Sustainable fisheries are possible. The Azores can show the way (by Juan Vilata)

The Azores are a remote archipelago tucked away in the middle of the North Atlantic. In fact, the 9 islands can be considered (with Iceland’s permission) the very summits of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Once believed to be the remnants of the legendary continent of Atlantis, their geologic reality might be less esoteric, but it is amazing nevertheless: they are located right in the triple junction of the North-American, the African and the Eurasian tectonic plates. In fact, the islands’ rugged emerged surface is only the tip of a stunning underwater topography, which figures plenty of seamounts and shallow banks. In turn, this marine geodiversity harbours a wide array of vulnerable marine ecosystems (VMEs), such as sponge grounds and hydrothermal vents. New species are continuously being discovered there.

The Azores were completely uninhabited until the 15th century, when the first permanent settlers arrived from Portugal. This means that Azorean biodiversity (both terrestrial and marine) was free from human interference up to relatively recent historical times, comparable to other remote archipelagos, such as Hawaii (settled by Polynesians in the early 13th century) or New Zealand (towards the end of the 13th century). Hence, the Azores could be deemed the Hawaii of the Atlantic.

The islands have remained Portuguese since the 1400s, although they enjoy an autonomous government since the 1970s; this autonomy enables the Azores to manage its own fisheries (although it is bounded to the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy).  Being so remote, the Azoreans (açorianos in Portuguese) were practically left to their own means. In the not so remote past, several waves of Azorean migrants had to leave their islands looking elsewhere for better prospects. The Azorean diaspora reached as far as Hawaii, and nowadays there are still sizable populations of Azorean descent in Canada, California and New England.

One thing the Azoreans were historically well known for was their craft as fishers and whalers. Thus, they were frequently employed as crew members of the whaling fleets during the peak of the industry. In fact, the Azorean whaling industry -which targeted sperm whales, Physeter macrocephalus– reached well into the 1980s. Fortunately, nowadays the whaling factories have become museums, and the islands have engaged into a much wiser strategy:  they are now one of the world’s prime destinations for whale- and dolphin-watching. Due to the mixture of subtropical and cold-temperate waters, the Azorean sea boasts a remarkable diversity of cetaceans: over 20 species can be regularly found there, and more have been spotted occasionally. Besides the iconic sperm whales, the Azores are also a hotspot for a group of poorly known but fascinating species, the beaked whales (Fam. Ziphiidae). The Azorean society’s smart evolution from whale-hunting to whale-watching ecotourism proves that the relationship of mankind with the marine ecosystem does not need to be destructive.

Crucially, the Azores have banned harmful bottom trawling fisheries from their waters. Instead, local artisanal or semi-artisanal fisheries using much more selective gears (such as pole and line for tuna or handlines for demersal fish) are encouraged. An incipient network of natural parks and marine protected areas is being implemented, although it is not problem-free (insufficient funding and delayed management plans are not unknown).

Summing up, the Azores is ahead of many countries in Europe regarding its precautionary approach to fisheries: Fishery-independent surveys are performed to assess the stock status of most target species; there are thorough fisheries observer programs monitoring the fisheries and their level of compliance; destructive fishing gears such as bottom trawling are strictly forbidden within the EEZ; all landings are registered in public auction houses; there are hook size limits, and several area closures by vessel size and gear type are in place; minimum landing sizes are also in force for a some species; and a network of MPAs is being implemented. Thus the Azores are certainly taking steps towards enabling a real, not-just-theoretical ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management. All in all, they have quite a lot to teach in terms of sustainable management of marine resources.


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