Further progress has been recently made in reaching the goal of identifying and protecting important habitat for river dolphins. Experts have agreed that a method currently used to identify areas of ocean that are important habitats for whales and oceanic dolphins can also be used to identify important habitats for aquatic mammals such as river dolphins living in freshwater environments.
An ‘Important Marine Mammal Area’, or IMMA, is a discrete portion of marine mammal habitat identified and agreed by experts and has the potential to be managed for conservation. IMMAs are an important conservation tool as they highlight actual habitats essential for marine mammal survival based on the best scientific information and expert advice. Once IMMAs are agreed, they become a focus for wildlife protection and conservation efforts.
In the future, experts will be able to adapt the IMMA tool for freshwater species such as river dolphins living in rivers, lakes and estuaries. Identifying and sharing information about carefully selected IMMAs for river dolphins will help jump-start habitat protection efforts for these threatened species. IMMAs for river dolphins will help pave the way for the creation of networks of protected areas and conservation recommendations for them.
Once IMMAs for river dolphins have been identified, any that are found to overlap with existing National Parks or other designated wildlife conservation sites will highlight opportunities to broaden the existing wildlife protective measures to include river dolphins. For example, an IMMA inside or overlapping a reserve set up to protect a bird species or an area of wetland important for birds could then have measures put in place to protect river dolphins and existing rangers and reserve managers could then extend their efforts to include river dolphin protection.
River dolphin populations in Asia and Latin America are threatened. One species, the baiji, or Chinese River dolphin has already gone extinct in recent years. It is essential that we highlight important habitat areas for river dolphins to assist conservation efforts. Protecting the areas in nature that they need to survive is challenging but essential for their future survival.
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A scoping Workshop on IMMAs in Freshwater Environments took place during the 2017 Society for Marine Mammalogy’s biennial conference in Halifax, Canada. The goal was to consider the identification and utilisation of the IMMA tool to enhance protection efforts for aquatic mammals in freshwater environments, including protected areas, key biodiversity areas and other area-based measures or instruments.
The process to identify IMMAs within inland, freshwater-dominated environments will require further collaboration amongst experts during future IMMA freshwater workshops. For more information, see marinemammalhabitat.org (in the news and downloads sections).