The rich seafloor topography of the Azores supports diverse deep-sea habitats such as hydrothermal vents, cold-water coral gardens, sponge aggregations of wide ecological importance. Several areas of the Azores fit the FAO criteria for defining Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems (VME) while others may be considered priority habitats in need of protection under other conventions or regulations. However, the Azores seas are already under increased anthropogenic pressures affecting the environmental status of benthic deep-sea habitats and species.
Area-based management has been widely advocated as an effective instrument for protecting and preserving the marine environment while enabling the sustainable use of marine resources. Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), including fisheries closures, may help to achieve multiple ecosystem-based management objectives such as the conservation of habitats and services, increased fisheries yield, and increased tourism, recreational, and educational opportunities.
The deep-sea ecosystems of the Azores are currently protected under the Azores Marine Park with the overall objective to protect and restore biodiversity and habitats, particularly in the deep sea. This Marine Park is composed of 16 MPAs covering an area of about 136,00 km2 both within and partially beyond the Portuguese EEZ. Recently, the Regional Government of the Azores signed a memorandum of understanding under the Blue Azores program with the ultimate goal of declaring 15% of the Exclusive Economic Zone of the Azores as new marine protected areas.
The implementation of such network of closed areas may have very different short-, medium- and long-term outcomes depending on the extent, design, and location of such closures. Therefore, the Azores research team used systematic conservation planning tools to develop multiple fisheries closures scenarios to inform the selection of priority areas for management and conservation. The SCP for the deep-waters of the Azores was guided by a set of general principles, goals, objectives, and design criteria that determined the nature and characteristics of the scenarios developed, and the criteria, decisions and choices adopted. Additionally, we used spatial ecosystem-based modelling tools (Ecopath, Ecosim and Ecospace) to forecast the ecosystem effects of implementing different scenarios.
The systematic conservation planning for the deep-water of the Azores, suggested the prioritisation outputs are highly dependent on the goals and objectives adopted. It also highlighted that the prioritisation outputs, but also the performance assessment and the forecasted ecosystem outcomes depend on the range of conservation features, conservation targets, cost model, boundary penalties, and constraints adopted. In general terms, besides the important areas locked-in the solutions (e.g. known VMEs), the resulting network of priority areas is spread throughout the whole EEZ, with a better representativity in most scenarios with low and medium sizes priority areas. Preliminary results also showed that the implementation of fisheries closures alone may have limited positive effects on commercially important fisheries stocks and potential detrimental effects in some stocks. The results therefore suggest that the reallocation of fishing effort to new grounds can lead to local decreases of the fish stocks. Our results suggest that the implementation of closed areas should be accompanied with proportional reductions of fishing effort.
It should be highlighted that, although there has been large of number of scientific research in recent years that substantially increased scientific knowledge in the Azores, there still exist some fundamental knowledge gaps hampering the proper development of systematic conservation planning approaches aimed at informing the development of policies that promote the sustainable use of deep sea natural resources.
Article and images by Telmo Morato, Okeanos Research Institute, University of Azores