Twenty-fifth Session

Rome, Italy, 24-28 February 2003



This document reviews the current status of monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS) and vessel monitoring systems (VMS) as fisheries management tools. The need for effective MCS is recognized in recent international fisheries instruments, and VMS technologies are helping to meet this need. The paper also briefly examines some of the new technologies which could be introduced to further strengthen MCS, and identifies major issues that Members/Governments might consider to ensure that MCS initiatives are cost-effective and efficient.


1. Monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS) has been addressed in most recent fisheries instruments, including the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, the Compliance Agreement1, the UN Fish Stocks Agreement2 and the International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing.

2. MCS must operate within the wider system of fisheries management and ocean policy, which takes into account all the resources and users of the marine environment. It is inevitable that countries with limited resources will consider the revenues generated by fisheries before allocating resources to MCS, and in this respect it is worth noting that the international instruments listed above emphasize the provision of assistance to developing countries.

3. The purpose of this paper is to highlight the current status of MCS and vessel monitoring systems (VMS) and their contribution as fisheries management tools. The paper also examines some of the new technologies which could be introduced to further strengthen MCS, and identifies major issues that Members/Governments might consider to ensure that MCS initiatives are cost-effective and efficient.


4. Fisheries patrol vessels range from small transportable inflatable boats for operating close to the shore, to large sophisticated naval frigates with onboard helicopters for patrolling offshore and on the high seas. In most cases, the patrol vessel is used to transport the fisheries inspector to the fishing ground and to the fishing vessel in order to carry out inspections. However in more serious infractions of the law, the patrol vessel may have to take more direct action by assisting in the arrest of a vessel and escorting that vessel to port. Exceptionally, it may be necessary to resort to armed force in order to make a fishing vessel comply with instructions. In these cases, the patrol vessel is carrying out an activity that cannot be carried out by any of the other components of the MCS system. For this reason patrol vessels still retain a vital enforcement role on the fishing grounds.

5. There has been much debate as to whether military forces should be used for fisheries patrols giving them a useful peacetime role, or whether fisheries MCS requires a more specialised, dedicated fleet. Suffice to say that such debate is confined to countries that have the luxury of choosing between the two options. Many developing countries have neither option.

6. Aerial patrols for fisheries purposes are a more recent development brought about by the extension of EEZs. Aerial patrols require less personnel and can cover a far greater area than a patrol vessel in a given time. Aircraft are particularly useful for detection of unlicenced fishing vessels, or vessels fishing in prohibited areas. As aircraft cannot take direct action against a fishing vessel, follow-up action by a patrol vessel is normally required. Legal provisions for the use of evidence generated by the aerial surveillance to ensure detention, or other sanction of an offending vessel should also be in place.

7. Observers have been increasingly employed on board larger fishing vessels to monitor and encourage compliance. The costs of observer programmes are generally paid by the owners of the fishing vessels on which the observers are deployed. Due to the costs and accommodation issues involved, it is unlikely that observers will be deployed on the smaller fishing vessels.

8. Shore based controls are an essential component of the MCS system, verifying landings against logbook data and checking vessel and gear characteristics. Data collectors are, of course, vitally important for the monitoring of artisanal fisheries. Where fishing activity is concentrated in gulfs or narrow continental shelves, coastal radar can be a cost effective element in the suite of MCS tools. There will be an increasing need for shore-based monitoring to ensure product traceability and sanitary control measures in the future. Recently FAO published a Fisheries Circular on the typical costs of MCS 3


9. Vessel Monitoring Systems: In the 1980s, the International Maritime Satellite Organization (Inmarsat) and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) set up the Global Maritime Safety and Distress System (GMDSS - a combination of Global Positioning System and Satellite Communications System) which greatly increased the reliability of distress messages and automatically provided accurate vessel positions. This technology was recognised as being useful for tracking fishing vessels and these systems became known in fisheries as Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS). First used experimentally 15 years ago, and only systematically used 10 years ago, VMS has been rapidly adopted by many countries as a method of monitoring the activities of their fishing vessels, even in the remote waters of the high seas. The benefits of VMS are that it is relatively inexpensive and its synergy with the other tools in the MCS toolbox greatly adds to the cost-effectiveness of MCS activities as a whole. However VMS has several drawbacks, the most serious being that it only monitors the activities of vessels that are fitted with the equipment. At present authorities have to rely on the conventional aerial and marine patrols - to detect and arrest vessels fishing illegally and not operating with VMS.

10. Increasingly the information derived from VMS and catch reports is used to feedback into real-time fisheries management decisions. At present VMS is based on satellite communications systems that have a relatively narrow bandwidth. However, with the increasing number of communications satellites being deployed, greater bandwidth and hence higher speeds of data transmission are now available. These technologies enable video quality images to be transmitted from a vessel to a vessel monitoring centre. Although likely to be used initially for medical and mechanical emergencies, they could be available for visually monitoring the deck of a fishing vessel. Inmarsat's Global Area Network (GAN) service was launched in January of 2002 and already provides a wide band service that could well be cost-effective for industrial fishing vessels.

11. Nearly all the countries that do not have VMS lie between the Tropic of Cancer and the Equator. The last major fishing country lying outside this zone - Indonesia - has entered a contract with ARGOS to supply units to 5,000 vessels. The countries lacking VMS within this zone can be divided into five groups: East Africa, West Africa, Central America and Caribbean, Near East, and South East Asia. All are developing countries and can benefit from the FAO strategy for regionalization of VMS. In most of these countries the revenue per boat that would justify the capital and running costs of a VMS is insufficient. In some areas, regional cooperation of the type seen in the Fisheries Forum Agency in the South Pacific and in the European Commission could be implemented.

12. The shipboard equipment used for VMS is generally satellite communications equipment and the advantages of improved reliability of this new system to the crew in terms of safety (GMDSS) and general communications should not be underestimated. Catch and market data can also be exchanged between the vessel operators and buyers leading to more efficient markets. These factors have led to widespread adoption of satellite communications by fishing vessels in recent years. In 1996 only some 2,000 fishing vessels were fitted with satellite communications; it is estimated that this has now increased to between 20,000 and 25,000 vessels. The rapid and recent implementation of VMS has inevitably created problems and opportunities for the users and developers. These include the following.
(a) Data formats and procedures for sharing information between MCS units, countries and regional fisheries management bodies have generally been developed on the Inmarsat formats used in VMS. However small differences in such formats can lead to incompatibilities between countries and regions implementing VMS. In addition, electronic logbooks are being introduced whereby `near real time' catch reports can be transmitted by satellite. There is a need for standard data formats to be developed in both these cases.
(b) VMS is being required for smaller vessels and costs become a limiting factor. Cheaper shipboard equipment is becoming available, but in many cases, the recurrent cost of message transmission is increased. This means that both the capital and recurrent costs have to be considered in the final selection of systems.
(c) The "success" of VMS has tended to neglect the issue of vessels which are not reporting and are the most likely to be involved in IUU fishing. However this problem will be addressed in the near future by satellite surveillance (see para. 13) with Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR)
(d) As commercial concerns have focussed on VMS as a potential business opportunity, there are exaggerated claims of what VMS can actually achieve, especially when used in conjunction with other detection systems, such as radar. These claims have led to litigation between government administrations and the suppliers of the systems.
(e) The communications technology industry has recently undergone major rationalization and restructuring, leading to business failures among suppliers of VMS services. Nevertheless the financial failure of these companies does not remove the satellites already in orbit and these will be used by other service providers.
(f) Integrated systems will be developed which allow mutiple users of VMS informatiom and satellite surveillance to access data (e.g Customs, illegal immigration, drugs interdiction, anti-terrorism etc.). The proposed Maritime Monitoring (MARMO) research project in the EC is an example of such development.

13. Satellite surveillance is adding yet another tool to the MCS kit. In the European Union, VMS will be complemented with a remote-sensing vessel detection system (VDS) by 2004. Satellite surveillance has already been used to locate a suspect vessel fishing near the remote area of the Heard and McDonald Islands (about 2 000 kms South West off Western Australia), with the result that the vessel was subsequently arrested by an Australian patrol vessel.

14. Port State Control for merchant vessels is a well established procedure to enforce IMO and ILO Conventions which cover marine safety, marine pollution and maritime labour standards. Port State Measures have been recognised as a possible mechanism for enforcing international fisheries conventions, with respect to foreign fishing vessels when they are in the ports of another country in a similar manner to Port State Control. The FAO Compliance Agreement, the UN Fish Stocks Agreement (now in force) and the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries refer to Port State Measures. However, these measures should not be interpretated as a means by which port States seek to impose their own standards on vessels of other States, nor as a means to usurp the rights and privileges of flag States. They should rather be viewed as measures to assist flag States for the purpose of promoting compliance with subregional, regional or global fishery conservation and management measures.

15. Catch certification and trade documentation is another new MCS initiative. Catch Documentation Schemes (CDS) have provided valuable information, not only on the catches of individual vessels, but more importantly on countries whose vessels are unregulated and who fail to report their catch. At present, only a few regional fisheries management organizations have applied these measures, and only to a limited number of species. However, in view of the success of trade documentation in curtailing IUU Fishing, this mechanism will be applied by a greater number of countries and to a greater number of species under the aegis of regional fisheries management organizations.


16. The nature of MCS, in particular its policing and enforcement aspects, invariably affect civil liberties. A legal framework is therefore required to legitimise MCS activities. Any review or application of the MCS legal framework must be set within the wider legal framework of fisheries management and the national law in general. The Convention on the Law of the Sea and recent instruments on international fisheries management have prompted reviews of many national MCS legal frameworks in order to facilitate their implementation. The development and use of new technology, e.g. VMS and satellite surveillance, also presents many legal challenges. Questions pertaining to the appropriateness of continuous and real time reporting of vessel positions and of the use of VMS information in courts are two examples of such areas of challenge. Review and updating of national MCS legal frameworks will be necessary to address the legal issues associated with the use of such technology.

17. Regionalization of fisheries management, as provided for under the UN Fish Stocks Agreement and IPOA-IUU, can be advantageous as a cost saving measure or for ensuring comprehensive management coverage. Moves towards regionalization may require the harmonization of legislation or the creation of new regional initiatives such as vessel databases, or agreements on the minimum terms and conditions for the access of foreign vessels. In addition, new technology such as VMS presents opportunities for regional implementation that may need to be supported by a certain degree of harmonization of national legislation.


18. Thirty three missions pertaining to MCS have been fielded under the FAO FishCode Programme since 1998. The Programme has also organized four Regional MCS Workshops (Asia [2], South East Asia and Middle East) and the provision of legal advice on formulation of Fisheries Acts. It has in addition produced a number of MCS-related publications, including two FAO Fisheries Technical Papers.4
19. The International Network for the Cooperation and Coordination of Fisheries Related Monitoring, Control and Fisheries Surveillance (MCS Network) was founded at an International Conference on Monitoring Control and Surveillance which was held in Santiago, Chile in January 2000. Its membership currently includes Australia, Canada, Chile, New Zealand, Peru and the USA with the EC as an observer. The Network subsequently held another three meetings, respectively in Key Largo, Hobart and Auckland. FAO staff have attended the meetings with an observer status. The MCS Network has a web-site ( on which details and hyperlinks to MCS information of the member countries are available.
20. The FAO Fisheries Department and the FishCode Programme have organized or otherwise contributed towards other recent MCS-related international meetings and symposia including: a regional Western Indian Ocean workshop on Marine Fisheries Management and Enforcement (Mauritius, April 2002); the Sub Regional Fisheries Commission (SRFC)5 VMS Workshop (Senegal, October 2002); and the Expert Consultation to Review Port State Measures to Combat IUU Fishing (Rome, November 2002).6
21. The October 2002 VMS Workshop held in Senegal provided the SFRC, in cooperation with the FAO executed project Advisor Services for Fisheries Monitoring, Control and Surveillance (GCP/INT/722/LUX), with an opportunity to bring together senior fisheries officials from its member States in order to consider VMS initiatives on a cooperative basis. Participants agreed that the next meeting of the coordinating Committee of the SRFC should be asked to recommend to the Council of Ministers that the key elements of the VMS Workshop Report be considered as a Subregional VMS strategy.
22. Further MCS-related FAO Fisheries Department and FishCode Programme activities being planned for 2003 include a regional VMS workshop for East Africa, and an international meeting on open registries and flag states.


23. The Committee is invited to review recent developments in MCS and VMS and, in particular, the emerging issues related to these important tools for fisheries management and how the FAO FishCode Programme could be used more extensively to promote human resources development and institutional strengthening in developing countries.
24. The Committee is also invited to advise on the desirability of convening an FAO Technical Consultation on Port State Measures to Combat IUU Fishing.
25. The Committee is further invited to advise on the need for international cooperation in VMS, including the standardization of data formats and procedures, and the desirability of convening an FAO Expert Consultation on this subject.
26. The Committee may also advise on the involvement, or otherwise, of FAO in the International Network for the Cooperation and Coordination of Fisheries Related Monitoring Control and Surveillance (MCS Network).

1The Agreement to Promote Compliance with International Conservation and Management Measures by Fishing Vessels on the High Seas, 1993

2The Agreement for the Implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks.

3Kelleher, K. The costs of monitoring control and surveillance of fisheries in developing countries. FAO Fisheries Circular No. 976. Rome FAO. 2002. 47p.

4Davies, S.L.; Reynolds, J.E. Guidelines for developing an at-sea fishery observer programme. FAO Fisheries Technical Paper. No. 414. Rome, FAO. 2002. 116p.

Flewwelling, P.; Cullinan, C.; Balton, D.; Sautter, R.P.; Reynolds, J.E. Recent trends in monitoring control and surveillance systems for capture fisheries. FAO Fisheries Technical Paper. No. 415. Rome, FAO. 2002. 200p.

5The SFRC countries include Cape Verde, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Mauritania and Senegal. Sierra Leone participates as an associated country.

6See COFI/2003/Inf.8.