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Where do whales, dolphins and other marine mammals live?

It’s a big ocean out there. We’re learning a lot about whales these days in nearshore waters but good information on where exactly they live in most of the ocean is in short supply. At the same time, a quarter of the 90 whale, dolphin and porpoise species are threatened and half are not well enough known even to classify them as threatened or not.

A new tool — Important Marine Mammal Areas, or IMMAs — aims to provide the best expert assessment of the location of special places in the ocean where whales, dolphins and other marine mammals feed, breed, socialize and raise their young.

The IMMA e-Atlas, a new online facility to display the IMMA tool, reveals the latest results from two expert workshops that have put IMMAs on the map of the Mediterranean and across the Pacific Islands. The creation and development of IMMAs is part of a six-year global project co-ordinated by the IUCN Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force, with partners including Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Tethys Research Institute, Eulabor and the Global Ocean Biodiversity Initiative (GOBI). The work is largely funded by the International Climate Initiative (IKI) of the German Federal Government with additional funding from the MAVA Foundation.

“IMMAs are based on the best science on offer, as part of a systematic, transparent process,” says Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara, co-chair of the IUCN Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force and aquatic mammal councillor for the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS). This week, 23-28 October, as the CMS Convention of the Parties (CoP) meets in Manila, Philippines, Notarbartolo di Sciara is facilitating a side event: “IMMAs to Support CMS Goals.”

 “Worldwide, we have more than 700 marine protected areas that supposedly include protection of marine mammal habitat,” says Erich Hoyt, Research Fellow with Whale and Dolphin Conservation and Task Force co-chair. “The problem is that these are political or economic compromises often based on limited data. IMMAs tell us what marine mammals really need in terms of areas crucial to their survival that must be protected or monitored.”

Mapping an IMMA may trigger zoning or the need to extend the boundaries of marine protected areas. In other cases it may be possible to adjust shipping lanes or other human activities to avoid ship strikes or reduce noise. Long range, IMMAs can also help the monitoring of climate change effects on marine mammals.

IMMAs are modelled on the successful conservation tool developed by BirdLife called “Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas”, or IBAs. IBAs have been used for decades to show areas of land and water that need protection. But compared to birds, marine mammals have been left out of the conservation picture. With more than 100 countries adopting marine spatial planning in their national waters, knowing the important areas for marine mammals will enable a more systematic conservation approach and ensure that whale and dolphin habitats are included.

“But the biggest gap in knowledge and conservation is the high seas, the two-thirds of the ocean outside of national waters,” says Hoyt. “The deep ocean is the frontier for research as well as industrial development and exploitation. Without efforts to identify whale and dolphin habitats in these areas there will be little marine mammal conservation. There is a lot to lose. Not just the whales and dolphins but the high levels of biodiversity in their favoured habitats.”

More information about the e-Atlas and the CMS CoP Side Event can be found here: https://www.marinemammalhabitat.org/immas-new-spatial-tool-making-waves-ocean-conservation/

Background Notes

What is an IMMA?

An important marine mammal area, or IMMA, is a discrete portion of habitat, important for one or more marine mammal species, that has the potential to be delineated and managed for conservation.

“Important” in the context of IMMA classification refers to any characteristic that extends perceivable value toward conservation. Candidate IMMAs are determined through expert workshops weighing expert information against various criteria and then subjecting the results to independent peer review.

An IMMA is not a marine protected area (MPA), but rather it’s a tool, independent of political and economic concerns, to inform the development and management practice of place-based conservation including:

 • Ecologically or Biologically Significant Areas (EBSAs) under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) identified through the IUCN Standard.

 • National and regional measures to create, zone, evaluate, and refine MPAs and MPA networks, as well as to help in marine spatial planning (MSP) decisions.

 • The IMMA process will also assist in providing strategic direction and priorities to the development of spatially explicit marine mammal conservation measures, such as ship strike directives through the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and future potential ocean noise directives through CMS, CBD and International Whaling Commission (IWC).

About Erich Hoyt

Erich is a Research Fellow at WDC and Co-chair of the IUCN Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force. He is a director of the Far East Russian Orca Project (FEROP). View references to Erich's published material on Google Scholar. Follow Erich on Twitter.