Main Issue

Intensifying human exploitation is pushing the world’s oceans to the limits of their ecological carrying capacity. More than 75 percent of world fish stocks are already fully exploited, overexploited, depleted or recovering from depletion. The situation is even more critical for some highly migratory species that are exploited solely or partly in the high seas.

Globally, the world’s oceans have been divided into 66 large marine ecosystems (LMEs). These are defined as near coastal areas where primary productivity is generally higher than in open ocean areas. To date, the GEF has supported sustainable governance of 23 LMEs in which multiple countries collaborate on strategic, long-term ocean governance of transboundary resources.

What We Do

The GEF’s role towards sustainable development of LMEs is second to none in the global arena. Our International Waters finance fills a crucial niche, catalyzing the development of transboundary Strategic Action Programs (SAPs) signed at the ministerial level. During implementation of the SAPs, the countries work toward long-term institutional and financial sustainability, potentially securing the coming into force of ground-breaking environmental treaties.

The GEF’s persistent and long-term engagement strategy across the world’s LMEs fills an important gap. To date, the International Waters focal area has invested US$285 million, leveraging US$1.14 billion in financing from other partners. In the Benguela Current LME, for example, South Africa, Angola and Namibia followed the TDA/SAP process to establish the Benguela Current Commission. They subsequently adopted the Benguela Current Convention, a formal treaty that sets out the countries’ intention “to promote a coordinated regional approach to the long-term conservation, protection, rehabilitation, enhancement and sustainable use of their common marine resources.”

Stepping up action on the ground and aiming at increased impact at scale, the GEF will continue to focus its investments in supporting the management of LMEs. By doing so, we will support priority actions and investments within regional policy frameworks. This process is helping countries move toward sustainable development, unlocking the potential for the Blue Economy, including blue carbon restoration, marine spatial planning and economic valuation.


With GEF support, at least 124 countries are now working together on shared large marine ecosystems. Our projects have improved ecosystem health and monitoring, sustainable use of ecosystem services, as well as human well-being, through stronger governance at global, regional, national and local levels. They have helped reinforced the importance of working from ridge to reef and from village chiefs to cabinet ministers, illustrating how regional agreed frameworks produce global environment benefits.

The large marine ecosystems around the South China Sea and the adjacent Gulf of Thailand include global centers of shallow marine biological diversity that support one of the world’s largest fisheries. Through a GEF-funded project, seven countries came together to address the degradation of coastal habitats, the overexploitation of fisheries and land-based pollution. This project demonstrated that collective management is possible even when border disputes exist over access to oil, gas and fisheries. Among its results, the project developed a list of 52 known spawning and nursery areas that represent a system of Fish Refugia for the South China Sea and its adjacent gulf.