FAO Home>Fisheries & Aquaculture
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nationsfor a world without hunger
Diagram represents fisheries management and monitoring within the wider context of oceans management
Diagram represents fisheries management and monitoring within the wider context of oceans management
FAO/Fisheries Department

Fisheries monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS) is a key component of the fisheries management process. The rapid depletion of key fish stocks in the 1980s and 1990s has caused governments to seek more effective control over fishing activities and the movement of fish products. Illegal fishing has been recognized as one of the greatest threats to marine ecosystems and the communities which depend on them.

A new emphasis on effective MCS methods with increased cooperation among nations has been stressed in the international instruments which have been adopted during the past decade. Many of these instruments, such as the International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing, identify many tools states can employ to combat illegal fishing and urge strengthened MCS capacity.

MCS is the mechanism for implementation of agreed policies, plans or strategies for oceans and fisheries management. MCS is key to the successful implementation of any planning strategy. The absence of MCS operations renders a fisheries management scheme incomplete and ineffective.




Contemporary definitions of MCS go beyond the traditional idea of MCS as simply policing.  A comprehensive suite of MCS activities includes:

  • Monitoring the collection, measurement and analysis of fishing activity including, but not limited to: catch, species composition, fishing effort, bycatch, discards, area of operations, etc. This information is primary data that fisheries managers use to arrive at management decisions. If this information is unavailable, inaccurate or incomplete, managers will be handicapped in developing and implementing management measures.
  • Control involves the specification of the terms and conditions under which resources can be harvested. These specifications are normally contained in national fisheries legislation and other arrangements that might be nationally, subregionally, or regionally agreed. The legislation provides the basis for which fisheries management arrangements, via MCS, are implemented.
  • Surveillance involves the regulation and supervision of fishing activity to ensure that national legislation and terms, conditions of access, and management measures are observed. This activity is critical to ensure that resources are not over exploited, poaching is minimized and management arrangements are implemented.  

Unfortunately, not all fisheries administrators understand MCS, or its critical role as an implementing mechanism for fisheries management. Some view arrests as the only relevant indication of the effectiveness of MCS efforts. The real indicator for MCS is the level of compliance, and this is governed by many factors, e.g. the number of fishers; the number of vessels; effort and area coverage of patrols; results of patrols, increase in voluntary compliance, etc.

Effective MCS involves a two-pronged, parallel approach, relying on both prevention and deterrence. The preventive approach encourages "voluntary compliance" through understanding and support for the management strategies.  The parallel approach of deterrent/enforcement MCS is necessary to ensure compliance by fishers who resist adhering to the regulatory regime. Deterrence and enforcement include inspection, investigation, prevention and court proceedings to enforce the law. Voluntary compliance will be compromised if stakeholders see non-compliant fishers successfully evading the law and receiving economic returns from their illegal activity, at the expense of the fishers who comply with all requirements.


MCS tools


Key tools for MCS can include:

  • an appropriate participatory management plan developed with stakeholder input;
  • enforceable legislation and control mechanisms (licences etc.);
  • data collection systems - dockside monitoring, observers, sea and port inspections, etc.;
  • supporting communications systems;
  • patrol vessels capable of extended operating to remain at sea with the fishing fleets;
  • aircraft available for rapid deployment to efficiently search large areas;
  • use, where appropriate, of new technology (VMS, satellite, video, infra-red tracking, etc.);
  • linked, land-based monitoring;
  • support of the industry and fishers;
  • bilateral, subregional and regional cooperation with other MCS components; and,
  • professional staff.


The expense of MCS activities is often a primary concern of any government designing and implementing an MCS system. A civilian approach to deterrent fisheries enforcement has proven in many cases to be the most cost-effective and responsive to fisheries priorities. Use of civilian assets also minimizes the political sensitivity of international fisheries incidents by avoiding the use of military equipment and personnel.


For many governments, however, the military can play a significant supporting role in a strong MCS system. The key for such governments is to establish an inter-agency mechanism that enables fisheries administrators to call upon their military counterparts as and when needed.


MCS spatial components

 There are three main spatial components to MCS: land, sea and air. The proper configuration varies by situation and will depend on such factors as cost, commitment, and organizational structure (national, subregional or regional).  


The land component of an MCS system serves as the base of operations, the co-ordinating centre for all MCS activities, and entails port inspections, dockside monitoring, and the monitoring of transshipments and trade in fish products.  MCS at sea includes activities undertaken in marine areas under the jurisdiction of a State and may also cover high seas areas. Technology can include radar, sonar and vessel platforms. Physical presence through at-sea patrols is a fundamental MCS component as it is necessary for arresting violators and securing evidence. The air component covers the air and space equipment (aircraft, satellites, etc.) and the flexibility, speed and deterrence of these tools make them very popular.


MCS trends

Recent developments in MCS have seen the growing influence of Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS). The introduction of very reliable satellite communications systems and the complementary development of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) has enabled fishing vessels to automatically report their positions to management authorities at predetermined intervals or when requested. The initial introduction of these technologies have been directed at the enforcement role of MCS but, increasingly, scientists and managers are realizing the potential of better communications for their objectives. This increased role in almost real time information from fishing vessels of supplementary data such as catch reporting, fishing activities, analysis of catch etc. has been termed Integrated Fisheries Monitoring (IFM).

Growing concern over global security and awareness of activity in the marine environment has also influenced MCS programmes. Organized crime has made in-roads into fisheries.

Powered by FIGIS