Protecting Waves in the Azores: Where Are We Now?

From hosting youth engagement workshops at schools to attending high-level interregional governmental meetings and international conferences, our team has seriously been making waves in the Azores.

Save The Waves (STW) has completed the first steps of the Surf Protected Area Network (SPANs) process for the Azores region including the creation of specific tools necessary for surf ecosystem conservation, building a coalition with surf communities, NGOs and government stakeholders, and participating in the ongoing Marine Spatial Planning process for the Azores archipelago. 

During the last group meetings in Graciosa, Santa Maria and São Jorge, there was a strong, unanimous sentiment around the room: the urgency to protect the surf ecosystems.

With the summer high season just around the corner, local surfers are considering how the islands are changing and how to best protect coastal habitats and waves.  Last year, popular beaches like Praia de Santa Bárbara on San Miguel saw record numbers of visitors that often put community services and businesses such as lifeguards, surf schools and tourist infrastructure at capacity. 

In recent months, STW has made significant strides in supporting community needs and aspirations for beaches that are managed well, protect biodiversity, and ensure a thriving surf community and culture.  Through regional meetings, ongoing workshops, and strong local partnerships, the work to protect surf ecosystems and design a sustainable surf economy into the future is well underway.

In the last three months alone, our fearless onsite coordinator, Andre Avelar, has attended seven regional meetings across the islands and three webinars addressing conservation and tourism. In these meetings, Avelar was able to share and collaborate on the Coalition’s goals to protect the waves while supporting the local community.

“Right now we are in a good position with the government. We have demonstrated our capacity to unite the surfing community and offer tools for wave protection such as  Surfonomics, the Surf Conservation Index, Regional Profile and other scientific studies to base policy decisions.  In the end, our work makes a convincing argument for sustainability incorporating tourism, culture, and our Azorean identity in this beautiful archipelago,” Avelar said.

One recent meeting of representatives and officials from multiple Azorean islands in March marked an especially critical milestone in the efforts to protect Azores’ surf ecosystems. All attendees of the meetings in Santa Maria showed overwhelming support to protect Praia Formosa. “Santa Maria was the first island to be discovered in the Azores and now could be the first to have a surf spot 100 percent protected. This is huge!” Andre said.

Continuous engagement with the government and local partners has helped strengthen our ongoing efforts to protect the island’s surf breaks. During two meetings with Blue Azores, a conservation partnership between the Waitt Institute, Oceano Azul and the government, and other representatives of the regional government of the Azores, Avelar helped outline the goals of the Surf Protected Area Network and how oftentimes waves overlap with areas of high biodiversity. Primarily, the meetings prompted discussion on different strategies for coastal policy and ideas for working together in protecting these critical surf zones.  

Along with conservation of surf ecosystems, another key focus in recent months has been sustainable tourism, particularly surf tourism. 

Over the last two years, Save The Waves has developed significant partnerships with the local surf community, surf schools, and surf associations to understand their needs and aspirations. Ensuring collaboration between local surf associations and the government has been instrumental in building trust and a common vision for surf tourism development.

In one meeting this fall, the sustainability coordinator of the Azores Destination Management Organization (DMO), Carolina Mendoça,  discussed the communities’ concerns regarding growing tourism. “We’re concerned about how much tourism each island can support,” she said. 

Save The Waves conducts research on the sustainability of surf tourism for the Azores Surfonomics study.

To better understand the impacts of surf tourism on the economy in the Azores and its potential as a development strategy, STW completed a scoping analysis of the surf economy or “surfonomics” report.

Completed in December of 2022, the report shares key information and data on surf travel and tourism value, the risks (social and environmental) of tourism, and most importantly, the opportunities that surf tourism presents in financially supporting Surf Protected Areas.  As the islands of the Azorean archipelago differ greatly in coastal habitats, tourism infrastructure, culture, and other factors, recommendations are given for how each island can approach surf tourism differently in line with their different attributes and development strategies. This study offered some potential solutions to navigating DMO’s concerns.

For instance, through community-based responses and comparative case studies, the report found that qualitative-based tourism, rather than quantitative tourism could be a beneficial solution for maintaining surf tourism in a Surf Protected Area without jeopardizing the number of people a beach could sustain. The Azores could essentially support high-quality surf tourism experiences at a higher price, allowing local revenue generation and less crowded surf breaks.

The report also noted the value of hosting local and inter-regional surf competitions for youth. This not only brings revenue to local businesses but also is a fun way to highlight and support local talent.  These events and competitions also foster connection between Azoreans and honor surf culture and history, a key component and goal of the Surf Protected Area Network program.    

Through two years of developing partnerships on the ground, Save The Waves and the collaboration with Save Azores Waves has become a platform and rallying cry for the local surfing community on the islands. There is support and positivity around creating Surf Protected Areas from all the various communities, agencies, and organizations we work with. 

Looking to the future, in May of 2023 Terceira will host the second ever Surf Film Festival. There will be workshops, cleanups, and of course, some incredible movie screenings!  The ongoing Marine Spatial Planning process will continue and with the momentum we have built on the ground, we are confident that critical surf ecosystems will be protected under new conservation management strategies that will be part of the final plan.

Watch: Protecting Azorean Waves

Surfing in the Azores brings me back to the foundations of what is so magnetic about the sport. Unique and biodiverse surf ecosystems that harbor so much life and power and showcase the raw beauty of nature.

João de Macedo


Meet The Coalition : André & Daniela

André Vasconcelos Avelar

Azores Protected Areas Coordinator

Azorean; MBA – Master in Business Management; degree in Cardiopneumology; medical emergency trainer; manager in nautical sports clubs for over 20 years; President of the Surf Association of Terceira Island – Azores; and imperfect environmentalist.

“The ocean was my playground because I always lived next to the sea, practicing canoeing, bodyboarding, surfing and fishing, so I learned to preserve and respect it, because in my family there was always a consciousness to preserve our greatest wealth that allowed our survival in these islands. My greatest dream is the preservation of nature, the bio diversity and the waves in the Azores Archipelago, contributing to the sustainability of our planet, ensuring a future for humanity ” The sea is what unites us.”

Daniela Laborinho Schwartz

Azores Conservation Fellow

Daniela is a recent UC Santa Barbara graduate, majoring in Environmental Studies and minoring in Journalism and Portuguese. Growing up along the coast of Nazare, Portugal and in San Francisco, California prompted her to find a way to intersect her interests in ocean conservation and multiculturalism in her future endeavors.

In June of 2022, she attended the UN Ocean Conference as a youth delegate and met the STW team. Since then she’s joined the STW Azores as a Conservation Fellow to help develop their Surf Protected Areas Network on the Azores through her past experience with project management, conservation, and her local portuguese knowledge.When she’s not helping to protect waves she’s probably surfing waves or exploring anything outdoors.

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