Fifty shades of glittery gray
As of Jan. 31, “Hamsin” days have started. This is the period that lasts for 50 days, the last lot of the winter days before spring comes. “Hamsin” comes from the Arabic word for 50, and, according to the folk calendar, the days before equinox are shortly named as such. This is also the best time for fish in Istanbul and the Marmara and Black seas, especially the famed Black Sea anchovy hamsi. As understood, the fish gets its name from those 50 days when it is considered the peak season.
There is a saying that hamsi will only be at its tastiest if it gets snow in its ears, that is the gills. The chilling cold waters make the fish fatter, hence tastier. The period just before the 50 hamsin days are supposed to be the coldest of the year, snow struck, and freezing cold, before the weather and the seas start warming up. In folk calendar these are the days of Erbain (again coming from Arabic, meaning 40). Of course, with the global climate change, these specific periods no longer appear to be same as in the past. The previous 40 days of Erbain starting with the winter solstice should have been deadly cold. That freezing period is what supposedly makes hamsi develop its true flavor. But this year, after the brief snowfall, the weather got warmer again swiftly, so the expected chilling shock did not happen.
Normally, hamsi is by far the most consumed fish in Turkey during this period. Anchovy aficionados can well eat hamsi for 50 consequent days, not getting short of recipes even if they intend to serve it differently each single day. However, this year it is different. The countdown of 50 days to the spring equinox, glistening with hamsi-laden tables, won’t be possible. But here, we are not talking about the taste that is lacking due to global warming, but it is the lack of the actual fish. The Agriculture and Forestry Ministry imposed a fishing ban on hamsi early January, firstly as a 10-day ban until Jan. 18, and then extended it due to end-January, and it is now postponed for another week, until Feb. 7. The announced reason for the fishing ban was because the fish did not reach its ideal 9 cm size, not being able to get fat and big enough, or mature enough, a situation blamed on the weather conditions.
Another reason behind the imposed ban was the drastic decrease in population. There has also been a hot debate on dolphins versus anchovies. Dolphins were accused of the drop in the hamsi fish stock, some big scale fisheries claiming that a dolphin consumes 70 kilos of hamsi daily, and advocating to lift the ban on dolphin hunting. When I heard about such a claim, I wondered about the market value of dolphins, probably planned to be sold elsewhere, as dolphins are not on the fish menu in Turkey. In line with the fisheries act and international treaties, dolphins have been under protection since 1983 in Turkey. Obviously, it is ridiculous to blame the dolphins for the decrease in fish stocks, as the real threat comes from the über-greedy large-scale fish hunters. Dolphins are part of the marine ecosystem, comparing what they consume for their sustenance is incomparable to the harm given by a single 40-meter fishing boat that can catch 50-60 tons of hamsi at a time. Together with climate change, it is primarily the humans that are bringing the end to marine life, this fact is clear.
There is a custom in Black Sea cities, normally, this time of the year, people go to the harbor very early in the morning to have their share from the night’s catch. In the days of plenty, they have a bucketful of fish just for free. This generous free fish is called the share for the eye. This year, apparently the share for the eye is not likely to happen, eyes will long for the glittery gray hamsi wobbling in fishing nets. Maybe it is time to skip one year, at least this year, to give the fish an opportunity to revive, in order to return to the days of plenty with buckets of eye-share, and 50 days of eating hamsi during the Hamsin days.