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Continual monitoring of fishing effort is required
Continual monitoring of fishing effort is required
Courtesy of OAR/National Undersea Research Program

The use of Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS) to automatically plot the positions of fishing vessels is being increasingly adopted by countries around the world. The on-board vessel equipment uses modern satellite communications systems that have an inbuilt Global Positioning System (GPS). The system is automatic and requires no input or training for the crew. At predetermined intervals, a message is sent to a central monitoring centre where the position, course, speed and identity of the vessel can be displayed on a monitor.

It must be stressed that VMS is only one of the many tools that can be used in Monitoring, Control and Surveillance (MCS) of fishing vessels. However, the valuable information on a vessel's position and the record of its movements make VMS very useful not only in its own right, but also in enhancing the operation of those other MCS tools such as marine patrols or aerial surveillance. On the other hand, VMS can only be useful in instances where the vessel is licensed and fitted with the equipment (i.e. compliant). By itself VMS is not capable of detecting vessels that are fishing without a licence and/or not fitted with equipment or not reporting (i.e. non-compliant). But it is useful in detecting non-compliant vessels in conjunction with maritime patrols when vessels are also being monitored by radar and other types of vessel detection systems to verify and validate.  To maximize its potential value VMS should also be part of an integrated fisheries management framework of laws, policies and practices.  In October 2006 FAO held an Expert Consultation on the Use of Monitoring Systems and Satellites for Fisheries Monitoring, Control and Surveillance.

VMS and international instruments

VMS is equally valuable for flag States to monitor the activities of their vessels when fishing in national zones and on the high seas, consistent with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as called for in the Agreement to Promote Compliance with International Conservation and Management Measures by Fishing Vessels on the High Seas (FAO Compliance Agreement) and the Agreement for the Implementation of the Provisions 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 (UN Implementing Agreement) and for coastal States to monitor the activities of foreign flagged vessels fishing in their EEZs under bilateral or multilateral agreements. The International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing also recognizes VMS as a valuable tool to combat IUU fishing and encourages flag States to make it a condition of authorization to fish.  The 2005 Rome Declaration on Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing adopted by fisheries ministers calls for ensuring all large scale fishing vessels operating on the high seas be required by their flag State to be fitted with VMS no later than December 2008.

VMS can enhance safety and report other data 

The hardware for VMS can also be programmed to enhance the safety of the vessel and crew by programming to transmit distress messages. This is true whether the equipment is GMDSS (Global Maritime Distress and Safety System) compliant or not. Although initially VMS were only programmed to automatically report position, some systems are used to report catch and effort data as well as ancillary data useful for fisheries management. This will require on-board observers or special training for the crew to collect and input data.

The introduction of electronic fishing logbooks can simplify the collection of catch statistics by providing a user-friendly interface which the vessel crew can record current catch. This will be automatically reported along with the VMS report, thereby achieving a near real-time catch reporting system.

By using a standard format such logbooks could easily translated from one language to another by software selection thus making it easier for fisheries inspectors to understand. Such electronic logbooks will also provide the vessel with a historical record of fishing results that can be subsequently analyzed so that the operator can optimize his fishing activities.

Implementing VMS programmes

Many countries, especially those with important fisheries, have implemented VMS systems for their larger vessels. Having first required most of its fishing vessels over 24 metres overall length to be included in a VMS programme, the European Union now requires most of its fishing vessels over 15 metres overall length to be included in its VMS programme. Other countries are planning to implement VMS or are studying its feasibility for their fisheries.  Vendors are also trying to address the special needs of small scale fisheries with new innovations.

Regional Fisheries Management Organizations such as the North Atlantic Fisheries Organisation (NAFO) and the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC), are incorporating VMS into their requirements for the vessels of their member states.  The Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in the South Pacific constitute a unique grouping under the umbrella of the South Pacific Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) which includes a programme for VMS. This system is based on one Central Monitoring Centre (CMC) in Honiara Solomon Islands which relays the required information out to the member states, thereby achieving a regional system of VMS. In the FFA, VMS data is being integrated with other data such as licensing information for enhanced MCS effectiveness.

Tampering with a vessel’s VMS data is a major concern for all States.  Guarding against interruption of signal transmission, disrupted power supply, false position reporting and other intentional acts designed to circumvent VMS are likely to remain challenges for governmental authorities.  Better data security and integration with other data systems are needed.

Need for standards

There is a need for standardization of the message protocols used in the messages sent by VMS, so that fishing vessels can move from one jurisdiction to another without reprogramming their satellite communications systems. This information will also facilitate the development of electronic logbook formats which will provide a user friendly interface for VMS systems in which catch reporting is required. At present most of the countries with VMS have adopted a common or similar message protocol for vessel reporting and exchange of information. FAO recommends that administrations considering the implementation of VMS should use this protocol so that national protocols would be regionally and globally compatible with each other. The position and catch reporting formats, which are based on the FAO Technical Guidelines for Responsible Fisheries No 1 - Fisheries Operations - Supplement. No. 1 "Vessel Monitoring Systems".  FAO has also held an expert consultation on Data Formals in MCS. Cooperation among states and data sharing are necessary for effective MCS at a global level.

While most of the countries with VMS have fairly well-developed economies or have fisheries that are sufficiently important to justify expenditure on VMS, there are many other countries in which fisheries are low in the government's priorities and for which the fisheries contribution to the national economy does not warrant excessive expenditure on MCS. A regional implementation of VMS could make the scarce resources used for MCS more cost-effective in these countries and assist them to monitor the vessels flying their flag when they are fishing on the highs seas or in the waters under the jurisdiction of another country. In the meantime, there is the possibility of the VMS reports to the flag States being forwarded to the coastal States (or the vessel also reporting directly to the coastal State).

In relation to this, coastal States allowing access to foreign vessels should seriously consider this possibility as a condition of access in their fisheries agreements. In this respect there is a need for building trust between flag States and coastal States. Coastal States must be guaranteed that they will receive all position reports in due course, without alteration by the flag State. Coastal States will in turn have to guarantee that they will deal with the position reports in confidence and use them only for MCS purposes. In order to promote cooperation between coastal States and between coastal States and flag States, FAO has carried out a programme of VMS workshops for countries that have not yet implemented VMS systems. These workshops have been run in Panama, Senegal, the Seychelles, Trinidad and Thailand.

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