From 22-26 February, eight of us within the IUCN Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force prepared and conducted Zoom sessions with scientists that have now resulted in the identification of 23 new candidate Important Marine Mammal Areas (cIMMAs). Participants included more than 25 scientists from 12 countries, from Turkey to Turkmenistan, who research marine mammals in the Black Sea, Turkish Straits System and Caspian Sea region. By the end of the 5-day workshop after intensive plenary and break-out sessions with these scientists we felt that we had been truly immersed in the region and had come to the people and the marine mammals living there.

The Black Sea features unique subspecies of bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins and harbour porpoises. The Turkish Straits System also has Mediterranean monk seals. The Caspian Sea has endangered Caspian seals, found nowhere else in the world. These highly productive inland sea ecosystems supported historic populations of these species that were much larger but hunting, habitat degradation and bycatch have led to considerable reductions in their distribution and abundance.

IMMAs are defined as discrete portions of habitat, important to marine mammal species, that have the potential to be delineated and managed for conservation. IMMAs are identified in order to prioritise their consideration for conservation measures by governments, intergovernmental organisations, conservation groups, and the general public.

Following the announcement of the new cIMMAs, they will now go for independent scientific review. The final decision on those that have been accepted to full IMMA status is expected in July, and then they will join 159 existing IMMAs from the Mediterranean Sea and the South Pacific, Southern and Indian oceans on the Task Force IMMA e-Atlas. This was the seventh regional IMMA workshop. Since this new tool was launched in 2016, the Task Force has worked its way across the Southern Hemisphere. This was only the second time the Task Force has ventured into the Northern Hemipshere and the first time to conduct it virtually.

The workshop was financed mainly by the International Climate Initiative (IKI) of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety (BMUB) as part of the Global Ocean Biodiversity Initiative (GOBI). Additional support came from the MAVA Foundation, Tethys Research Institute and Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

This was the first time we had gone virtual for our 5-day IMMA identification workshop. The response was amazing — a tribute to the dedication of these scientists and their care for their study species and the health of the Black and Caspian Sea habitats.