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University Helps Preserve Marine Life by Identifying New Conservation Areas

The University of St Andrews’ Sea Mammal Research Unit, through research accumulated over decades, is making significant contributions to the global effort to conserve marine life.

An international initiative to address major concerns about the conservation of marine mammals has identified over thirty new Important Marine Mammal Areas (IMMAs) in the Northeast Atlantic Ocean, including 12 in waters around the UK. Important Marine Mammal Areas are defined as “discrete portions of habitat, important to marine mammal species, that have the potential to be delineated and managed for conservation.” These are areas which deserve to be protected and/or monitored. IMMAs are determined by scientific experts.

The Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature started the Important Marine Mammals initiative in 2016 due to the global crisis in the protection of marine mammals and ocean biodiversity. The Task Force aims to protect 30 per cent of the ocean by 2030 through establishing this global network of IMMAs.

The Sea Mammal Research Unit at the University of St Andrews, through contributing valuable scientific data about UK marine mammals, has helped to identify many new IMMAs in the UK. SMRU Senior Research Fellow Dr Gill Braulik is Deputy Chair of the IMMA initiative.

Several marine mammal species’ habitats will be protected by the new UK IMMAs, including bottlenose dolphins, minke whales, harbour porpoises, and killer whales.

The new Moray Firth to Humber Estuary IMMA includes the waters in St Andrews Bay. The waters have been identified as an important habitat for bottlenose dolphins, thanks to long-term photo-identification data collected by SMRU and researchers from the University of Aberdeen.

Dr Carol Sparling, Director of the Sea Mammal Research Unit, stated, "SMRU is very proud to have played a role in this very important work. SMRU experts' long-term involvement in the collection of data sets on the distribution and abundance of seals and cetaceans around the UK and in European waters was critical to be able to identify these areas of utmost importance. We look forward to seeing how these newly identified areas are used in conservation and marine spatial planning in the future."

Illustration by Lindsay Martin

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