Rising from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, the volcanic islands of the Azores Archipelago mark the meeting point of three different continental plates. The rugged seamounts, dramatic topography, and deep ocean here has created an oasis for magnificent marine fauna - prompting recognition as a Hope Spot by international ocean conservation nonprofit, Mission Blue.
Hope Spots are special places that have been identified as critical to the health of the ocean but require new or increased protection to maintain their significance. Mission Blue’s move to designate the Azores as a Hope Spot will support the region’s existing network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), which extend from the surface of the sea all the way down to the deep seafloor.
The Azores Archipelago straddles the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, with deep ocean basins to the west and east, while seamounts act as stepping stones allowing the movement of fauna from the Mediterranean Sea, Madeira, the Canaries, and Africa to reach the centre of the North Atlantic. Due to this remote location, the extent of the Azores’ biodiversity is yet to be fully understood. But scientists do know that the region is home to several species of cetaceans, nesting seabirds, sea turtles, hundreds of species of fish and algae, and a few thousand invertebrates. Plus, many endemic species call the archipelago home, including the Monteiro’s storm petrel, cold-water corals, and the blue wrasse.
Unfortunately, like many marine ecosystems, the Azores Archipelago is under pressure from human activities including fishing, coastal development, maritime transport, underwater noise, and marine litter.
Azores Hope Spot Champion, Christopher Pham, said, “The inclusion of the Azores as a Hope Spot is a significant step in our mission to promote the protection of this unique place.” Pham specialises in deep-sea ecosystems and plastic pollution within his role as a research associate at the Okeanos research centre of the University of the Azores.
The Azores’ first marine protected areas were created in the 1980s and were small, inadequately resourced, and dispersed. But, through effective collaboration between the government, the university, and locals, more and more areas in the Azores have come under diligent protection. In 2019, the regional government announced the Blue Azores program, in partnership with the Oceano Azul Foundation and the Waitt Institute, that will lead to the declaration of 15% of the Azorean Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) as new no-take marine reserves. New MPA management plans and Marine Spatial Planning policies are both also being implemented.
The ground-up approach to protecting the Azores has not only worked to preserve the archipelago’s fragile marine life, but has also set an example on the global stage - demonstrating the actions necessary to protect the ocean and those who depend on it.
“I am very proud of the recognition of the Azores as a Hope Spot by Mission Blue. A Hope Spot means a commitment to go further on marine conservation policy to ensure a sustainable future,” said Ricardo Serrão Santos, Minister of the Sea of Portugal, who has dedicated more than 30 years of his career to the research and conservation of oceanic ecosystems.
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