In the week of March 4th-8th, a number of ASWN members participated in a workshop to identify Important Marine Mammal Areas (IMMAs) in the Western Indian Ocean and Arabian Seas. The workshop was the 5th of its kind and hosted 38 marine mammal scientists and observers from 15 countries.
An extraordinary 55 candidate important marine mammal areas, or IMMAs, were identified, along with 13 areas of interest (AoI) which may be considered potential future IMMAs pending further research. Of the 55 areas identified as candidate IMMAs, a number were in the Arabian Sea and surrounding waters, focusing on important habitat for Arabian Sea humpback whales, as well as other endangered and vulnerable species such as Indian Ocean humpback dolphins and blue whales.
The Oman workshop follows successful Task Force IMMA regional workshops in the Mediterranean, Pacific Islands, Northeast Indian Ocean-Southeast Asian Seas and the Extended Southern Ocean in 2016-2018, but 55 candidate IMMAs is a record total to date for a single region. Sponsored by the Global Ocean Biodiversity Initiative through the German Government’s International Climate Initiative (GOBI-IKI), the Task Force has adopted as its mandate the mapping of habitats for the 130 species of marine mammals—cetaceans, pinnipeds, sirenians, otters and the polar bear—across the world ocean.
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. They are not marine protected areas but rather layers with useful information on marine mammals that can be used by governments, intergovernmental organisations, conservation groups, and the general public for spatial planning, environmental impact assessment, or other area-based management tools.
Workshop participants spent the week working collaboratively on the drafting of detailed proposals for the areas that were identified, providing evidence on how each area meets the rigorous criteria defined by the IMMA Task Force. The candidate IMMAs will now be sent to an independent review panel, undergoing a process of peer review much like that used in scientific journals. Candidate IMMAs that pass review will be placed on the IMMA e-Atlas, and can be used for conservation planning. Those without sufficient evidence will remain as Areas of Interest, but will still be reflected in the e-Atlas. Final results from the panel are expected to be posted online later in 2019. The collective expertise, energy and commitment of the scientists, gathered in the inspirational setting of Dhofar have made this technical and scientific exercise a great success.
The creation of a network of IMMAs represents a cost-effective approach to conservation. Marine mammals are, in many ways, catalytic species. As top predators in the marine environment, they can serve as an indicator of an ecosystem’s overall health, and as charismatic flagship species, they are often the focal species for the creation of marine protected areas around the world. Calling more attention to the habitats that are important for marine mammals, and making it easier for stakeholders to take marine mammal conservation needs into account, can ultimately lead to the protection of less popular or well-known organisms, communities or habitats.
For more information on the Task Force and IMMAs, see marinemammalhabitat.org