logomark arrow icon-close icon-logo-gradient

Loading ...


Ocean Protection: Even 10% is tough

The concept of a protected area is not a new one, and has evolved over time around the core ideal of protecting important resources and places. Local communities have long conserved places, such as traditional marine resource management in the Pacific in the form of “tabu” areas where there are bans on fishing. The first modern day protected area, Yellowstone National Park, was established in 1872. There are now over 200,000 protected areas covering 12.7% of the planet’s surface, but protection of the ocean has long lagged behind.

In 2004 the, the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) set the target for at least 10% of each of the world’s marine ecological regions to be effectively conserved by 2012. In 2010, recognizing that the world was not going to reach this target, the CBD pushed the deadline back to 2020. This goal is now referred to as "Aichi Target 11," because it is number eleven in a set of 20 targets developed in Aichi Preferecture in Japan. 

We can’t get there if we don’t know where we are now. That’s the reasoning behind the Ocean Health Index, and similarly, the World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA). The WDPA is a key resource for tracking coverage of marine protected areas so we know our current status and how much farther we need to go.  By using this knowledge, we can better understand what actions are required to increase marine protection through proper planning, implementation and management.

French Polynesia

The WDPA is a joint project between the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), maintained by the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre, and is the most comprehensive dataset on the world’s protected areas. The data on marine and terrestrial protected areas in the Ocean Health Index was sourced from the WDPA (Figure 1).

The 10% Target:  how are we doing?

One of the key uses of the WDPA is tracking global progress on protected area targets, including in the marine environment. In particular the CBD Aichi Target 11 calls for:

‘By 2020, at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water, and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscapes and seascapes.’ (CBD COP 10, Decision X/2)

Figure 1:  Map of the world's protected areas.

Launched in 2012, the Protected Planet Report (2), a collaborative effort of many partners, reviewed progress towards key elements of Target 11 and summarised the status and trends in global biodiversity protection for decision makers and the conservation community. It is the first in a series that will be produced every other year at least until 2020 to evaluate progress towards international protected area targets. In order to highlight trends over time, this report draws on a range of indicators that cover at least the period 1990–2010.

The report indicates that although the world has made progress, we’re still far below the 10% target. Around 1.6% (six million square kilometers) of the global ocean area was protected at the start of 2011, an increase from 0.5% in 2008. However, this protection is concentrated in the near-coastal areas (defined as 0-12 nautical miles, or 0-22 kilometres, from land). Within these areas 7.2% of the total area is protected, an increase from 3.1% in 1990. Considered within the total marine area under national jurisdiction (here defined as a country’s EEZ, extending 200 nautical miles or 370 kilometers from the coast), the percentage of global coverage declines to 4%, well below the 10% target set for 2020.  (Figure 4)    

What needs to be done

To meet the 10% target in marine areas under national jurisdiction, an additional 8 million square kilometres of marine and coastal areas will have to be recognised as protected, an area 14 times the size of Madagascar. (2)  Encouragingly, the number and extent of marine protected areas (MPAs), including very large offshore MPAs and community-supported MPAs, has increased rapidly recently. At least 13 MPAs with a marine area greater than 100,000 square kilometers now exist, each larger than Iceland. In 2012, the Sandwich Islands announced the protection of 1million km2. The proposed Ross Sea MPA will cover a staggering 3.6 million km2.

Marine ecoregions (large areas with characteristic combinations of species that are clearly distinct from adjacent areas) continue to be considerably less well protected than terrestrial ecoregions, and very few marine ecoregions met the 10% target originally set for 2012.  By 2010, only 30 (13%) of the 232 ecoregions met the 10% target, while 137 (59%) had still less than 1% of their area protected (Figure 5).  (2)  

Figure 5.  Percentage of each marine ecoregion (out to 200 nautical miles) covered by nationally designated protected areas in 2012. Of the 232 ecoregions, 59% still have less than 1% of their area protected and 87% have less than 10% protected, the target originally set for all marine ecoregions to be achieved by 2012. Source: WDPA 20122 base on ecoregions froma Spalding et al. 2007.

The Challenges

Some marine scientists propose that we need 20% or 30% protection of representative ocean ecosystems to ensure sustained ocean health. Achieving the 10% Aichi Target will be the first significant step toward ocean area protection, but probably not the last.      

With the growing number of MPAs, we are now more likely to reach 10% protection by 2020 than we were a decade ago. However, this rapid expansion will present its own challenges—such as enforcement and effectiveness (3) - in achieving the true protection called for under Aichi Target 11.  Large MPAs are also unlikely to boost representative protection across all the marine ecoregions that are currently less than 10% protected. It remains to be seen whether all aspects of the target can be fulfilled, but at the current rate of progress, especially with the ongoing designation of large new MPAs, there is likely to be significant progress in meeting the 10% coverage target.      


[1] Dudley, N. (ed.) (2008) Guidelines for Appling Protected Areas Management Categories. IUCN: Gland, Switzerland. p. 8-9.

[2] Bastian Bertzky, Colleen Corrigan, James Kemsey, Siobhan Kenney, Corinna Ravilious, Charles Besançon and Neil Burgess (2012) Protected Planet Report 2012: Tracking progress towards global targets for protected areas. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and UNEP-WCMC, Cambridge, UK.

(3) Pala, C. (2013) Giant Marine Reserves Pose Vast Challenges. Science 339: 640-641.  

[4] Pala, C. (2013) Giant Marine Reserves Pose Vast Challenges. Science 339: 640-641.

Additional Material:  How the World Database on Protected Areas Began

The basis for the database began in 1959, before UNEP was even created in 1972, when the United Nations (UN) Economic and Social Council called for a list of national parks and equivalent reserves in recognition that they ‘are valuable for economic and scientific reasons and also as areas for the future preservation of fauna and flora and geologic structures in their natural state’ (Resolution 713 (XXVIII)). The first UN List of Protected Areas, as it became known, was subsequently published in 1962. Today the UN List is incorporated into the WDPA, and the database itself was established in 1981. WDPA went on-line in 2008 and is regularly updated through direct contact with countries and other partners and covers a diverse range of protected areas. The WDPA holds both spatial and attribute data on protected areas from every country in the world, with the data sourced from government and non-government organizations (NGOs). The database includes nationally-designated (e.g. national parks, nature reserves) and internationally-recognized protected areas (e.g. UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Ramsar Wetlands of International Importance). It is regularly updated through direct contact with countries and other partners and covers a diverse range of protected areas. All protected areas within the database meet IUCN's definition of a protected area as an: "area of land and/or sea especially dedicated to the protection and maintenance of biological diversity, and of natural and associated cultural resources, and managed through legal or other effective means." (2)

Keeping a global database up to date is challenging – the global protected areas system is in constant flux with new protected areas being created, areas being expanded and contracted, and community and private protected areas receiving increasing recognition. At any one time the WDPA provides a snapshot of the current data that has been made available to UNEP-WCMC with an updated version of the database made available every month.   

The History of WDPA