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Environmental Justice in the Azores

Originally appears in the Spring 2011 issue

A semi-autonomous region of Portugal, the Azores consists of nine small volcanic islands in the Atlantic Ocean, midway between Newfoundland and Lisbon. Around 240,000 people call the Azores home, and the population varies with intermittent currents of travellers, departing emigrants and returning retirees. For centuries, sailors, pirates, aircraft, fishing vessels, resident and migrating whales have stopped by. Fish dominates the cuisine; whale watching has taken over from whaling and the waters splash with divers, surfers, spear-fishers, kayakers and bathers. Could there be a better place for knowing the sea?

Seascapes of our imagination

From the smallest island of Corvo (6.5mi2/17km2) to the largest of São Miguel (288mi2/747km2), there are few places from which you cannot see the ocean. Long fishing poles sprout from rocky outcrops, and are sported on the shoulders of men carrying buckets of their catch of chicharro. It’s easy to imagine eager youth running to pull in the lines of fish with their fathers. But this vision is largely fiction. Like their cousins living in America, many Azoreans have no direct experience with fishing for a living or knowledge of the former whaling. Today, only a few communities fish and even though farmers can easily see the fishing boats while milking their cows, few non-fishing locals know much about the lives of their sea-going neighbours.

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Alison Neilson lives on Terceira Island, and is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of the Azores and the coordinator of RCE Açores. Information about her research on perspectives of the sea can be read on She has taught environmental education in Canadian universities and around the world.