Uma Breve História Natural do Goraz dos Açores
A Brief Natural History of the Azorean Goraz
Publication Concept Design & Text: Les Gallagher - Oceanic® © 2016 Illustration: Fishpics® & IMAR-DOP, UAç © 2016
ARTIGO EM PROGRESSO! - ARTICLE IN PROGRESS!
Goraz - an amazing and beautiful species that have flourished in huge populations around the Azores since the Islands first came into existence some 8 million years ago. Goraz have graced the tables of Azorean homes for generations, they have provided unthinkable profits for the region and have provided income that has sustained many thousands of families.
These beautiful fish have provided the most valuable natural resource and harvest the Azores have ever known with highest annual catch valued at 20,000,000€ ?? and the highest ever commercial market price having peaked at 40.00€ ?? per kilo.
The Azorean coastlines and banks were once teaming with abundant populations of large adult fish much to the delight and admiration of the fishermen who were lucky enough to see such an extensive and precious bounty at that time.
But times have changed - annual catches are falling, protection measures have been insufficient and the usual indicators tell us that we are closer to a collapse of sustainable populations of the once plentiful goraz.
Our observations now show us clearly that Azorean goraz have already been depleted to none sustainable levels in the vast majority of the traditional fishing areas. According to numerous fisheries biologists and numerous fishermen, the possibility of an ecological disaster is closer to becoming an undeniable reality - a disaster that is already having a devastating and far reaching impact upon the local fishery sector and the local economy.
But the collapse of sustainable levels of Azorean goraz populations will not only be a regional disaster, but also a historic and global disaster in that goraz stocks in other areas of the Atlantic and Mediterranean have already been devastated by overfishing and have not recovered despite considerable efforts by fishery mangers to re-populate the areas. Goraz in the Azores may well become known as having been the last of the once sustainable populations of goraz in the world.
What went wrong?
During the 1990's and with new investments possibilities, the regional fishing fleet targeting Goraz was expanded considerably. Both the number and the average size of the vessels increased as did the effectiveness of each vessel. More hooks were being set with less crew and more accurately with new electronic equipment than ever before. During the decade of 1990 to 2000, the annual catch of Goraz was worth an average of 10,000,000€ ?? per year to the region of the Azores. We should remember that this is a relative value based on the local commercial fish market price and that approximately 80% of Goraz caught in the Azores is exported and generally doubles or occasionally triples in price before it reaches the end consumer. Like this we can imagine that the final consumer value of Azorean Goraz has been in excess of 20,000,000€ per year.
By the mid 1990's the first signs of overfishing were becoming apparent. Catches started to fall in areas subject to the highest fishing effort and most notably in the Eastern group of the Azores. First off the coast os S. Miguel and then as fishermen began to fish further from their usual grounds, also around Santa Maria. Vessels needed to travel further from their local port to maintain their catch rate and years later it was the central group that was showing signs of decline.
During recent years, it is for the most part only the remote areas within the region that had previously been subject to less fishing effort that could yield good catches of large adult fish, but now even catches in these areas are declining. Overfishing has now reached all known areas within the Azores and although miracles can happen, we have no reliable indication or evidence that these populations can ever recover.
One of the last areas to yield good catches of adult goraz has been the "Bancos Gigante" located about half way between Faial and Flores and Corvo. During the last 5 years and despite their remote location, this relatively small fishing ground had been the primary destination for regional boats unable too make a profitable catch in other areas. Even these few small banks, once a remote sanctuary that had been holding aggregations of adult goraz capable of reproducing a good supply larvae for possible recruitment in other areas, in just a few years of intensive fishing has now seen a considerable decline in catches.
So what is being done?
Without going into the details of stock assessment there is one simple graph that can show us where the azorean goraz stocks are heading during the last years.
(Graph showing annual catch and quotas)
Quota's are intended to protect a stock from overfishing by limiting the annual catch, but if the fishery cannot catch even enough to fill the quota, then a quota simply cannot be protecting the stock. This has been the case in the azores for 5 consecutive years from 2009 to 2014? The quotas applied during this period have been totally ineffective.
2. Minimum size and closed seasons
The implementation of minimum size restrictions for goraz caught in the azores since 20XX? seem to have had some impact in slowing the downward trend of the average size of fish caught, but it is doubtful that these measures will alone be sufficient for a recuperation of a good robust stock with a large percentage of the larger female fish that are necessary for an effective spawning and successful recruitment of larvae.
(Graph showing average size of goraz)
Goraz tend to aggregate in shallower water in order to spawn from January to April. During this time the schools are more easily targeted by commercial fisherman and unfortunately this is also when the capture of adult fish laden with eggs has the biggest impact on their sustainability of the stocks. Currently a closed season is in force for the 2.5 month period from January 15 to March 28
3. No-take zones
The closure of the Condor seamount to demersal fishing in 2011? has yielded interesting results ........?? with the average size of the fish sampled having increased by xxxcm over a period of 6 years ??? Closed fishing areas. However the recuperation of a stock is a slow process - Goraz if protected are estimated to have a population doubling time of 14 years. Like this we can understand that if a population was reduced to 10% , it might take 45 years to get it back to 80% of what it was before. Sadly, judging by observations made 30 years ago in the Azores current stocks may be a lot less than 10% of what they where before the expansion of the fishery.
Although the numbers continue to tumble around the Azores and time is running out for Goraz, a more pro-active response from regional policy makers may be considered difficult for a number of reasons:
So many families have become dependant on Goraz fishing during the last decades with minimal alternatives to make a living and especially now, during very difficult economic times.
As can be expected, the further enforcement of fishing restrictions to protect goraz is highly frictional for local decision makers with unavoidable criticism and anger coming from the fishermen and the fisheries sector. The socio-economic impact is considerable within an island region and close knit society like we have in the Azores.
Fishermen and their syndicates will argue that the catches are cyclical and decision makers are tempted to wait and let the scenario play out over a longer period to soften the impacts instead of opting for a more pro-active and harsh implementation of precautionary measures. But such waiting tactics have been the demise of so many of great great fish populations in countless other areas - The story repeats itself time and time again - fish populations that have flourished for hundreds of thousands of years are depleted in just a couple of decades.
Given the declining numbers, not taking a more pro-active immediate response represents a huge risk for the species and for the region. Many of our best fisheries experts are telling us that they believe a collapse of Goraz stocks is already occurring with any possible recovery being near impossible to predict with any degree of reliability. Overfishing in the Azores may well have already have depleted the last of the sustainable populations of Goraz worldwide, a difficult fact to swallow, for a region that projects sustainability and despite having the knowledge of the lessons previously learned by other fisheries exploiting the same species.
Goraz populations have undoubtedly flourished in the Azores since well before the Islands first appeared some 8,000,000 years ago and to converse with any of the older local fishermen, it easy to understand that even just 30 years ago 2 men in small artisanal boat fishing with handlines anywhere close to the coasts could expect to catch 4-500 kilos of large adult goraz per day. The schools of adult fish were prolific. Juvenile Goraz known as carapau could be seen in huge numbers in the shallow waters along the coastlines and in the ports - an obvious indicator and promise of a future continuation of the adult stocks.
Now and in just 20 years since the expansion of the regional fleet, the extensive schools of adult fish and notably the larger females an are gone from the coastlines and seamounts close to the ports where they were once so plentiful. Juvenile carapau are rarely seen in substantial numbers from the shore. Until the larger female goraz return, it is highly probable that we will continue watching both a regional ecological disaster and historical disaster for the species unfold before our very eyes.