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