Photograph by Enric Sala, Nat Geo Image Collection
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A Galápagos sea lion chases a large school of Salema fish off Isabela Island. The Galápagos sit in a marine protected area with one of the highest concentrations of biodiversity in the world.

Photograph by Enric Sala, Nat Geo Image Collection

4 takeaways from a global look at biodiversity

A new report from major international conservation groups found protected areas need to be better enforced and monitored.

This article was created in partnership with the National Geographic Society.

Ten percent of the ocean and 17 percent of terrestrial and inland waterways by 2020. That was the goal world leaders set almost a decade ago to work toward protecting the planet.

Protected areas, space on land and in water cordoned off from human commercial interests, are essential for preserving biodiversity, scientists increasingly warn. The diverse array of plant and animal species contained in protected areas not only create a vibrant natural environment, they also provide valuable services like cleaning air and water and keeping human diseases in check.

Protected areas can even benefit commercial interests. Marine protected areas (MPAs) give fish populations room to thrive, which in turn produces spillover for local fisheries.

In 2020, the same groups that set these marine and terrestrial targets will reconvene in Beijing to set new targets, but first they have to figure out how far they've come.

Cue the Protected Planet Report, an effort published every two years that provides context for how protected areas are fairing. The latest iteration was released this morning as the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity meets in Egypt to assess biodiversity targets.

Here's how the report, supported by contributing organizations like the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), United Nations, National Geographic Society, BirdLife International, the International Institute for Environment and Development, and the Zoological Society of London score protections.

Protected areas are increasing.... kind of

Since the last report published in 2016, protected areas on land have increased by just less than one percent, but protected marine areas in national waters have increased by three percent.

Protected areas are self reported by each nation and logged in the World Database on Protected Areas.

The report notes that some increases can be attributed to better reporting, and as local communities and businesses begin to report protected areas alongside governments, the number of protected areas will likely increase in the future.

We still need to improve what's considered “protected”

While protecting nature anywhere has value, protecting the most biodiverse regions can have the biggest benefits for the planet. By protecting areas like dense Amazon rain forest or vast coral reef systems, more carbon is sucked out of the atmosphere, offsetting some global warming impacts.

Areas that are rich in biodiversity often have a high number of threatened or endangered species.

According to the report, not enough of the 15,000 “key biodiversity areas” (KABs) identified by the World Database are protected. Currently, just over 20 percent are protected, but just over 90 percent of those are terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems. Critically important marine ecosystems, the report concludes, are being left at risk.

Underscoring some of what's possible, marine ecologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala has called for the high seas—areas beyond the control of a single nation—to be a marine protected area. Major industrial fishing vessels currently operate in the high seas, a practice that's unprofitable without government subsidies and creates a large carbon footprint.

Managment and enforcement could be better

Of course, it's not just a matter of declaring an area is protected—it has to be enforced.

Marine protected areas were scrutinized in a Marine Policy study last March for not accurately reflecting when a region was actively closed to commercial interests and monitored for illegal use. Many countries, the study found, count intentions to protect a region in their tallies.

In their own assessment, the Protected Planet Report found that only about 20 percent of protected regions had evaluated for effective management. Generally, it also found terrestrial areas are better managed than marine ones.

What to expect in 2020

In 2020, conservation groups hope to see commitments to more equitably managed protected areas and more streamlined and unified ways to measure progress. The report also notes plans to better connect protected areas by creating wildlife corridors or protecting the path of migratory species.

Future reports will also include protected areas managed by indigenous communities or private interests whose actions inadvertently protect biodiverse regions.