According to a goal set by global leaders at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, a worldwide network of marine protected areas is supposed to be in place four years from now (MPA News 4:3). Termed the “2012 target”, this goal is one of several established for the MPA community to meet in coming years. Measuring how effectively the world is meeting these objectives requires data. With information on the size, boundaries, and management of individual MPAs worldwide, we can examine where gaps in protection lie and what work still remains.

The World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA), managed by the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) in conjunction with IUCN, collects and houses such data. For over 20 years, the WDPA has served as the only global dataset on protected areas, both terrestrial and marine. When you read, for example, that less than 1% of the world’s oceans are included in MPAs, that statistic was generated from the WDPA.

Improving the quality and quantity of the WDPA’s marine data is the focus of a new multi-year program at UNEP-WCMC. By closing various gaps in the dataset, the program will allow the WDPA to provide greater assistance to MPA planning, as well as to analyzing progress toward conservation goals and informing policy decisions.

The WDPA’s existing dataset benefits from the contributions of national agencies, NGOs, and MPA practitioners. The data also benefit from targeted projects such as MPA Global, a marine-specific database that originated from the WDPA and has been dedicated to improving MPA data that are incomplete or missing (“Project Underway to Build Global MPA Database”, MPA News 6:8).

Reintegration of data from the MPA Global database is a major part of the program to strengthen the WDPA. Louisa Wood of the University of British Columbia (Canada) Sea Around Us Project developed MPA Global, a collaboration with UNEP-WCMC, IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas-Marine, and World Wildlife Fund. Her intent with the project was to ensure development of a globally consistent and robust baseline of MPA data. When Wood originally examined the WDPA marine data, she found that many sites lacked dates of designation and other basic information. “Along the same line, the ability to store important marine-relevant information was absent from the WDPA,” she says. As an example of absent data, she cites “marine area” – an important data point since many protected areas include both terrestrial and marine components.

“These fundamental data gaps and inconsistencies made it difficult to include the complete global dataset in even relatively simple monitoring assessments,” says Wood, a recent Ph.D. graduate in Geography. “This functional requirement of the database has become particularly apparent in recent years due to the adoption of various targets for the development of MPAs and MPA networks. As these targets were part of the rationale for my Ph.D. project, I was focused from the outset on ensuring the dataset would enable analyses of global progress. I developed and applied critical minimum data requirements in order to add a site to the database: name, designation type, designation status, designation date, total area, marine area, latitude/longitude.”

To address these elements, the MPA component of the WDPA is benefiting from overall improvements to the database and a renewed focus on marine and coastal data compilation, access, and dissemination. Data from other relevant databases will be linked to it, such as those containing information on species, important bird or biodiversity areas, and MPA management effectiveness.

Colleen Corrigan of UNEP-WCMC, who is managing the program to strengthen the WDPA, says efforts to improve data through shorter-term arrangements such as MPA Global are beneficial and welcomed. “Because UNEP-WCMC has a global mandate to maintain protected areas information, our long-term vision is to bring all marine data together for easy, quick, and cost-effective access by the global community,” says Corrigan. The intent is also to provide MPA analyses and other services, she says, including connections to other useful data and assessments. “This integration project aims to centralize the management and dissemination of global marine data. The resulting breadth of knowledge will inform practitioners and policy-makers alike regarding status of protected areas, and will serve to guide future conservation actions.”

Significance for MPA practitioners

The significance of this integration project for practitioners is twofold, says Corrigan. “Because the WDPA is undergoing substantial improvements to allow for direct uploads and downloads by registered users,” she says, “it will increase the engagement of the greater marine conservation community in contributing to the expansion and improvement of MPA data. Second, it will benefit this community through increased access to updated and improved MPA data needed for analysis, reporting, and planning. Through this collaboration, we expect to have a more robust, accurate, and functional protected areas database.”

With the new WDPA, users will be able to search for marine protected area information by country, site name, or international convention. The improved database will allow users to visualize protected areas using global, regional, national, or site-specific geographic references. For example, says Corrigan, users will be able to scan a three-dimensional globe and select countries or sites of interest to reveal MPA data and boundaries, informed by satellite imagery. Data will be freely accessible to everyone, and users with GIS skills will be able to download shapefiles with full metadata for analysis or integration with other maps. Lucy Fish, WDPA database manager, says, “The new system will allow for people to tailor the delivery of the information for their own needs and it will provide regular updates online.”

Corrigan says the quality of information achieved by MPA Global will be upheld as part of its full incorporation back into WDPA. “A total of 20 attributes about MPAs will be maintained in the new version of the WDPA,” she says. “MPA practitioners will have the opportunity to upload the best available information and shapefiles relevant to their MPAs, including details on management zones. In addition, they can provide edits to existing data records and download shapefiles for use on their own computer networks.” Corrigan notes that with more than 4000 MPAs currently in the database, the participation of MPA managers and agencies will be needed to ensure that information on all existing MPAs is uploaded and as accurate as possible.

Ensuring access and accuracy will be the key. MPA Global created a registration system for people who wanted to upload or revise data. This helped manage the quality of additions and revisions, while also allowing the project to acknowledge the contributions of participants. The strengthened WDPA will do the same, while also featuring an expert review process to monitor data quality. In addition, the WDPA will integrate MPA Global’s operationalization of the IUCN definition for “marine protected area”, which used specific criteria to assess which sites should count as MPAs and thus be included in the database. “This process has contributed to the development of a more transparent and explicit methodology for monitoring MPAs,” says Wood. The basic premise of a solid database, she says, is “simply getting reliable, consistent, and globally comprehensive basic data because it has been so incredibly hard to get. Even now, in some places there are still serious gaps and challenges in filling them.”

The continued help and participation of MPA planners and managers will be necessary to ensure that a broad array of marine site data is provided and improvements continue to be made. The challenge of collecting and maintaining data on MPAs is a substantial one that could not be achieved without the assistance and dedication of agencies, funders, and individuals worldwide who have collaborated to update MPA data in both MPA Global and the WDPA.

For more information

Colleen Corrigan, UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre, 219 Huntingdon Road, Cambridge CB3 0DL, UK. Tel: +44 1223 277 314 x267; E-mail:

Louisa Wood, Technical MPA Advisor, IUCN, San Francisco, CA, U.S. E-mail:

World Database on Protected


BOX: Forthcoming paper on global progress toward MPA targets

The journal Oryx will soon feature an assessment of progress made toward international MPA goals. It is based on updated data from the MPA Global database, which was originally developed from the World Database on Protected Areas. The paper “Assessing progress towards global marine protection targets: shortfalls in information and action” is co-authored by Louisa Wood, Lucy Fish, Josh Laughren, and Daniel Pauly.