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How a Country of Fishermen Lost Its Favorite Fish

Turkey's mackerel used to be Turkish—but now they're Norwegian. A case study in the rise of the global seafood economy.

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On one side is the Ottoman-era Suleymaniye mosque, on the other the iconic Galata Tower. Waiters in Ottoman costume dart back and forth, handing out cups of sour pickles. The smell of grilled fish wafts through the tent, past the low tables; it is being cooked on the boats nearby. Biting into a balik ekmek, a sandwich of oily mackerel filet, chopped onions, and lettuce piled on half a loaf of crusty white bread (the name means "fish bread"), it feels as though there could be no more authentic Istanbul experience than eating this sandwich and watching the boats in the harbor.

Not quite. Although fishing lines dangle over the side of the nearby Galata Bridge, the mackerel arrived in Turkey on a container ship from Norway. Like cod in the Gulf of Maine or tuna off Japan's coasts, the mackerel in the waters of the Black Sea, which borders Turkey to the north, are overfished.

This challenges the whole idea of food tourism. Regional specialties might feel authentically local, but much of the time they are truly global.

About 15 years ago, local mackerel became too expensive and almost impossible to find, says Mehmet Asik, gesturing toward the blue crates stacked with filets behind him. Asik has been making and selling balik ekmek next to the Galata Bridge for 35 years. Dressed in gold-lace-trimmed Ottoman pants, he stands by the rocking ship from which his team of seven or eight men grills mackerel filets and explains how things have changed during his tenure as a balik ekmek vendor: He has a nicer boat, he switched from a charcoal grill to a gas one (because of Turkey's attempts to meet EU health regulations), and he switched from local to Norwegian mackerel, as did everyone else.

That change in Asik's sourcing habits exemplifies the new reality of the worldwide seafood economy, in which sushi in Tokyo is often made with tuna from the Mediterranean and Maryland crab restaurants serve crustaceans from Alaska. As Sarah Elton noted on this site last year, lamenting the tapas of Indonesian shrimp she found in Barcelona, this challenges the whole idea of food tourism. Regional specialties might feel authentically local, but much of the time they are truly global.

With the Black Sea to the north, the Mediterranean to the south, and the Sea of Marmara just south of Istanbul, Turkey was once famous for its fishing resources. Consequently, Istanbul is a seafood lover's paradise. Fish and mezze restaurants dominate the dining scene and outdoor markets selling turbot and red mullet make for fun shopping and beautiful photo opportunities. But overfishing has drastically reduced stocks in Turkey's water, even as appetites for seafood have remained high.

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Max Strasser is a journalist who recently moved from Istanbul to Cairo, where he is the news editor at the English edition of Al-Masry Al-Youm.

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