lentils, loaded with flavor.
The waters of the Bosphorus strait were famously rich for millennia. They are mentioned in the Iliad, they were well known as far away as Rome. Whole communities sprang up along the waterside in antiquity, with Istanbul's fishmarkets serving as the center for a distinctly nautical culture. In the old days, Tuna and Bonito were so plentiful in the estuary that it was named "the golden horn." Constantinople's wealth was built on the water.
But these days the Bosphorus isn't quite so bountiful. Many of the year-round species once found here have been killed off by overfishing, which has put more pressure on the seasonal harvests and fisheries that are further afield. The fishing industry in Turkey is very poorly managed, and much of the commercial catch that's brought into Istanbul is harvested illegally - shore trawling is a particular problem, apparently. The stock in the sea of Marmara has been severely depleted too, to the point that the industry's focus has shifted to the Black Sea, where competition with other countries is fiercer but there are still some fish to be caught. Trawling in the Bosphorus is regulated, but the rules aren't enforced.
And there would be no stopping the anglers that line the bridge. For some of them, it's an occupation. For many, it's tradition. Seafood is an important part of Istanbul's cuisine, and many people refuse to eat fish from anywhere else. This part of the culture is ongoing, for better or worse. At dusk, when the fish markets have been packed up and the stores are closing, the rods keep bobbing. Sardines are picked off the line and slid into buckets and jars, still flopping. At dawn, the call of the fishmongers begins, as men make their way through the streets with handcarts. Istanbul is still an aquatic city.
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3 comment for "The Istanbul Fishing Market"

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