Important Marine Mammal Areas (IMMAs) are defined as discrete portions of habitat, important to marine mammal species, that have the potential to be delineated and managed for conservation. IMMAs consist of areas that may merit place-based protection and/or monitoring. ‘Important’ in the context of the IMMA classification refers to any perceivable value, which extends to the marine mammals within the IMMA, to improve the conservation status of those species or populations.
The creation of a network of IMMAs represents a cost-effective approach to conservation. The rationale for developing IMMAs includes:
(1) the specific vulnerability of many marine mammals,
(2) the fact that marine mammals have been overlooked by many national efforts to create MPAs,
(3) the role of marine mammals as indicators to support the identification of MPAs and spatial protection measures, because they are more easily monitored than most other pelagic vertebrates,
(4) the role of marine mammals as umbrella species which helps ensure that a properly designed conservation plan will be beneficial to the broader ecosystem, and
(5) the role of marine mammals as flagship species representing powerful political and public levers for the conservation of less popular or well-known organisms, communities or habitats.
The intention is that the identification of IMMAs through a consistent expert process, independent of any political and socio-economic concerns, will provide valuable input of marine mammals into existing national and international conservation tools with respect to marine protected areas, including Ecologically or Biologically Significant Areas (EBSAs) under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) identified through the IUCN Standard (Weaver and Johnson, 2014; IUCN, 2016). The IMMA process should also assist in providing strategic direction and priorities to the development of spatially explicit marine mammal conservation measures. However, it is realised that the conservation purposes and ultimate uses of IMMAs will vary in both spatial extent and political scale and that area-based management tools will ultimately also take into account political and socio-economic issues. IMMAs can also become an effective way of building institutional capacity at the international and national levels to make substantial contributions to the global marine conservation agenda. Marine mammals are indicators of ocean ecosystem health and thus will support existing EBSA and KBA designations as a basis for promoting environmental protection and developing management plans for specific areas in the world’s oceans.
The objective of an independent, expert-based, IMMA process is to provide advice on marine mammal conservation priorities in an area-based context to assist in national and international conservation efforts including the identification of KBAs and EBSAs. This will be of interest to marine mammal scientists, conservationists, MPA managers and spatial planners. It will assist in the development of consistent priority areas for conservation (PAC) or area-based management tools (ABMT). It is recognised that not all identified IMMAs will necessarily be granted ‘full’ protection. In short, marine mammals are, catalytic species. Thus, knowledge of areas that are important for them will facilitate the balancing of human uses of the sea with the imperative of conserving marine biodiversity. By pointing to the presence of marine areas of particular ecological value, IMMAs will serve the function of promoting the conservation of a much wider spectrum of species, biodiversity and ecosystems, well beyond the specific scope of conserving marine mammals.
The IMMA process will provide valuable assistance for:
➢ informing the design and management of Marine Mammal Protected Areas (MMPAs) and protected area networks, as well as determining gaps in the protection of marine mammals in existing networks;
➢ addressing marine mammal conservation concerns through the collation and distribution of information layers within the context of marine spatial planning;
➢ bringing marine mammal considerations into the selection procedures of MPAs and MPA networks in national and regional processes, the selection identification of EBSAs under the CBD, and of KBAs through the IUCN standard;
➢ supporting the negotiation of legally binding instruments under UNCLOS regarding protection of biodiversity in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction;
➢ prioritizing areas where guidelines or regulations are needed by sectoral management bodies, e.g. in reference to the risk of oil spills, ship strikes, marine mammal bycatch, or effects of underwater noise;
➢ identifying areas that are potentially useful for monitoring the effects of climate change on marine mammal biology, behaviour, and habitat; and
➢ training Regional IMMA Expert Groups in common methods of best practice for the future identification and implementation of IMMAs.
Since 2016 the MMPATF has been identifying Important Marine Mammal Areas using standard criteria in six marine regions, through the organisation of regional expert workshops. To discover more on the process for identifying IMMAs please follow this link, to see the Task Force’s progress please see the current IMMA Summary or use the IMMA e-Atlas.