Greenpeace, Seas At Risk and WWF are disappointed with today’s decision by the European Court of First Instance not to protect the waters of the Azores from a significant increase in commercial fishing.

The region supports a diverse range of marine life, including turtles, sharks, whales and dolphins and deep-sea corals, and is especially vulnerable to intensive fishing activities like trawling and longlining. The Court has ruled in favour of a 2003 decision by the Council of Ministers to open one of Europe’s best preserved deep-sea environments to the fishing fleets of all EU member states. Previously these waters were only fished by vessels from the Azores and few from mainland Portugal.

Greenpeace, Seas At Risk and WWF are disappointed with today’s decision by the European Court of First Instance not to protect the waters of the Azores from a significant increase in commercial fishing.

The region supports a diverse range of marine life, including turtles, sharks, whales and dolphins and deep-sea corals, and is especially vulnerable to intensive fishing activities like trawling and longlining. The Court has ruled in favour of a 2003 decision by the Council of Ministers to open one of Europe’s best preserved deep-sea environments to the fishing fleets of all EU member states. Previously these waters were only fished by vessels from the Azores and few from mainland Portugal.

The three environmental organisations have been intervening in support of a case brought to the European Court by the Portuguese Autonomous Region of the Azores. The latter asked the Court to overturn a Council decision that provides open access to one of Europe’s last deep-sea wildernesses, without at the same time limiting their activities and use of fishing gear.

The people of the Azores have used small vessels and traditional fishing methods for generations without endangering fish stocks or the environment. Their more sustainable fisheries are now threatened by large-scale competition. Spanish longliners, licensed to fish in Azorean waters, for example, have increased from zero to at least 140 vessels in only 2 years.

The environmental NGOs are deeply disappointed that the Court has decided that the case brought by the Azores is inadmissible. The consequence is that the Azores’ unique marine life remains vulnerable to increasing fishing pressure.

The three environmental organisations are concerned that the 2003 decision to grant access to the EU’s large fishing fleets has led to a detrimental increase in fishing. While the Council of Ministers banned bottom trawl fisheries around the Azores in 2004, longliners, which target swordfish, dramatically increased since 2003. This fishing method is known to have a significant problem with accidental catches of turtles and sharks. Since 2003, several thousand loggerhead turtles, which rely on the Azores' waters as their feeding and nursery grounds, have been killed by EU vessels and increasing fishing pressure will further exacerbate this problem.

The Court’s ruling has primarily considered legal and not ecological aspects. It is therefore crucial that Spain and any other EU member states that have vessels fishing in the area make an immediate assessment of how their individual fisheries impact on ocean ecosystems around the Azores. Unless they can prove that no negative impact occurs, EU member states should prohibit their vessels from fishing in these waters.

On 23rd of June, the Council of Ministers adopted rules that will apply to bottom fisheries in certain deep-sea areas on the high seas. These require vessels to carry observers and Member States to perform impact assessments before authorising any fishing activities in such deep-sea areas. While these rules do not cover the waters of the Azores, similar rules should also be adopted and applied to vessels fishing in the deep-sea waters of the Azores.

For more information on the ruling and the unique marine environment of the Azores see the "Notes for Editors" annexed to the joint-NGO response below.

Joint Greenpeace, SAR and WWF response to Court ruling (1/7/08).