In line with global targets agreed under the Convention on Biological Diversity, the number of marine protected areas (MPAs) is increasing rapidly, yet socio-economic benefits generated by MPAs remain difficult to predict and under debate1,2. MPAs often fail to reach their full potential as a consequence of factors such as illegal harvesting, regulations that legally allow detrimental harvesting, or emigration of animals outside boundaries because of continuous habitat or inadequate size of reserve3,4,5. Here we show that the conservation benefits of 87 MPAs investigated worldwide increase exponentially with the accumulation of five key features: no take, well enforced, old (>10 years), large (>100 km2), and isolated by deep water or sand. Using effective MPAs with four or five key features as an unfished standard, comparisons of underwater survey data from effective MPAs with predictions based on survey data from fished coasts indicate that total fish biomass has declined about two-thirds from historical baselines as a result of fishing. Effective MPAs also had twice as many large (>250 mm total length) fish species per transect, five times more large fish biomass, and fourteen times more shark biomass than fished areas. Most (59%) of the MPAs studied had only one or two key features and were not ecologically distinguishable from fished sites. Our results show that global conservation targets based on area alone will not optimize protection of marine biodiversity. More emphasis is needed on better MPA design, durable management and compliance to ensure that MPAs achieve their desired conservation value.
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We thank the many Reef Life Survey (RLS) divers who contributed to data collection. Development of the RLS data set was supported by the former Commonwealth Environment Research Facilities Program, whereas analyses were supported by the Australian Research Council, a Fulbright Visiting Scholarship (to G.J.E.), the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, and the Marine Biodiversity Hub, a collaborative partnership funded under the Australian Government’s National Environmental Research Program. Surveys were assisted by grants from the National Geographic Society, Conservation International, Wildlife Conservation Society, Winifred Violet Scott Trust, Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service, the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, University of Tasmania, and ASSEMBLE Marine. We are grateful to the many park officers who assisted the study by providing permits and assisting with field activities, and to numerous marine institutions worldwide for hosting survey trips.
Extended data figures
This table shows data associated with marine protected areas and ecoregions. Assessed levels for five key features for MPAs studied (l: low; m: medium; h: high), total number of NEOLI features, and observed and predicted species richness and biomass (per 250 m2 transect) for different ecological groups.