Coastal and Freshwater news

Raoul Island Humpback - Becky Lindsay, University of Auckland
3 November 2020

New Zealand waters designated globally significant marine mammal habitat


New Zealand waters are a globally-significant home to marine mammal populations and should be afforded special protection – that’s according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force who have recently designated several areas of New Zealand’s ocean ‘Important Marine Mammal Areas’ or IMMAs.

The task force is made up of expert representatives from member countries and a technical panel is responsible for considering evidence before selecting and defining IMMAs. These newly designated IMMAs make up 7% of New Zealand’s exclusive economic zone and include areas of ocean surrounding the Kermadecs, Rakiura/Stewart Island and a number of sub-Antarctic islands.

Dr Simon Childerhouse is a Marine Mammal Ecologist at Nelson’s Cawthron Institute and chair of the New Zealand Region for the IUCN Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force.

Dr Childerhouse said the IUCN’s designation doesn’t bestow a formal ‘marine protected area’ status on these areas of ocean, but the findings should inform member countries' decision making processes when assessing the effects of activities in marine environments.

“These new IMMA designations should be a strong indicator to decision makers and regulators in New Zealand that the world recognises the unique value of New Zealand’s marine habitats,” Dr Childerhouse said.

“New Zealanders talk about how we are a global biodiversity hotspot for dolphins and whales, as well as several seal and sea lion species, but sometimes I worry we don’t quite grasp how rare that is in global terms.”

“My hope is that this global recognition will bolster our sense of responsibility and appreciation for the abundance of our ocean and inform the decision making processes that have the power to protect these habitats.”

Dr Childerhouse said that four New Zealand representatives attended a Task Force workshop in Perth this February to present and evaluate scientific evidence that was used by the technical panel to designate areas of ocean as globally important habitats for marine mammals.

The delegation included Associate Professor Rochelle Constantine of the University of Auckland. Associate Professor Constantine said the new IMMA designations highlight the importance of New Zealand waters for so many different species.

“We know a lot about some of the species and their habitat, like the endemic New Zealand sea lion and Hector’s and Maui dolphins, and we’ve focused a lot of conservation effort and resource towards protecting them,” Associate Professor Constantine said.

“However, there are others we know little about, and I would argue these IMMA designations provide clear guidance for the New Zealand government about knowledge gaps that need to be filled and areas that may need more consideration to mitigate human impacts."

New Zealand plays an important role in the IUCN focusing on the conservation of species and habitats. The IMMAs from New Zealand and Australia contribute to 159 IMMAs now designated throughout the world. The work is ongoing and will provide international agencies and governments guidance about how to protect some of the most vulnerable species in our oceans.

Visit to see the IUCN Task Force Press Release.

A map provided by the IUCN displays New Zealand's important marine mammal areas.


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