How can IMMAs be used?

IMMAs are defined as ‘discrete portions of habitat, important to marine mammal species, that have the potential to be delineated and managed for conservation’. As such, they are not marine protected areas (MPAs) with any legal or regulatory status. However, they are areas for which an international community of scientists have assessed a credible body of evidence to demonstrate the importance of the habitat for critical life functions of marine mammals. It should be noted that IMMAs are meant to identify the habitat of a given species, not the presence of the species itself: if a migratory marine mammal abandons an IMMA on a seasonal basis, the validity of that IMMAs remains unchanged because the habitat remains.

So how can IMMAs be used on a practical level to promote the conservation of marine mammals and their habitats, as well as wider biodiversity considerations? Here we list a few ways in which different stakeholders, ranging from government bodies to industry stakeholders, non-governmental organisations, researchers or coastal communities can use IMMAs in their planning and activities, including in cooperation with the IMMA Secretariat and the Task Force Regional Coordinators.

Government agencies can:

  • Ensure that extra precautions are taken for any activities occurring in IMMAs recognising that they are the location of important marine mammal habitat (this should include conducting thorough environmental impact assessments by experts with recognised knowledge of marine mammal ecology and conservation needs);
  • Design and implement monitoring programmes for the IMMAs, making sure that they are not degraded by ship traffic, fishing, industrial activities;
  • Ensure that IMMAs are utilised along with IBAs and other species layers in marine spatial planning and ocean zoning activities within the EEZ in their jurisdiction;
  • Consider IMMAs in their waters for designation as marine protected areas;
  • Assist in supplying funding for all of the above and for research and monitoring;
  • Give special attention to IMMAs, including the above provisions, that are in the high seas adjacent to their country’s EEZ or fall under regional initiatives to which it is party; and
  • Recognising that the governments of Germany and France have funded the identification of IMMAs over more than one third of the ocean, consider coming forward to help fund identification of IMMAs, with the critical guidance and support of IMMA Secretariat/ IUCN MMPA Task Force.

Industry stakeholders can:

  • Use IMMA spatial layers to determine where their activities may overlap with important marine mammal habitat;
  • If the activities cannot be displaced, take appropriate precautions to avoid negative impacts to marine mammal populations in IMMAs, by, for example following best practice guidelines to mitigate the impacts of underwater noise on cetaceans , reduce the risk of ship strikes, reduce the risk of fisheries bycatch, as well as the potentially cumulative impacts of multiple activities;
  • Consider funding research and monitoring of marine mammal populations in areas where they operate to contribute to science and conservation, and ensure that any impacts of operations on marine mammals are noted early and can be mitigated immediately; and
  • Ensure that all developments undertaken within or immediately adjacent to IMMAs meet the International Finance Corporation (IFC) Performance Standard 6, recognizing the protection and conservation of biodiversity, maintaining ecosystem services, and that sustainably managing living natural resources are fundamental to sustainable development.

NGOs and research organisations can:

  • Monitor the planning and occurrence of human activities at sea within IMMAs, known to potentially have negative effects on marine mammals, and report appropriately to the conservation community;
  • Use IMMA boundaries to focus research and conservation efforts on areas that have been identified as hosting marine mammal populations;
  • Use IMMA boundaries for analyses of particular trends, threats, or activities in relation to marine mammal distribution (see here for example this project that analysed vessel traffic in IMMAs to assess the potential for threats from underwater noise, ship strike, and bycatch that could be associated with vessels);
  • Fund and implement monitoring programmes to document marine mammal distribution and abundance over time, and in relation to any activities taking place in the IMMA that may impact the population;
  • Raise awareness among local communities, the general public, and industry and government stakeholders about the importance of monitoring and protecting marine mammal populations in the IMMA; and
  • Use the IMMA network for further understanding the ecological coherence and connectivity of marine mammal habitats, and the impact that wide-scale human activity and climatic change can have on the IMMA network. In particular those transitory pathways, which connect migratory populations between their distinct life-cycle habitats, used for reproduction, foraging and rest.

Marine Protected Area (MPA) managers can:

  • Bring IMMAs into their “network” thinking, especially in terms of species; and
  • Use IMMAs in the course of management plan reviews as they may reveal the need to zone or extend the boundaries of a given MPA.

Local communities and the general public can:

  • Take pride in, and demonstrate local stewardship for marine mammal populations in their waters;
  • Inform themselves about planned activities in their local IMMAs that may impact marine mammals, and play an active role in stakeholder consultations; and
  • Consider conducting responsible tourism activities that focus on marine mammal populations hosted in local IMMAs.

The lists above are not exhaustive, and there are many other ways in which IMMAs can be used. It is also important to note that, while IMMAs serve as a valuable tool to guide human activities in the regions that have been assessed to date, not every part of the world’s oceans has been surveyed for marine mammals. As such, marine habitats outside of IMMAs, candidate IMMAs (cIMMAs) or Areas of Interest (AoI), may still be important for the long-term survival and well-being of marine mammals. Human activities taking place in marine environments everywhere around the world must be conducted responsibly.