Andrew Richards outlines how the satellite-based vessel monitoring system (VMS) of the South Pacific Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) is substantially benefiting local fishermen and the tuna industry in the Pacific. The FFA VMS is primarily used to ensure that foreign fishing vessels comply with regulations designed to promote the sustainable management of the region. The system has already proven to be successful tm reported cases of illegal fishing have remained at a consistently low level since its introduction in 1999.
Constable Hansen Kalran of the Vanuatu Police Maritime Wing has just logged on to the Internet and has downloaded a report that gives her cause for concern. Her monitor shows a satellite map of the entire exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of Vanuatu and the coordinates of all fishing vessels currently navigating its waters. All of the ships are following routes stipulated in their fishing agreements with the island state, save one: a foreign tuna fishing vessel that should be on its way home. Instead of directly leaving the EEZ from the port where it cleared customs, the vessel has stopped off en route, in all probability to catch extra fish illegally. Kalran wastes no time – she alerts her colleagues and within a few minutes the Police Maritime Wing’s patrol boat is preparing to intercept and inspect the suspect ship.
Dealing with incidents such as this is part of the daily routine of the Monitoring, Control and Surveillance (MCS) Division of the South Pacific Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA). The division has been successfully operating a satellite-based vessel monitoring system (VMS) for its member states in the western and central Pacific since 1999. The VMS is primarily used to ensure that foreign fishing vessels comply with regulations designed to promote the sustainable management and development of and thus to protect the livelihoods of local small-scale tuna fishermen. Enforcing compliance has become increasingly difficult, however. The Pacific tuna fisheries – which support an industry worth $1.8 billion per year – currently account for one-third of global tuna catches, and everyone wants a piece of the pie.
To complicate matters, artisanal, subsistence and commercial tuna fishers are searching for four principal species – skipjack, bigeye, yellowfin and albacore – as they migrate through the numerous national jurisdictions and areas of high seas. Approximately 50–60% of the total catch is taken within the EEZs of FFA members, which cover about 30 million km² of ocean. To stem the increase in illegal fishing vessels in this vast area, most FFA members have reserved their 12 nautical-mile exclusion zones for fishing by artisanal and subsistence fishermen, while other islands have put in place 40 nautical-mile exclusion zones that are off-limits to all foreign fishing vessels. Intruders, however, are always on the alert for good fishing opportunities and, increasingly, can only be controlled with the help of advanced ICT systems such as the FFA VMS.
How the FFA VMS works
The FFA VMS uses satellite technology to pinpoint a vessel’s position and then relays that information to an FFA member monitoring station. At the core of the system is an automatic location communicator (ALC), a sophisticated transponder that every fishing vessel operating in FFA territory is required to have onboard. This device, about the size of a car radio, consists of an integrated global positioning system unit and an Inmarsat transceiver, and monitors the vessel’s position, speed and course. The information is beamed up from an inbuilt aerial to an Inmarsat satellite, which is fixed in geostationary orbit above the Pacific. The satellite transmits the data to a Land Earth Station in Australia, from where it is carried by telephone lines to the VMS hub computer at the FFA Secretariat in Honiara, in the Solomon Islands, for further processing. This computer identifies any vessels violating fishing regulations and generates alert reports. The reports are downloaded via an encrypted Internet connection by the FFA members in whose EEZ the vessels are operating. In January 2004, for example, FFA members were able to use the system to track the activities of 883 foreign fishing vessels.
The FFA VMS has already proven to be a cost-effective means of providing support to the region’s compliance and monitoring programme. According to recent statistics, reported cases of illegal fishing have remained at a consistently low level since its introduction in 1999. Its annual ongoing operating costs, estimated at $845 per vessel, are recovered from the participating tuna fishing vessels. The system also shows strong future potential – it could, for example, easily be applied to track other vessels, such as those that illegally transport live coral reef fish. The FFA VMS is thus paving the way in the development of a fully integrated fisheries management approach for the region.