Turkish engineer turns puffer fish into handbags

The poisonous rabbit pufferfish is considered an epidemic in the Mediterranean. It destroys fishing nets and eats its way through the stocks undisturbed. A resourceful engineer is approaching him now – in the truest sense of the word.

Mehmet Ozata spreads colorful fish skins on a small table near the port of Alanya in southern Turkey. Red, blue, yellow and gray. A Turkish engineer offers what he believes is a solution to a disaster: a skin made from puffer fish, a nuisance not only in Turkish waters.

Inflating a hare’s head has become a real nuisance

The rabbit-head puffer fish in particular is widespread throughout the Mediterranean. He eats his way through local stocks – and he clearly has a good palate. Pufferfish benefit from squid, crabs, and shrimp in fishing nets in particular. Often left behind destroyed nets and fishing hooks. It is estimated that it causes a loss of between two and five million euros for Turkish fishermen every year.

The fish came from the Indian and Pacific Oceans with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and is able to spread well in the Mediterranean because it has no predators. Global warming and warming in the Mediterranean also meant that fish were able to reproduce better. It is not commercially fished. Blowfish is poisonous. Tetrodotoxin, which it carries in the liver, paralyzes muscles and can sometimes be fatal to humans. The closer to the Suez Canal, the denser the population. Therefore, Turkish fishermen share the problem with many Mediterranean countries.

The government pays 12.5 TL per fin

The Turkish government is also trying to do something to counter the situation and is offering bonuses on different types of puffer fish for a few years. There is currently 12.5 TL per fin of puffer fish – that’s about 70 euro cents per sample. Fisherman Mehmet Gökmen, who has been casting his net off Alanya for 40 years, finds very little. The work is not worth it. The economic crisis in Turkey and the associated increase in the cost of living and energy are also affecting fishermen.

Ekin Akoglu, a marine biologist at Odtu University in Ankara, criticizes the reward system. In Cyprus, for example, a similar incentive system has been in place for over ten years, with much higher premiums per fish. However, nothing has changed in the proportion of puffer fish in the catch, Akoğlu says.

Ozata’s idea: Why not make money from fish?

There is no reliable estimate of the total fish population in the Mediterranean. But once such an invasion has occurred, it is nearly impossible to reverse, he says. So the marine biologist believes that there can only be two solutions to the plague: either a natural predator appears, as in the past with other epidemics – or there is a way to commercialize puffer fishing. Fish poison can be used for pharmaceutical purposes. Or you’re chasing after your skin, like Engineer Ozata.

Ever since he heard about a girl in 2019 who had her finger amputated after being bitten by a puffer fish in the sea off Mersin, Ozata wanted to help solve the plague. The skin of the already treated fish has been subjected to many tests in the laboratory. The leather has good properties. In dangerous situations, the fish swells to several times its body size and forms a thickened bladder in the lower body. A cow can’t do that, Ozata says, which makes the puffer’s skin noticeably more resistant. So far he has turned them into wallets and bags. The bag needs about seven fish, which are pulled out of the water with an average length of 30 cm.

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He gets the skins from fishermen like Gökmen, and always pays a little more than state premiums. Gökmen himself says that with three assistants he can catch about 100 puffer fish per hour. For 20 years, he’s been pulling the puffer fish out of the water involuntarily, says the 55-year-old.

A major buyer of puffer skin products has not yet been found, but there are contacts with the Russian and Arab markets, says Ozata. (m / dpa)

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