An invasive species erodes the performance of coastal wetland protected areas.
The world has increasingly relied on protected areas (PAs) to rescue highly valued ecosystems from human activities, but whether PAs will fare well with bioinvasions remains unknown. By analyzing three decades of seven of the largest coastal PAs in China, including World Natural Heritage and/or Wetlands of International Importance sites, we show that, although PAs are achieving success in rescuing iconic wetlands and critical shorebird habitats from once widespread reclamation, this success is counteracted by escalating plant invasions. Plant invasions were not only more extensive in PAs than non-PA controls but also undermined PA performance by, without human intervention, irreversibly replacing expansive native wetlands (primarily mudflats) and precluding successional formation of new native marshes. Exotic species are invading PAs globally. This study across large spatiotemporal scales highlights that the consequences of bioinvasions for humanity's major conservation tool may be more profound, far reaching, and critical for management than currently recognized.