Frequently asked questions concerning IMMAs

Basics on IMMAs

Q. What is the difference between an MPA and an IMMA?

A. IMMAs are NOT MPAs. An IMMA is an area identified as important for a marine mammal population. The purpose of identifying IMMAs is to attract the attention of policy- and decision-makers to the opportunity or need to ensure the favourable conservation status of marine mammals in that specific area through the implementation of the most appropriate management measures, and this can include an MPA designation. However, IMMAs per se are a knowledge product identified by science which is totally devoid of management implications.

Q. Which marine mammal species are covered?

A. All of the cetacean species comprising Cetartiodactyla; all species of Pinnipedia and Sirenia; and some species from the Mustelidae and Ursidae families, are being considered for IMMAs. For a list of marine mammal species see the list compiled by the Committee on Taxonomy of the Society for Marine Mammalogy)

Q. Can aquatic mammals living in non-marine environments also be included in an IMMA?

A. All aquatic mammal species, including those living in brackish and fresh waters, such as rivers and lakes, are covered by IMMAs.

Q. Is there a difference between global, regional and local IMMAs?

A. No. Unlike with Red List assessments, there is no geographic hierarchy of IMMAs. IMMAs are always identified on a regional basis, and accrue to the global repository as successive regional workshops produce results.

Q. Are IMMAs competing with IUCN’s KBAs as conservation tools?

A. No. IMMAs are not necessarily identified on the basis of quantitative thresholds like  KBAs; if necessary, it is possible to identify IMMAs with qualitative criteria, e.g., in the case of low-density marine mammal populations ranging over vast oceanic expanses. However, IMMAs that can be identified using KBA criteria can become KBAs for marine mammals. A statement jointly signed by the  IUCN Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force and the IUCN Biodiversity and Protected Areas Task Force provides the background for such integration of the two conservation tools.

Q. How will IMMAs support CBD EBSAs?

A.  EBSAs that were identified during workshops before 2016 that were organised by the  CBD were already relying on information about the presence of marine mammal habitat as supplied by the Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force. IMMAs identified by the Task Force on the basis of agreed criteria and peer-review will provide a more structured means of supporting future CBD effort in the identification of new EBSAs.

Identifying IMMAs

Q. What are the IMMA criteria?

A. The IMMA criteria can be viewed here.

Q. What is the process for IMMA identification?

A. Anyone can propose a potential IMMA by nominating and gathering background to create an area of interest (AoI). AoIs then go to the formal expert workshops for consideration where they may be proposed and become candidate IMMAs (cIMMAs). Some may not reach this stage and remain as proposals. cIMMAs will then go to an independent review panel who will either accept the cIMMA to become an IMMA, or send it back as a cIMMA or AoI, to be reconsidered later.

Q. How do you know where to place IMMA boundaries on a map?

A. Boundary identification can be difficult. Experts for the relevant species and region are called upon to help identify boundaries based on distribution, genetics, acoustics and other studies. In some cases, oceanographic features and other hydrographic data can be used to help define a boundary. National or other legal designations are not considered when selecting IMMA boundaries.

Q. What is the difference between “Areas of Interest (AoIs)”, “candidate IMMAs” and IMMAs proper?

A. Initially, the submission to the Task Force of “Areas of Interest” (AoI) in any particular region is broadly advertised and solicited within the scientific and conservation practitioners’ communities, and submissions are accepted from any person or institution. If they qualify based on criteria and robustness of data, AoI are then considered and elaborated as “candidate IMMAs” (cIMMAs) during regional expert workshops. Having undergone independent peer review after the regional workshop, if successful and if the criteria have been met, cIMMAs formally become IMMAs and are posted on a dedicated e-Atlas and searchable database. After review, a cIMMA that has not reached a sufficient level of robustness but only needs minor adjustments to become an IMMA (adjustments that can be made without resubmission to a successive workshop) maintains its status as a cIMMA and is shown as such on the e-Atlas; by contrast, cIMMAs that need substantial additional knowledge and a reassessment including new collective scrutiny through a workshop and review, are posted on the e-Atlas as AoI.

Q. Are IMMAs peer-reviewed?

A. Yes. Candidate IMMAs (cIMMAs) proposed at a workshop are reviewed by an independent panel to assess whether the cIMMAs qualify on the basis of the criteria, before becoming IMMAs and being added to the global repository.

Q. What data are used to identify IMMAs?

A. All available data on marine mammal distribution and habitat use are central to IMMA identification. Oceanographic and hydrographic data are considered too, as well as the various threats that may affect them.

Q. Once IMMAs are identified and filed, can they be changed?

A. Yes. It is envisaged that IMMA identification will be an iterative process, e.g., it would be advantageous to revisit each region to review and evaluate each IMMA, adjust boundaries as needed as well as to add potential new IMMAs. To address the concern that volatile environmental conditions including climate disruption, distributional changes in a population and improved ecological knowledge are likely to render original IMMA designations less useful and outdated, a region-based revision is built-in into the process which aims to recur every approximately 10 years.

Q. Why are some IMMAs small and others large?

A. Some marine mammal populations are very localized while others are spread over great distances.

Q. Can IMMAs be identified in the high seas?

A. Yes. Marine mammals ignore human political boundaries and many populations live in the high seas. Indeed, it is very important to be able to attract the decision-makers’ attention to the presence of important marine mammal habitat in areas beyond national jurisdiction, particularly in view of the agreement for the protection of high seas biodiversity currently negotiated within the United Nations framework.

Q. How can new information on existing IMMAs be considered for inclusion and added to the database?

A. New information on existing IMMAs will be considered when the IMMAs in each region are reviewed periodically. It will be possible to nominate AoIs at any time but, under the present scheme, new IMMA information that might lead to boundary changes or other changes can only be considered at formal regional workshops, and added to the database after approval by the independent Panel.

Q. If data for a region is poor, how can we proceed with identifying IMMAs?

A. In data poor regions, the assembled experts for that region will need to take difficult decisions on how and where to identify IMMAs. It may be that a data gap analysis reveals the need for specific research that can be stimulated by the expert assessments and recommendations from the workshops.

Q. When will it be possible to adjust the borders of individual IMMAs based on new or additional data?

A. IMMA identification, as noted above, will be an iterative process, but the decisions on the adjustment of borders for individual IMMAs can come only during the review process, although in situations with certain critically endangered species, a special review may be made, as determined the IUCN Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force.

Q. I’m a marine mammal biologist with data. Can I nominate an IMMA in my study area? How can I help?

A. Anyone can identify Areas of Interest (AoIs) to be submitted to the Task Force and examined during a regional workshop, but only the regional workshops can identify cIMMAs on the basis of AoIs. Only after having been reviewed by the Panel can cIMMAs be considered IMMAs.

Q. I’m a student; how can I get involved in the Task Force and the IMMA work?

A. As noted above, anyone can identify Areas of Interest (AoIs) to be submitted to a regional workshop. The success of your submission will depend on how well supported it is by the evidence from data. To get involved in Task Force work, please contact the Task Force chairs.

Using IMMAs

Q. Do IMMAs have any legal standing?

A. No. There is no legal standing for an IMMA per se. There is only legal standing if it is part of an MPA or other legal designation for that area.

Q. How can information on individual IMMAs be accessed?

A. The Task Force website marinemammalhabitat.org will hold the directory of existing IMMAs, along with maps that will be made public.

Q. Is every IMMA a proposal for an MPA?

A. No. Some IMMAs are already part of  MPAs. Other IMMAs will never become MPAs but it will still be useful to know the distribution and to be able to monitor population changes. IMMAs are essentially a data layer for an individual marine mammal species or population.

Q. Have IMMAs been used for conservation purposes?

A. Yes. Soon after the first IMMAs appeared on the Task Force e-Atlas in mid 2017, they began to be adopted into international conservation policy. At its 12th Conference of the Parties in Manila in 2017, the Convention on Migratory Species adopted a Resolution (12.13) endorsing the IMMA criteria and process, requesting Parties and inviting Range States to identify specific areas where the identification of IMMAs could be beneficial. Furthermore, IMMAs have gone on to contribute with increasing significance to the work of the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity in promoting its ecological or biological significant areas (EBSA) programme, and have supported the identification of IUCN key biodiversity areas (KBAs) based on the global KBA standard. IMMAs have also been identified by the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission as relevant test cases to address the threat to cetaceans derived by collisions with marine traffic, and considered by the U.S. Navy as Offshore Biologically Important Areas relevant to the mitigation of disturbance and mortality by sonar testing. In meetings with the Task Force, the International Maritime Organisation has expressed interest in helping to create speed restrictions and traffic separation schemes (TSS) in IMMAs with marine mammal populations sensitive to noise or facing the risk of collisions.

Despite IMMAs having been on the world map only since 2017, their buy-in by a diverse array of stakeholders has been encouraging. Up to early 2020, the Task Force has received 78 requests for IMMA shapefiles and metadata. Although such requests are not proof of use per se, they are an indicator of potential conservation action. Requestors were 35% from university or academia, 22% from non-governmental organisations, 20% from industry or business, 18% from government, and 5% from inter-governmental organisations. Furthermore, although 26% of requests were for research, 18% for commercial, and 15% for educational purposes, most of them (41%) had a declared explicitly for conservation purpose.  Of course, the other purposes, including education, research and commercial may also have some conservation benefit.

Q. How can IMMAs be used to inform the description of EBSAs under the CBD?

A. It envisaged that IMMAs will support the  CBD EBSA process as it will continue in the future by contributing peer-reviewed spatial information relevant to the identification of EBSAs.

Q. Can IMMAs become KBAs (IUCN’s Key Biodiversity Areas)?

A. Yes. IMMAs that can be identified on the basis of quantitative criteria (thresholds) consistent with  KBAs’ criteria can also become KBAs and go to accrue IUCN’s KBA repository.

Q. Can IMMAs be used to inform bycatch management?

A. Yes. IMMAs can show areas where certain marine mammal species are found and this can be compared to data showing the location and extent of bycatch.

Q. How can IMMAs inform fisheries management?

A. IMMAs can show areas where certain marine mammal species are found and this can be compared to data showing the location and extent of fishing operations, including catch data.

Q. Should IMMAs become no-take zones for fisheries?

A. No, not necessarily, but in some cases IMMAs may help to provide further evidence of areas that would benefit from no-take. It would be necessary to look not only at IMMAs but at other data sets to make a no-take zone proposal.

Q. What is the ultimate goal for IMMAs over the next decade? In ideal world, how do you see them developing and functioning in global marine conservation?

A. We hope that IMMAs, through the regional workshop process, will be able to serve as tools for conservation and monitoring. This will happen through the existing channels of CBD EBSAs, IUCN KBAs, as well as various national and international (high seas) MPA processes. IMMAs will be valuable for marine spatial planning (MSP) which many countries have signed up to. IMMAs will also be valuable for monitoring the health of marine mammal populations in the face of ocean acidification, overfishing and climate change. We hope that national agencies will use the tool not only for the conservation of marine mammal species, but for the habitats for which they serve as umbrella species. Thus IMMAs will be essential tools to help conserve biodiversity. With the UN deliberations on the high seas over the next few years, we hope that IMMAs will be able to step into a much wider role throughout the world ocean.