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Mapping of Marine Biodiversity at Marine Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) in the Azores

Frederico Cardigos & Fernando Tempera
Departamento de Oceanografia e Pescas da Universidade dos Açores, Horta


Figure 1. Dusky grouper in Corvo Island voluntary marine protected area (J Fontes - ImagDOP)

The Azores archipelago consists of nine islands scattered along 600km of the northern part of the Mid Atlantic Ridge. The Department of Oceanography and Fisheries of the University of the Azores (DOP/UAç) has been working since 1976 in order to understand the processes that control the marine ecosystems around the islands. European efforts aiming at nature conservation recently provided resources to develop new projects related to the management of sites included in the Natura 2000 network (e.g. EU - LIFE- Nature B4-3200/98/509: MARÉ -

There are seventeen marine areas classified as Sites of Community Importance in the Azores. IMAR-DOP/UAç put forward projects to develop management schemes for six of them. Background for this work was research undertake on the sites in previous years (see Santos et al., 1995 for review). Each of the selected sites has special features that have contributed for its primary choice: isolation and wilderness (Formigas bank), particular social context (Corvo island), unique environment (D. João de Castro bank) and proximity to research facilities (Monte da Guia, Baixa do Sul and Madalena islets). Along with a series of other Azorean sites, the ones mentioned above are now designated as BIOMARE Sites.

Work in the Faial-Pico channel

The channel between the islands of Faial and Pico contains a series of designated areas (Monte da Guia, Baixa do Sul and Madalena islets) and is located very close to IMAR-DOP/UAç. These areas are used as primary sites where the scientific techniques are put together, tested and, eventually, implemented. Until now, the work developed included mainly the visual estimation of abundance and diversity of benthic and fish assemblages by SCUBA diving, intertidal surveys and hand-seine netting in sheltered bays.

These efforts have resulted in the definition of biotopes and mapping of their distribution. Parallel work allowed the definition of basic models for algal species abundance as a function of physical parameters such as depth, wave exposure and bottom slope. These models are now being entered as basic variables in the Geographic Information System of specific sites around Faial and the consistency of the prediction provided by these models and the observed distributions will be subject to further discussion and refinement (Tempera et al., 2001c).

Together with an analysis of the socio-economical context of the SACs, this research formed the basis for preliminary management plans that will now be subject to public hearing (Tempera et al., 2001d).

Future work includes the use of underwater technologies such as Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV), Autonomous Surface Vehicles (ASV), Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) (Pascoal et al., 2000) and eco-sounding systems (such as CHIRP and BOOMER) (for details please see Project MAROV web page to explore habitats not easily accessible to SCUBA divers.

Management results in Corvo Island

Figure 2 - Algae and Pseudolepidaplois scrofa at Dollabarat reef (F Cardigos - ImagDOP)

Corvo Island, the smallest island of the archipelago with only 17 km2 and a population barely exceeding 400 inhabitants, has provided the setting for a case where the protection of the environment was an unexpected side effect of successive scientific missions closely scrutinized by the local community. The scientific work developed in Corvo Island extended for several years and allowed the scientific team to understand and describe the habitats around the island. At the same time, informal talks, articles published in popular magazines and TV news reports on the local environment made the common citizen more aware of the need to protect the environment. The bound established is expected to result in a higher commitment and more successful implementation of the set of management measures developed in close cooperation with the local population.

These efforts have inclusively resulted in transformations of the economic activities. A group of young entrepreneurs have changed their exploitative perspective on marine living resources into a more environmental-friendly one. They renounced spearfishing and started a SCUBA-diving company. Together with the fishermen community and scientists, the new tourism company established voluntary rules to protect an area known to hold big dusky groupers (Epinephelus marginatus), a feature that is already uncommon on the other islands and very attractive to scuba divers (Figure 1) (Tempera et al., 2002a and b).

Action on Formigas Bank

The Formigas offshore bank (which comprehends both the shallow rocky bottoms around the Formigas islets and the Dollabarat reef) is located between the islands of São Miguel and Santa Maria.

The scientific missions in this area allowed scientists to recognize it as a pristine area with a high value for conservation (Figure 2). New laws are being created in order to protect this area as Marine Reserve. The novelty of this new status is of great interest to the Azorean politicians who see this as a chance of promoting conservation values in the marine environment, which is after all the main feature of the Azores. The over-exploitation of neighbouring banks and coasts subject to strong fisheries reinforces the importance of the protection of this complex which might serve as the last source of recruits (Tempera et al., 2001a and 2001b).

D. João de Castro Bank - a sleeping volcano

Figure 3 - Species assemblages at D. João de Castro Bank (L Sebastião - ISR and Grupo E)

In 1720 an underwater eruption gave birth to an ephemeral island, right between São Miguel and Terceira islands. After three years, the island disappeared, but a shallow water area with hydrothermal activity remained until today. In order to understand the consequences of this natural process for the ecosystem around it, detailed ecological cartography of the area has been developed. Besides bacterial mats not yet thoroughly identified, no new species were found, but more than 150 species have already been identified in this area. Mapping of the most interesting species allowed us to draw three main conclusions: 1. despite the presence of chemo-synthetic bacterial mats on the bank, there are no food chains based on these bacteria; 2. there are some influences of the vents in the species distribution in the shallow water area (Ávila et al., submitted); 3. despite the absence of new records of species for the Azores at the bank, there are some distinct species assemblages (Figure 3).

The current trend for exploring this area is to go deeper in search of other hydrothermal vent areas, which would represent the intermediate between shallow water and the well-known deep-sea vents.

Future Trends

Biodiversity mapping is a basic tool for managing and protecting the marine environment properly. The use of Geographic Information Systems is one of the current trends in ecology studies (Wright, 1999). Using this tool, it will be possible to easily visualize information, modify it instantly, superimpose and model some basic interference. The need to use GIS in the Azores has been increasing as a consequence of works such as those mentioned above which gather large sets of geo-referenced data.

Another future trend is the development and introduction of tools to explore deeper areas and, as a result, a better understanding of the ecosystem as a whole.


Ávila, S.P., F. Cardigos and R.S. Santos (submitted). Marine molluscs from "Banco D. João de Castro", a shallow water hydrothermal-vent in the Azores: studying vent influence in the ecosystem.

Pascoal, A., P. Oliveira, C. Silvestre, L. Sebastião, M. Rufino, V. Barroso, J. Gomes, G. Ayela, P. Coince, M. Cardew, A. Ryan, H. Braithwaite, N. Cardew, J. Trepte, N. Seube, J. Champeau, P. Dhaussy, V. Sauce, R. Moitié, R. Santos, F. Cardigos, M. Brussieux, P. Dando 2000. Robotic Ocean Vehicles for Marine Science Applications: the European ASIMOV Project. Presented at OCEANS'2000.

Santos, R.S., S.J. Hawkins, L.R. Monteiro, M. Alves & E.J. Isidro. 1995. Marine Research, Resources and Conservation in the Azores. Aquatic Conservation: Freshwater and Marine Ecosystems, Vol. 5, No. 4:311-354.

Tempera, F., P. Afonso, T. Gomes & R. Santos. 2001a. Comunidades Biológicas do Sítio de Interesse Comunitário Ilhéus das Formigas e Recife Dollabarat. Departamento de Oceanografia e Pescas da Universidade dos Açores, Horta. Arquivos do DOP. Série Relatórios Internos, nº 3/2001, iii+43 pp.

Tempera, F., P. Afonso, T. Gomes & R. Santos. 2001b. Proposta Técnico-Científica para Ordenamento do Sítio de Interesse Comunitário Ilhéus das Formigas e Recife Dollabarat. Departamento de Oceanografia e Pescas da Universidade dos Açores, Horta. Arquivos do DOP. Série Relatórios Internos, nº 4/2001, v+17 pp.

Tempera, F., P. Afonso, T. Morato, R. Prieto, M. Silva, A. Cruz, J. Gonçalves & R. Serrão Santos. 2001c. Comunidades Biológicas dos Sítios de Interesse Comunitário do Canal Faial-Pico. Departamento de Oceanografia e Pescas da Universidade dos Açores, Horta. Arquivos DOP. Série Relatórios Internos, nº5/2001, viii+76p

Tempera, F., P. Afonso, T. Morato, S. Gubbay, T. Dentinho, M. Silva, R. Prieto, F. Cardigos, M.J. Pitta & R. Serrão Santos. 2001d. Proposta Técnico-Científica de Ordenamento dos Sítios de Interesse Comunitário do Canal Faial-Pico. Departamento de Oceanografia e Pescas da Universidade dos Açores, Horta. Arquivos do DOP. Série Relatórios Internos, nº8/2001, viii+76p.

Tempera, F., P. Afonso, T. Morato & R. Serrão Santos. 2002 a. Comunidades Biológicas da Envolvente Marinha do Corvo. Departamento de Oceanografia e Pescas da Universidade dos Açores, Horta. Arquivos do DOP. Série Relatórios Internos, nº 1/2002, iv+52 pp.

Tempera, F., F. Cardigos, P. Afonso, T. Morato, M. J. Pitta, S. Gubbay & R. Serrão Santos. 2002 b. Proposta Técnico-Científica de Gestão da Envolvente Marinha do Corvo. Departamento de Oceanografia e Pescas da Universidade dos Açores, Horta. Arquivos do DOP. Série Relatórios Internos, nº 2/2001, vi+57 pp.

Wright, D.J. 1999. Down to the sea in ships: the emergency of marine GIS. Marine and Coastal Geographic Information Systems, Pp 1-10.

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