With only 0.7% of oceans under protection1, the designation of the Chagos territory (544 000 km2, an area twice the size of the UK), the largest marine protected area (MPA) in the world, as a no-take marine reserve in April 20102 is a major improvement to MPA coverage. The decision echoes several other recent announcements, such as the expected protection of the Parque Marino Isla Pingüino in the province of Santa Cruz, Argentina (which could safeguard more than 1700 km2 of coastal waters strung along almost 100 km of shoreline3) and the creation of three new MPAs in Mexico in June 2009 (together helping protect 795 000 acres of Mexico's oceans4). With the recent release of the Global Biodiversity Outlook5, which reports on the progress made towards the protected area (PA) coverage targets for 2010 set by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) for both terrestrial and marine environments, and the upcoming 10th CBD Conference of Parties meeting to be held in Japan in October, in this International Year of Biodiversity we could expect to see a boost in MPA designation worldwide (as an attempt to hit the 10% target for the marine environment by 2012; Coad et al., 2009).
PA establishment and management, together with conservation, sustainable use and restoration initiatives in the adjacent land and seascape, are central to the CBD activities (Article 8 of the CBD6). Since the late 19th century, the backbone of the conservation of biodiversity throughout the world has been the establishment of PAs (Pressey, 1996). Apart from conserving biodiversity, PAs can perform several other functions, such as protecting watersheds and soils, and shielding human communities from natural disasters or significantly contributing to local and regional economies (Chape, Spalding & Jenkins, 2008). The major significance of PAs in biodiversity conservation is, however, associated with major challenges, linked mostly to PA management and maintenance. The static nature of PA location can place species and ecosystems within PAs at risk from the effects of global environmental change (Visconti et al., 2001), highlighting the importance of monitoring PA effectiveness and identifying rapid changes in PA functional attributes. Worryingly, PA establishment does not systematically guarantee PA maintenance, as changes in both governance and economic situations could lead to protection being lifted. For example, New Zealand recently started a process of public submissions on a proposal to allow mining in 7000 ha of high-value conservation land in the West Coast's Paparoa National Park, Great Barrier Island and the Coromandel Peninsula7, even though some of the areas were originally designated as ‘areas considered to have scenery of such distinctive quality, and ecological systems or natural features so beautiful, unique or scientifically important that their preservation in perpetuity is in the national interest’ (section 4(1), National Parks Act 19808). Rare endemic species such as the critically endangered primitive Archey's frog Leiopelma archeyi, the endangered North Island brown kiwi Apteryx mantelli or the vulnerable Hochstetter's frog Leiopelma hochstetteri are some of the species found in these protected areas.
There are significant opportunities for conservation science to make important contributions when it comes to PA establishment and management. This is well exemplified by the current National Protected Area Expansion strategy in South Africa, which is based on quantitative spatial biodiversity assessments9. PA location, size, shape, level of biodiversity, establishment and management costs are among the many variables that can influence PA establishment rate (Brooks et al., 2006; McCarthy, Thompson & Williams, 2006; Gaston et al., 2008). Providing stakeholders with the necessary information and level of understanding required to prioritize areas for PA establishment has been, and still is, a major task for Conservation Biology. Effective monitoring of PAs worldwide involves several technical and financial challenges. Monitoring methods need to be cheap, systematic, repeatable and verifiable; the relevant set of conditional metrics should be frequently recorded, available over a long time-frame, comparable between PAs and offer a short response time that allows for the early detection of changes (Alcaraz-Segura et al., 2009).
Fairly basic questions still remain about the dynamics of biodiversity at such large spatial scales. For example, will declining species retreat to those areas where they are currently most common, and should such areas be prioritized for protection? Or, are areas of high species turnover more important because this is where species may be better able to adapt to changing environmental conditions? The emerging field of Conservation Biogeography (see Richardson & Whittaker, 2010 and references therein) is poised to tackle these and similar questions. Other scientific challenges relate to the optimal management of PAs (e.g. Gerber et al., 2005), where ideas based on adaptive management are becoming more popular (McCarthy & Possingham, 2007).
Considering the latest reported trends in biodiversity level and the global failure to meet 2010 biodiversity targets, the importance of PAs for conservation and the expected increase in PA coverage (especially in MPA coverage), there has never been such a need for conservation biologists to engage with issues related to PAs. If we are to protect what is left, we need not only to provide relevant information but also to be at the forefront of decision-making processes, as we cannot afford to delegate such responsibility.