Warming ocean temperatures are considered to be an important cause of the degradation of the world's coral reefs. Marine protected areas (MPAs) have been proposed as one tool to increase coral reef ecosystem resistance and resilience (i.e. recovery) to the negative effects of climate change, yet few studies have evaluated their efficacy in achieving these goals. We used a high resolution 4 km global temperature anomaly database from 1985–2005 and 8040 live coral cover surveys on protected and unprotected reefs to determine whether or not MPAs have been effective in mitigating temperature-driven coral loss. Generally, protection in MPAs did not reduce the effect of warm temperature anomalies on coral cover declines. Shortcomings in MPA design, including size and placement, may have contributed to the lack of an MPA effect. Empirical studies suggest that corals that have been previously exposed to moderate levels of thermal stress have greater adaptive capacity and resistance to future thermal stress events. Existing MPAs protect relatively fewer reefs with moderate anomaly frequencies, potentially reducing their effectiveness. However, our results also suggest that the benefits from MPAs may not be great enough to offset the magnitude of losses from acute thermal stress events. Although MPAs are important conservation tools, their limitations in mitigating coral loss from acute thermal stress events suggest that they need to be complemented with policies aimed at reducing the activities responsible for climate change.
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