Marine protected areas (MPAs) are a critical defense against biodiversity loss in the world's oceans, but to realize near‐term conservation benefits, they must be established where major threats to biodiversity occur and can be mitigated. We quantified the degree to which MPA establishment has targeted stoppable threats (i.e., threats that can be abated through effectively managed MPAs alone) by combining spatially explicit marine biodiversity threat data in 2008 and 2013 and information on the location and potential of MPAs to halt threats. We calculated an impact metric to determine whether countries are protecting proportionally more high‐ or low‐threat ecoregions and compared observed values with random protected‐area allocation. We found that protection covered <2% of ecoregions in national waters with high levels of abatable threat in 2013, which is ∼59% less protection in high‐threat areas than if MPAs had been placed randomly. Relatively low‐threat ecoregions had 6.3 times more strict protection (International Union for Conservation of Nature categories I–II) than high‐threat ecoregions. Thirty‐one ecoregions had high levels of stoppable threat but very low protection, which presents opportunities for MPAs to yield more significant near‐term conservation benefits. The extent of the global MPA estate has increased, but the establishment of MPAs where they can reduce threats that are driving biodiversity loss is now urgently needed.
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