The IUCN Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force identified an extraordinary 55 candidate-important marine mammal areas (IMMAs) along with 13 areas of interest (AoI) which will be retained as potential future IMMAs pending further research. At an important session held in Salalah. The results were the outcome of five-day brainstorming sessions and review of researches the group members of the ICUN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force did in Salalah from March 4 to 8.
Interestingly, one of the 55 areas identified as ‘IMMAs candidate’ is right outside a hotel in Salalah’s Dahariz area, where the group worked and where small groups of endangered Indian Ocean humpback dolphins were spotted by them swimming close to shore early in the mornings. Erich Hoyt, Co-chair of IUCN Joint Task Force, called the Oman session very important and interesting due to presence of many species of marine mammals in the country and admitted that some of them are limited only to Oman. “Thus the country has huge responsibility to protect them and keep updating their numbers at a time when the habitat areas of some endangered species are going through massive urban development,” he said.
The week-long fifth international IMMA workshop hosted 38 marine mammal scientists and observers from 15 countries to map the important habitats for marine mammals in the western Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. The western Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea region, according to Erich Hoyt, is special. “Besides the humpback dolphins, there are three endangered blue whale subpopulations, the rarest humpback whales in the world – the Arabian Sea humpback whale, and the largest number of Omura’s whale, a cryptic 10-metre-long tropical whale only recently, identified as a species by scientists. The region is also home to the ‘dugong’ that persists in pockets along the coasts of East Africa and West Asia.”
Dr Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara, also a Co-Chair of the Task Force, summed up the Oman session that “follows successful IMMA Task Force regional workshops in the Mediterranean, Pacific Islands, Northeast Indian Ocean-Southeast Asian Sea and the Extended Southern Ocean in 2016-2018, but 55 candidate IMMAs is a record total to date for a single region. “Supported by 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.”
IMMAs, according to Dr Giuseppe, are defined as discrete portions of habitat, important to marine mammal species. “These areas have the potential to be delineated and managed for conservation. They are not marine protected areas but layers that can be used in spatial planning or for other area-based management tools.” The candidate IMMAs now go to an independent review panel. Once approved, they will be placed on the IMMA e-Atlas, and can be used for conservation planning.
Those without sufficient evidence will remain as AoI. 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.