Shetland and Fair Isle have joined the likes of Patagonia, Antarctica and Madagascar in being awarded Important Marine Mammal Area (IMMA) status.

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 legal designations but independent, peer-reviewed assessments based on a set of criteria supported by scientific data. In essence, however, IMMAs are a hands-on tool that facilitates conservation.

IMMAs are identified in order to prioritise their consideration for conservation measures by governments, intergovernmental organisations, conservation groups, and the general public.

The concept of IMMAs was developed by the Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force (MMPATF) of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in 2016, as a response to a conservation crisis in the protection of marine mammals and wider global ocean biodiversity.  

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According to MMPATF, the creation of a network of IMMAs represents “a cost-effective approach to conservation”. 

The rationale for developing IMMAs includes the specific vulnerability of many marine mammals and the role of marine mammals as flagship species representing powerful political and public levers for the conservation of less popular or well-known organisms, communities or habitats.

Citizen science data collated from Facebook group Shetland Orca Sightings - created for people to share their Orca sightings in the archipelago - was used alongside other research to highlight the importance of Shetland waters for marine mammals, culminating in the IMMA award.

IMMA status helps recognise that Shetland is an important area for Harbour Porpoise, Killer Whale (Orca), Minke Whale and Humpback Whale as well as supporting a high diversity of other species, the group notes.

It also recognises the presence of Harbour Porpoise aggregations, being an area for reproduction, an important feeding area and being a key area for migrating Humpbacks whales. 

In its summary of the Shetland and Fair Isle IMMA, MMPATF wrote: “The IMMA of Shetland and Fair Isle comprises an archipelago of >100 islands situated 75km from the continental shelf edge. Its northerly position, exposure to Atlantic currents and varied habitats support a diverse range of marine mammals. 

“Cetacean species such as killer whales (Orcinus orca), Risso’s dolphins (Grampus griseus) and harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) are found here. Some pods of killer whales are considered semi-resident, Risso’s dolphins have shown site fidelity to particular areas and harbour porpoises are present year-round and form large aggregations of up to 200 individuals in the autumn and winter. 

“Other cetaceans occur seasonally including common minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata), which aggregate in the late summer/autumn, and humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), which use Shetland to rest and feed during migration. This area is also an important pupping and haul-out area for seals, particularly harbour seals (Phoca vitulina), which, around Shetland, are an important part of the inshore killer whale diet. 

“The continental shelf and nearshore deep-water areas it are important for large baleen whales, deep diving species and occasional large pods of pelagic dolphins, such as Atlantic white-sided dolphin (Lagenorhynchus acutus).”

Local wildlife expert Hugh Harrop thanked those who submitted sighting records to the group for helping to “showcase what we’ve always known - that Shetland is amazing for marine mammals and we are so lucky to have that on our doorstep.”

Commenting on the award, Fair Isle Marine Protected Area wrote: “Great news for Shetland and Fair Isle demonstrating the power of citizen science in data collection.”

February saw a total of 33 new IMMAs approved and put on the map in the North East Atlantic Ocean and Baltic Sea. Globally, there are now 280 IMMAs and 185 Areas of Interest (AoI).