Testing the presence of marine protected areas against their ability to reduce pressures on biodiversity
Marine protected areas (MPAs) are the preferred tool for preventing marine biodiversity loss, as reflected in international protected area targets. Concerns have been raised that opposition from resource users is driving MPAs into low‐pressure areas while high‐use areas remain unprotected, with serious implications for biodiversity conservation. We apply a novel test of the spatial relationships between different pressures on marine biodiversity and protection in the world's MPAs. We find that as pressures from pelagic and artisanal fishing, shipping and introductions of invasive species by ship increase, the likelihood of protection decreases, and this relationship persists under even the most relaxed categories of protection. In contrast, as pressures from dispersed, diffusive sources such as pollution and ocean acidification increase, so does the likelihood of protection. We conclude that MPAs are systematically established in areas where there is low political opposition, limiting the capacity of existing MPAs to manage key drivers of biodiversity loss. We suggest that conservation efforts should focus on biodiversity outcomes rather than prescribing area‐based targets and that alternative approaches to conservation are needed in areas where protection is not feasible.