Early in 2004, the Azores, an autonomous region of Portugal, took the Council of the European Union to the European Court of Justice in an attempt to annul that part of the Western Waters Regulation which in 2004 opened Azorean waters to fleets of other EU Member States. The Western Waters Regulation, a regulation under the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), contains little in the way of environmental considerations and contrasts sharply with the more environmentally-friendly fisheries management regime that it replaced.In a ground-breaking development, Seas At Risk, WWF and Greenpeace applied and were granted leave to intervene in support of the Azores. The hearing on the case will take place on the 14th June 2007. If the Azores are successful with their environmental arguments, an important legal precedent could be set for the integration of environmental requirements into the CFP.

Early in 2004, the Azores, an autonomous region of Portugal, took the Council of the European Union to the European Court of Justice in an attempt to annul that part of the Western Waters Regulation which in 2004 opened Azorean waters to fleets of other EU Member States. The Western Waters Regulation, a regulation under the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), contains little in the way of environmental considerations and contrasts sharply with the more environmentally-friendly fisheries management regime that it replaced.In a ground-breaking development, Seas At Risk, WWF and Greenpeace applied and were granted leave to intervene in support of the Azores. The hearing on the case will take place on the 14th June 2007. If the Azores are successful with their environmental arguments, an important legal precedent could be set for the integration of environmental requirements into the CFP.

The Azores is the most isolated archipelago in the North-East Atlantic and forms part of the volcanic mid-ocean ridge. The waters surrounding the Azores are very deep and contain numerous vulnerable habitats including hydrothermal vents and seamounts, which function as biodiversity hotspots.

The accession agreement that brought Portugal into the European Community included temporary provisions that allowed the Azorean government to maintain a great deal of control over fisheries management, and access to Azorean waters continued to be limited to local and some mainland Portuguese vessels. In recognition of its unique marine environment, the Azorean government, in close collaboration with Azorean scientists and fishers, introduced various measures to ensure the sustainability of the region’s fisheries and dependent local communities. The Azorean regime complemented a trawl ban, based on effort limitation, introduced by the EC.

This special arrangement came to an end in 2004 when the Western Waters Regulation granted fleets of other EU Member States access to Azorean waters between 100 and 200 nautical miles from the coast from 1st August 2004. Unfortunately this Regulation only addresses fishing effort and does not include any measures aimed at dealing with the environmental impact of fisheries on the vulnerable and unique Azorean marine environment. The trawl ban that had existed prior to the Western Waters Regulation was removed as a result of the Regulation, and a new ban was only put in place after a gap of several months, and following a campaign by Seas At Risk and WWF. Surface long-lining for swordfish in Azorean waters has increased substantially since the Western Waters Agreement, creating concerns about increased by-catch of species such as loggerhead turtles, a species for which the Azorean waters are an important habitat.

When the Council adopted the Western Waters Regulation it completely ignored the environmental protection that was already in place, and failed to provide alternative protection for the Azores’ unique marine environment. Azorean waters were opened to the fleets of other EU member States, and protection measures, such as a trawling ban, were regarded as something separate that could be initiated later if need be. This kind of approach runs contrary to obligations contained in the EC Treaty to integrate environmental protection requirements into the CFP; it also runs against the objective of the CFP to progressively implement an ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management. The legal action taken by the Azores is thus not only about the protection of Azorean fish stocks and the communities that rely on them, but also about the wider issue of the integration of environmental considerations into the CFP and indeed into EU policies generally.

Joint Seas At Risk/WWF factsheet on the Azorean fisheries (15/7/03).

"Western Waters Regulation" (4/11/03).

Council regulation banning trawling around the Azores (20/9/05).

Trawling ban map (20/9/05).