Click to return to the Homepage

A Partnership of the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment, Brown University and Duke University

Printer friendly versionPrinter friendly version

Yellow Sea Ecosystem Project

Case Authors

Dave Gershman, Julia Wondolleck and Steven Yaffee, University of Michigan


The Yellow Sea Large Marine Ecosystem is situated between northeastern China and the Korean Peninsula and has been significantly affected by human development. More than 60 percent of its fish stocks are overexploited or collapsing.

The Yellow Sea Large Marine Ecosystem Project (YSLMEP) is a transboundary initiative providing advice and assistance to China and South Korea to implement ecosystem-based, environmentally-sustainable management of the Yellow Sea and its watershed.

The initiative is led by the United Nations Development Programme, with $15 million of funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), a fund managed by the World Bank. China and South Korea have pledged $9 million in co-financing.

The initiative was sparked through meetings sponsored by the World Bank and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 1992. A Transboundary Diagnostic Analysis identified management deficiencies and shared environmental problems and a Strategic Action Programme (SAP) recommended a series of management, legal, policy and institutional reforms and outcomes that could be accomplished by 2020.

In 2009, China and South Korea committed themselves to the reforms by signing a statement of mutual agreement to implement the SAP. Additionally, the YSLMEP has signed a memorandum of understanding with the World Wildlife Fund and its collaborators to conduct pilot projects with stakeholders at several locations to demonstrate effective management.

To facilitate communication, cooperation and implement joint activities among various environmental initiatives in the region, the YSLMEP developed a Yellow Sea Partnership, which includes local, national and international government and private organizations.

MEBM Attributes

  • Scope: Ecosystem-focus.
  • Collaboration: Includes national stakeholders and scientific community.
  • Balance/Integration: Establishes common understanding of environmental conditions, stressors, and priority actions.
  • Adaptive Management: Project states that management should be designed and executed as an adaptive, learning-based process that applies scientific methods to the process of management.


Mission and Primary Objectives


The mission of the Yellow Sea Large Marine Ecosystem Project is to assist the three national stakeholders in the region – China, South Korea and North Korea – realize environmentally-sustainable management and use of the Yellow Sea and its watershed, thereby reducing development stress, and promoting sustainable exploitation of the ecosystem from a densely populated, heavily urbanized and industrialized semi-enclosed shelf sea.


The Strategic Action Programme is aimed at improving the ecosystem carrying capacity and lists the following 11 regional management targets to achieve by 2020:

  • Reduce fishing effort by 25 to 30 percent
  • Rebuild over-exploited fish stocks
  • Improve mariculture techniques
  • Meet international contaminant requirements
  • Reduce nutrient loading
  • Reduce marine litter
  • Reduce contamination of beaches
  • Improve prediction of ecosystem changes
  • Improve biodiversity status
  • Maintain habitats
  • Reduce risk from introduced species


Key Parties

Lead Organizations

International Partners

  • United Nations Development Programme
  • United Nations Office for Project Services
  • Global Environment Facility

Key Parties


  • State Oceanic Administration, Beijing
  • First Institute of Oceanography (SOA), Qingdao
  • Yellow Sea Fisheries Institute, Ministry of Agriculture, Bureau of Fisheries
  • Chinese Academy of Science
  • Ministry of Agriculture, Bureau of Fisheries
  • State Environmental Protection Administration

South Korea

  • Korea Ocean Research and Development Institute
  • Korea Maritime Institute
  • Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries
  • Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade
  • Ministry of Environment
  • National Fisheries Research and Development Institute

Non-Governmental Organizations

  • World Wildlife Fund

Program Structure

Operational Framework

A framework has been established to operate the Yellow Sea Large Marine Ecosystem Project that includes the following bodies:

  • The Project Steering Committee and Regional Scientific and Technical Panel provide overall guidance. The steering committee includes representatives of China and South Korea as well as the international partners and serves as the supreme decision-making body.
  • A Project Management Office, established in South Korea, oversees the day-to-day operations of the program, and coordinates activities with international organizations.
  • National implementation of the project is handled by the Inter-ministerial Coordinating Committees. Both China and South Korea established such a committee, consisting of members of relevant agencies. The committees provide guidance and coordination as well as develop and implement program activities at a national level.
  • Regional Working Groups focus on the following five topics: ecosystem, fisheries, pollution, biodiversity and investment. The groups review the state of their topic, identify issues, develop strategies and engage stakeholders. 

Recommended Framework

The Strategic Action Programme (SAP) recommends creation of a more formal body through joint declaration or memorandum of understanding.

  • The Yellow Sea Large Marine Ecosystem Commission, which would assume the duties of the Project Steering Committee, would operate on a more permanent footing to continue work on implementing recommendations of the SAP after the current round of international support ends in 2011.


Motivations for Initiating Effort

Two key drivers that led to the development of the Yellow Sea Large Marine Ecosystem Project:

  • The health of the fisheries in the Yellow Sea.
  • The growing willingness among the nations of the region to cooperate on matters related to the environment.  Among the shared initiatives in the region are the Northwest Pacific Action Plan, the Tumen River Area Development Programme, and GEF Ballast Water Project. China and South Korea also have bilateral institutions based on treaties regarding the environment and fisheries, such as the Joint Committee on the Environmental Cooperation and the Joint Fisheries Commission.

The Yellow Sea, with its degrading ecosystem, is crucial to providing basic and economic needs of the coastal population. But national laws and regulations of coastal countries have not been sufficiently developed to implement regional standards. Ecosystem-wide management is ineffective because of inconsistencies in existing laws and regulations. Further, limited enforcement is an issue.


Ecosystem Characteristics and Threats

The Ecosystem

The Yellow Sea is a semi-enclosed sea between northeastern China and the Korean Peninsula. The sea floor is one of the largest shallow areas of continental shelf in the world. More than 1.6 billion tons of sediments flow into the Yellow Sea each year from the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. Surface water temperatures and salinity can fluctuate.

Although it is shallow, the Yellow Sea historically has been rich in resources. More than 270 species of fish are found in the Yellow Sea. In 2004, 2.5 million tons of fish were landed, up from 400,000 tons in 1986.


Overfishing and unsustainable mariculture are two key stressors on the ecosystem. The fishery has changed dramatically in 30 years. High-quality bottom fish species have been replaced by lower-value, smaller pelagic species. Aquaculture and mariculture has increased dramatically. China and South Korea account for 70 percent of the total world production.

Population pressures and poor development practices have reduced the ability of the Yellow Sea to respond to those stressors. About 600 million people live in the area that drains into the Yellow Sea. Over abundant amounts of nitrogen and phosphate, sewage, heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants and marine litter are polluting the Yellow Sea. According to the World Wildlife Fund, more than 40 percent of the coastal wetlands have been lost through conversion to other uses through development, such as agriculture, residences and industry.

Along with the alteration in the fishery, increases in harmful algae blooms and jellyfish populations, which further hurt fish stocks by consuming additional amounts of fish larvae, are additional indicators of the stress on the ecosystem. Climate change will further exacerbate the stress on the ecosystem.


Major Strategies

The Strategic Action Programme for the Yellow Sea Large Marine Ecosystem Project recommends a host of technical and governmental actions to achieve the 11 regional management targets. In broad terms, the actions use a variety of strategies, including:

  • Assisting national stakeholders and the public, through workshops, conferences, and public educational efforts, including school programs and targeted messages to industry, to understand the environmental concerns and the need to address them.
  • Building capacity of institutions through several means, including the use of training sessions and workshops.
  • Identifying institutional gaps and recommending development of new legal, policy and enforcement measures.
  • Improving national and regional cooperation between government agencies.
  • Eliminating environmentally damaging subsidies.
  • Implementing regional monitoring networks.

Examples of specific management and governmental actions recommended for national implementation include:

  • Establish training programs for fishermen to seek alternative employment and offering tax incentives.
  • Establish total nutrient control programs in development plans.
  • Increase funding opportunities for recycling programs.
  • Establish Marine Protected Area networks.
  • Improve compliance with waste management laws.

Monitoring, Assessment and Evaluation


The Strategic Action Programme recommends a host of new monitoring initiatives to develop information on biological characteristics in the Yellow Sea to increase understanding and evaluate management actions.

Assessment and Evaluation

Day-to-day evaluation of the project is conducted by the Project Management Office and the Project Steering Committee. Periodic evaluation periods were established at the outset of the project, including a Project Implementation Review, Mid-Term Evaluation and Final Evaluation (MTE).

The MTE, conducted by outside experts, was the most recent benchmark evaluation. It identified strengths and weaknesses of the project design, and rated the progress of the project on 11 criteria, including country ownership of the project, stakeholder participation and implementation approach. In reviewing the history of the project, the MTE presented lessons that could be used by future projects. For instance, the MTE described the three-year lag in project implementation due to a disagreement between China and South Korea on logistical matters, including the site of the project office. The MTE suggested developing face-saving mechanisms to resolve similar disputes, such as rotating the project office between countries.



Establishing National Commitments

The Yellow Sea Large Marine Ecosystem Project (YSLMEP), through the statement of mutual agreement, has established high-level national commitments by China and South Korea to work together to implement the Strategic Action Programme.

Building Interest

The YSLMEP has also generated considerable interest and closer ties among scientific and academic communities of the two countries, and is working to connect mid-level officials. More than 50 ministerial officials, for instance, attended a YSLMEP-sponsored conference on sustainable use of marine resources in the Yellow Sea in 2006. Further conferences were planned.

Priority-Setting Plan

The Strategic Action Programme represents a roadmap to achieving a healthier ecosystem, charting specific actions the two nations could take within the next decade.


The Yellow Sea Partnership, created by the YSLMEP is a vehicle for coordinating environmental conservation activities among institutions and non-governmental organizations.

Website Links

Yellow Sea Large Marine Ecosystem Project:

Yellow Sea Partnership:

United Nations Development Programme:

Global Environment Facility: