Opinion: The secret to making satellite vessel monitoring more effective? Make it public

Photo by: Environmental Justice Foundation

Our oceans are under serious threat. They are becoming warmer, more acidic, and more polluted. As a result, critically, most fisheries across the world are in a parlous state, under the relentless pressure of overutilization. And, while stocks are collapsing around the world, there is a growing demand — and ever-increasing capacity — to catch fish.  

At the same time, illegal “pirate” fishing operators are exacerbating the already acute problem. They use destructive, banned fishing gear, fish in protected areas, work without licenses, and ignore quotas, seeking to maximize short-term profits without concern for the depletion of marine resources. Vulnerable, often extremely poor, coastal communities in developing nations suffer the worst consequences of this overexploitation of fish stocks and the degradation of marine environments. For many of these communities, their food security and economic development are under threat. In a country like Sierra Leone, for example, where 70 percent of the population lives below the national poverty line and 46 percent are undernourished, fish provides 64 percent of animal protein consumed. In remote coastal communities, almost all animal protein comes from fish.

Eradication of illegal fishing should therefore be a priority in the coastal countries that depend on fish for their food security. Yet, it is often in these very countries that illegal fishing thrives. Governments lack the means and resources to properly monitor their waters. It is hugely challenging for a country like Sierra Leone, with responsibility for a maritime area of 157,000 square kilometers, to patrol every corner of its waters. Fuel, maintenance, and crew costs for a full-time surveillance vessel are extremely expensive for any nation.

Can satellite technology plug the gap?

Satellite-based vessel monitoring systems are technologies that can assist fisheries management and control authorities in ensuring compliance with management objectives. A VMS is a program of fisheries surveillance, in which satellite-positioning devices installed on fishing vessels provide regular information about the vessels’ location and activities. The identity and location are presented on a map display in real-time, allowing authorities to compare vessel positions with features of interest, such as regulated areas.

“If a coastal or flag state is unable to constantly monitor the activities of their own vessels or of those in their waters, then the rest of the world can do so if the data is made public.” 

— Steve Trent, executive director, EJF

In today’s world of highly technologically advanced fishing vessels chasing ever fewer fish, VMS is a hugely valuable technology in allowing flag states — the state with which a vessel is registered — to monitor their long distant water fleets — for which they are ultimately responsible — wherever they operate. It is also a critical tool for coastal states that grant fishing licenses to fleets from around the world to monitor and safeguard their precious marine resources. While VMS surveillance can remotely detect some illegal fishing activities, in most cases it can also be used to detect other suspicious activities that could warrant further investigations in port or through at-sea inspections, therefore enhancing other enforcement mechanisms at the same time.

The rise of remote-sensing surveillance in fisheries monitoring

Since the 1990s, VMS has become a standard tool within fisheries monitoring and control. In recent years, satellite surveillance tools not originally designed for fisheries management purposes have increasingly been employed by nongovernmental organizations and governments to detect illegal fishing activities and supplement VMS data. For example, automatic identification systems — designed for navigational safety, and more recently synthetic-aperture radar imagery — can both be used, with varying degrees of effectiveness, in this way.

In addition, cheaper satellite on-board units are now becoming available, and alternatives that use local mobile phone networks when near shore instead of more cost prohibitive satellite networks are now being introduced. This is making VMS technology applications more affordable and cost effective for fishing vessels regardless of their size.

VMS technology can be coupled with CCTV cameras and sensors on board fishing vessels to automatically detect fishing activity and notify authorities so that they are aware of such activity. These innovations can add an additional layer of scrutiny to monitoring fishing vessels previously unavailable to flag and coastal states.

Technologies like VMS are becoming increasingly accessible and cost-effective in comparison with other more traditional surveillance means such as aerial or at-sea patrol — this is particularly good news for developing nations.

However, despite their clear cost advantages, satellite-based solutions are not fully implemented by all countries around the world. Initial setup costs of constructing and operating a fisheries monitoring center are too high for many developing states. Even more common are examples where systems have been set up, but lack the resources to methodically monitor and act on the data that is produced. In most cases, VMS data remains under the control of respective governments and companies, meaning that illegal activities in countries where VMS surveillance is not fully functional or regularly monitored remain undetected.

Making fisheries monitoring public to make it more effective

There is one simple and free solution to solve this issue: Making VMS data public. If a coastal or flag state is unable to constantly monitor the activities of their own vessels or of those in their waters, then the rest of the world can do so if the data is made public. Countries are already coming to this conclusion. In 2017, Indonesia and Peru both agreed to share their VMS data on the publicly available satellite-monitoring platform Global Fishing Watch. The Environmental Justice Foundation is calling on all countries around the world to follow suit, giving public access to their live, unedited VMS data.

Lack of transparency is a pervasive underlying facilitator in overfishing and illegal, unreported, and unregulated, or IUU, fishing. Increased transparency, including public sight of vessel movements, would make it much more difficult for perpetrators to operate under the radar and remain unaccountable. The Environmental Justice Foundation has already used publicly broadcast automatic identification system signals from fishing vessels through the platform ExactEarth to identify illegal activities in West Africa, leading to sanctions by relevant states. However, fishing vessels are not legally required to transmit AIS data, and AIS transponders can easily be switched off or obscured. Remote monitoring and the tracking of vessels would be greatly enhanced if it was more transparent and publically accessible, and specifically by making AIS transmission mandatory for fishing vessels over a certain size and VMS data public to supplement AIS information.

Public access to vessel monitoring will curb IUU fishing, as well as reduce opportunities for corruption, inform fisheries management decisions, limit fleet overcapacity and overfishing, and help direct subsidies. EJF is calling on all governments around the world to make fishing vessel monitoring public as part of a wider push to increase transparency and traceability in fisheries. This includes publication of fisheries information related to authorizations, catch and sanctions, as well as mandatory unique vessel identifiers for industrial fishing vessels, and to support the creation of a desperately needed global record of fishing vessels.

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About the author

  • Stevetrent

    Steve Trent

    Steve Trent has over 25 years experience in environmental and human rights campaigning, creating effective advocacy, and communications campaigns and field projects, as well as leading investigations in over 40 countries. He is the executive director and co-founder of the Environmental Justice Foundation. Steve also co-founded WildAid serving as president for over a decade, and leading WildAid’s work in China and India. Prior to this Steve was the Campaigns Director at the Environmental Investigation Agency.