The silver-cheeked toadfish, a type of pufferfish, might only have four teeth, but it is terrorising Turkey’s fishing industry.
The fish have been multiplying in the Mediterranean for the past few years, despite a range of countermeasures. The Turkish government is determined not to lose the battle against the silver-cheeked toadfish – and it has introduced a bounty to keep the species in check.
Cengiz Balta is one of the many fishermen who struggle with the fish.
Balta has been fishing off the Turkish Mediterranean coast in the Gulf of Antalya for 35 years, just as his father and grandfather before him. He now heads a fishing cooperative in Antalya with around 100 members – and they have all spent several years catching the fish, whether they like it or not.
Balta sits on the side of a boat in the harbour, repairing nets with his colleagues. Five young pufferfish lie on the jetty, each the size of a man’s hand, now dry and stiffened from the hot sun.
“Even the seagulls don’t eat them,” Balta says, tossing the dead fish back into the harbour.
Every day, members of Balta’s cooperative catch some 100 pufferfish in the nets, even though they don’t want to. That number rises to 1,000 for the whole of Antalya.
The fish are no good to eat or sell, says Balta.
The trouble is that the silver-cheeked toadfish is poisonous due to tetrodotoxin contained in its skin, muscles and liver. That protects it from predators, including humans, so the fish are not sold commercially or served as food because they are toxic.
Meanwhile, the silver-cheeked toadfish is a hungry creature whose favourite foods include squid, crab, shrimp and octopus.
The fish does not hunt its food but tends to dig in to whatever has been caught in a fishing net, leaving the net torn and plundered.
All that spells losses for those who make their living from fishing.
“The damage per fisherman is the equivalent of US$531 (RM2,242) per year,” says Ekin Akoglu, a marine biologist at Odtu University in Ankara. That is a huge loss, given that those in small-scale fishing earn an average monthly income of some US$401 (RM1,700).
Part of the problem is that the silver-cheeked toadfish has a really strong bite, even with just a couple of teeth.
Open the stomach of the pufferfish and it is not uncommon to find bitten-off fish hooks, according to Akoglu.
The pufferfish originally comes from the warmer Red Sea but found its way to the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal, which opened in 1869. As it faces barely any predators in the Mediterranean, the fish has been able to multiply unchecked, a process further aided by global warming and the rising temperature in the Mediterranean.
The excessive numbers of the pufferfish are not only a nuisance for those fishing in the region, they are also destroying the ecosystem.
So far, fishermen have killed any of the unwanted fish they catch and thrown them back into the sea.
While the puffer fish can grow to be more than a metre long and weigh up to 7kg, those that Balta and his colleagues catch tend to measure around 30 to 40cm.
One fisherman and cooperative member says his personal record is a 9kg toadfish he caught about three years ago.
The name of the fish refers to the fact that when threatened, they puff up, creating a thick bladder on the lower body so they then not only appear larger to potential enemies, but are also harder to eat.
The government is now stepping up to the challenge by offering a bounty. Each fish caught can be exchanged for five lira (RM2.50), at stations established expressly for this purpose. Meanwhile, those catching and handing in other, less dangerous pufferfish species can claim half a lira (25sen).
The government has set up similar programmes in the past, though only for a limited period of time and not for all kinds of the fish.
The species is dangerous in other ways too, as a nine-year-old girl learned in 2019 when part of her finger was removed after she was bitten in the southern province of Mersin.
“The fish is not aggressive per se, but it is a wild animal that defends itself when it feels attacked,” says Akoglu.
The younger fish tend to stay on the sandy seabed, meaning they are often found at popular swimming areas.
The pufferfish aren’t a threat to tourism in Turkey, says Akoglu, though incidents like in 2019 could become more frequent if the pufferfish continues to propagate.
The fish population grows denser closer to the Suez Canal.
“So it’s not just a problem for Turkish fishermen, it’s a problem for many Mediterranean countries,” he says.
Balta and his colleagues approve of the government’s measure and the sum that is on offer.
He has plenty of ways the fish could be used too. “You can certainly make knives out of the teeth, use the poison to produce medicine,” he says. Meanwhile bags could be made out of its skin.
He has already come up with a special way to trap the fish. – dpa/Anne Pollmann