Vessel monitoring system

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See also: Fisheries monitoring surveillance and control

Vessel monitoring systems (VMS) are used in commercial fishing to allow environmental and fisheries regulatory organizations to monitor, minimally, the position, time at a position, and course and speed of fishing vessels. They are a key part of fisheries monitoring surveillance and control (MCS) programs at the national and international levels. VMS may be used to monitor vessels in the territorial waters of a country or a subdivision of a country, or in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) that extend 200 nautical miles/ (370.4 km) from the coasts of many countries.

Detail of VMS approved equipment and operational use will vary with the requirements of the nation of the vessel's registry, and the regional or national water in which the vessel is operating. Fisheries followed by VMS fall into two main categories:

  • Local/regional fish such as scallops in the Northeast U.S., anchovies in Peruvian waters, or rock shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico
  • Highly migratory species (HMS) such as tuna and billfish, or Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) in the Antarctic. which can be caught in multiple regions

In this discussion, VMS relates specifically to fisheries management systems. VMS is sometimes used as an informal synonym for other such things as the Automatic Identification System (AIS) or Vessel Traffic Service (VTS). AIS and VTS are quite different from VMS, although they may be complementary may apply to marine oversight and sensing programs that deal with the safety of navigation, hazardous material spills, and environmental threats such as algal blooms. VMS uses different radio technologies, is long-range, and handles commercially sensitive information.

While VMS is not a part of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS), it has been a lifesaving adjunct to GMDSS primary systems such as Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRB) and marine radio equipped with Digital Selective Calling (DSC).

Since the vessel components are expensive, most countries subsidize the purchase of equipment, although the vessel owner may have to pay for installation, maintenance, and continuing communications costs. The communications service used can optionally support other functions such as voice, electronic mail, and other applications over which the communications cost can be amortized. VMS cost is a significant obstacle to its use in developing countries, but there are a number of subsidy programs to encourage VMS use. VMS from marine electronics suppliers may also offer a variety of other optional functions that can help in navigation, economic analysis, safety, and finding fish to harvest.


VMS is intended principally for fisheries management, but the country using it may use the data for other purposes.

Fisheries management

Among the most basic purposes is to monitor the movement of VMS-equipped vessels with respect to restricted fishing areas. A given vessel may have approval to fish in a restricted area, to transit through it without fishing, or it may not be allowed in the area.

Catch reporting

Not all VMS systems have the software to record and transmit catch reports. On the systems with separate PCs, it is reasonably easy to distribute separate software, although the fishermen may or may not be able to install it without assistance. For VMS with dedicated PCs, additional software can be made part of software support with established channels. There is a distinct trend to making catch reporting part of an overall MCS program, although current VMS systems rarely integrate this capability with position reporting. Under the European Union scheme, vessels are generally required to report

  • Catch on entry
  • Weekly catch
  • Transshipment
  • Port of landing
  • Catch on exit

A number of programs require tracking of days at sea (DAS) for a given vessel. They may require tracking the total cumulative catch of a given fishery.

Fisheries research & analysis

VMS is a planning and analysis tool as well as an aid to operations. Treated as a research database, the cumulative position reports gives an analysis of fishing vessel tracks in search of fish. Coupled with species-specific fishing licenses and catch reports, fisheries managers can estimate the amount of a given fish in an area, the amount taken by fishing vessels, and project overfishing before it happens.


VMS itself can help in search and rescue (SAR), especially when the SAR organization participates in the Global Maritime Distress Safety System(GMDSS). Some VMS have built-in Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRB), although a dedicated VMS unit may not be able to have an emergency beacon that automatically floats to the surface and starts transmitting when it detects it is in salt water. At the very least, the SAR agency can get a last reported location of the vessel, and perhaps its course, from the FMC.


VMS obviously is part of fisheries enforcement, but, along with other systems, it can be part of overall sea surveillance. When a radar or other sensor detects a given vessel, VMS can tell the center that monitors the radar whether the radar target is a known fishing vessel.

Technologies and components

VMS involves technology on the vessel, ashore, and communications between them. In addition, there may be additional communications from the Fisheries Management Center (FMC) of the vessel's country of registry, and regional or national FMCs of the waters in which the vessel is fishing.

A sometimes subtle point is that a VMS needs two separate communications systems, usually satellite based: one to a global navigation satellite system such as GPS, and one to communicate with the FMC.

Functions aboard the vessel

The most basic function of a VMS is to determine the vessel's location at a given time, and periodically send this information, usually by satellite, to a monitoring station ashore [1].

VMS components on the vessel sometimes are called VMS, or sometimes Automatic Location Communicators (ALC). These minimally include a GPS antenna and receiver, a computer (which may be embedded or user-supplied), and a transmitter and antenna appropriate for the communications that links the vessel to the flag center.

In practice, many of the VMS components also have applicability, along with non-VMS marine electronics, to a wide range of functions aboard a fishing vessel. These include navigation, finding fish, collision avoidance, routine voice and email communications, etc.

Selecting a VMS system is most dependent on what vendors and models have been approved by the fishing vessel's state of registry. If there is a choice, then consider that the greatest flexibility to add components is with a system that does not have an embedded computer. If there is not an embedded computer, however, the vessel's owners will have to take more responsibility, perhaps through a contractor or installer, for keeping the software updated and integrating new software components without interfering with VMS functionalit.

Especially when the user supplies the computer (i.e., the VMS consists of the radio gear and software only), VMS often have, in addition to the pure location transmission function, some level of fusing the various data sources with electronic charts.

VMS software and devices for the fishing vessel include:


VMS units principally rely on GPS for position and time information. LORAN may be a backup or complementary technology. They report data to monitoring systems generally using satellite systems from Inmarsat, Argos, ORBCOMM or Qualcomm. Some nations, such as Iceland, are experimenting with coastal VHF repeaters for VMS communications.

  • Operated by Inmarsat plc, originally founded by governments but now commercial, Inmarsat has a constellation of geosynchronous communications satellites.
  • Argos uses Low Earth Orbit European and US satellites in polar orbit, which is an especially appropriate orbit for vessels operating in high latitudes.
  • Skymate uses Orbcomm LEO satellites, which is optimized for machine-to-machine communications, potentially at lower cost than voice-capable satellite systems. They operate in the VHF and UHF bands, and have demonstrated an AIS capability.
  • Qualcomm provides access to the Iridium satellite systems.
VMS/ALC Vendor Product type Communications Communications type
Bluefinger/Thales GPS & uplink antenna; PC software for VMS, log Inmarsat Geosynchronous satellite
Boatracs Dedicated with phone, fax, email Qualcomm LEO L-band uplink
Satrax ETS-1000 Dedicated computer with telephone Iridium Polar LEO with satellite-to-satellite
Satrax ETS-250 Dedicated computer Orbcomm Polar LEO with satellite-to-satellite
Skymate GPS & uplink antenna; PC software for VMS, weather, fish prices, surface temperature, log Orbcomm LEO VHF Uplink
Thrane & Thrane Dedicated computer with voice and email Inmarsat-C Geosynchronous satellite
Satamatics or Skywave Low-cost, small transceivers with integrated GPS Inmarsat-D+ Geosynchronous satellite

Fisheries management center of the vessel's nation

Software at the fisheries management organization looks for several pieces of information:

  • location vis-a-vis restricted area
  • time at sea
  • time in restricted area, possibly separating fishing and transit time by speed

A restricted area may be closed for all purposes, open to transit, open to fishing for a specific period, or open to designated vessels only. Vessel speed is often the way its status is determined in lieu of direct observation. Some VMS directly report speed, or speed can be calculated by FMS software based on the time stamps of different position reports. A rule of thumb in scallop fisheries, for example, is that the vessel cannot be dredging for scallops if its speed is greater than 5 knots.

FMC software can note the time a vessel leaves and returns to port, and the time it is inside or outside designated areas. There may be restrictions on trip length, time in an area, etc., which can be calculated directly from VMS data. Other observations may require correlation of catch reports with the vessel's presence in given areas. Presence in other areas may require an onboard observer.

Individual regional, national, and international FMCs have different levels of software intelligence, which can detect patterns of interest to SAR, fisheries management, or law enforcement.

Fisheries monitoring center of the waters being fished

Countries with registered fishing vessels that employ VMS generally agree to set up a Fisheries Monitoring Center (FMC), which connects via data network to the FMCs of other states. The flag state principle requires all vessels, registered in a given state, to transmit their positions automatically to that state's FMC. When the vessel enters the waters of a different state, the home FMC must forward the report of the vessel's entry into those waters. Until the vessel leaves the foreign state's coastal area, the home FMC must forward, to the FMC of the foreign state, position, speed, and course reports at least every two hours.

If position details are not received from a vessel that has been sending them, the FMC for the ocean area. from which the last signal was received, must attempt to contact the vessel. must contact the vessel or the flag state FMC without delay. Since VMS reports are sent automatically, it is possible that there is nothing wrong with the vessel itself, only the VMS. Full SAR, therefore, should not be launched simply because a VMS report does not arrive, although it is reasonable to inform sea surveillance assets, such as radars, that might be able to find the vessel. Fishing vessel crews should check the VMS at reasonable intervals, and confirm it is working.

While the procedure will vary with the jurisdiction, if an at-sea vessel finds their VMS is not working and they cannot fix it, they may be able to contact the FMC and get permission to continue the voyage. If they do get such authorization, they may get an inspection when they return to port. The FMC may also order them back to port. It is unlikely they will be allowed to leave port again without the VMS being repaired, so that they may need 24/7 VMS technical services at their home port.

Position reports received by the FMC should be forwarded automatically to the FMC of the vessel's registry. FMCs and other organizations, such as SAR and research, which receive VMS data must comply with confidentiality agreements. All recipients of data are also in accordance with agreements obliged to handle the data they receive in a responsible manner.

Catch documentation scheme

Catch reports are not themselves part of VMS, but often will be correlated with VMS data as part of an overall fisheries MCS program.


These safety and traffic management systems are not interoperable with VMS. VMS has privacy requirements they do not, and uses different technical standards. Nevertheless, a vessel required to have some or all of these capabilities may share some onboard equipment, such as computers, displays, or antennas. SAR and other safety agencies that can protect VMS data may combine data received by an FMC with their own information systems. Law enforcement organizations can combine VMS data with their own sensors and intelligence when a fishing violation is within their authority.

International programs

Given that fish exist in food chains, it is worth noting that the United Nations is at the logical top of the VMS chain, under the authority of the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). While it does not contain any provisions that are directly related to the use of VMS, it establishes a number of important principles of relevance for this study, relating to the conservation and management of living resources, both within national jurisdictions and on the high seas. UN fisheries operations are under the Food and Agriculture Organization.


Under the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Living Marine resources (CCAMLR) [11], a number of member states monitor agreed-to conservation measures and research information. The major emphasis is on the Dissostichus sp. catch (i.e., Patagonian and Atlantic toothfish, Chilean sea bass) Realtime VMS is required for most exploratory VMS, with delayed reporting for other longline fisheries and for finfish trawling. The flag state VMS architecture is used, where the national FMCs of vessel registry, starting in 2005, transmit to the CCAMLR regional FMC.

Member states under the agreement are Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, European Community, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Namibia, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Russian Federation, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Ukraine, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, United States of America, and Uruguay. In addition, Bulgaria, Canada, Finland, Greece, Netherlands, Peru,and Vanuatu accede to the convention. In practice, up to 50 vessels are expected to be monitored, and about 15 of the convention states actually fish in the area. The longline vessels range from 349 to 2,203 long tons (355 to 2,238 t).

Depending on the latitude, satellite communications may require polar-orbiting satellites, or the vessel may be in line of sight of a geosynchronous satellite.


Under the European Union is a VMS [12] Europe has over 7000 vessels, in excess of 15 meters, under VMS. Since 2005, all Community vessels transmit vessel identification, date, time, position, course and speed. shall ensure automatic transmission not only of data on vessel identification, geographical position and date and time, but also on course and speed. They normally transmit hourly or every 2 hours. The only exception is for vessels that operate only inside home waters, or are used exclusively for aquaculture.

One of the challenges for European MCS is that the idea of a 200 nmi EEZ is meaningless for nations with coasts in small seas such as the Mediterranean or Baltic. In such circumstances, appropriate international agreements need to be developed to govern fishing beyond the territorial limit and thus on the high seas, but high seas that would have overlapping jurisdiction in an EEZ-based model.

There are precedents where maritime pollution already is handled on a basin basis, which might provide a framework for fisheries enforcement in international waters of a small sea:

  • Mediterranean (Barcelona Convention)
  • Baltic (Helsinki Convention)
  • North Sea (Bonn Agreement)

A recent IMO regulation requires AIS transponders aboard vessels, which transmit identifier, name and position of vessels not limited to fishing. [13] Another approach might involve either AIS, or the more finely grained VTS, agreements that use coastal radar to monitor ships in and beyond coastal waters. This allows a transport vessel, for example, to be tracked in the small sea.

Another cross-check could involve current EU RADARSAT ScanSAR imagery, correlated with transponder information, such that only radar images of ships without active transponders display to enforcement personnel. At present, however, inspectors on aircraft or surface patrol vessels do not have real-time access to satellite imagery. Currently, the fusion of VMS, radar(satellite, aircraft, or coastal) has to be done at an operations center ashore. Another complication is that enforcement organizations for such things as spill monitoring are not concerned with issues such as illegal fishing.

Northwest Atlantic

The Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization [14] is composed of Canada, Cuba, Denmark (in respect of the Faroe Islands and Greenland), European Union, France (in respect of St Pierre et Miguelon), Iceland, Japan, Republic of Korea, Norway, Russian Federation, Ukraine, United States of America.

Under this agreement are all fisheries, principally trawl and longline, except crab, lobster, salmon, sedentary species, whale and tuna. Approximately 135 vessels are monitored, the majority of which are trawlers with a few longline, ranging from 500 to over 2000 gross weight tons (GWT).

Northeast Atlantic

Under the Northeast Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC) [15], Denmark (in respect of the Faroe Islands and Greenland), European Union, Iceland, Norway, Poland, Russian Federation.

This agreement covers all fisheries in the high seas of the regulated area, including trawlers, purse seiners, longliners, and gill netters. In 2004, 1473 vessels were monitored, with 800 authorized to fish for regulated species.

VMS is required for any vessel of 24 meters or longer overall length. NEAFC is a secondary user of data from flag state FMCs; the regional FMC connects to national Germany, Denmark, Spain, Estonia, France, Faroe Islands, United Kingdom, Greenland, Ireland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Russian Federation, Sweden, and, occasionally in the past, Japan and New Zealand. It also connects to the European Commission FMC.

Fisheries surveillance vessels will transmit, to the FMC, information on their operations with respect to VMS-equipped vessels, including:

  • surveillance entry
  • observations
  • prepare for inspection
  • surveillance exit

NEAFC participated as an observer in, a project funded by the EU to use satellite radar images to validate VMS information and to complement and optimise surveillance tasks. NEAFC decided, based on the results of the EU-funded IMPAST (Improving Fisheries Monitoring By Integrating Passive and Active Satellite Technologies), to deploy a Vessel Detection System (VDS) in several coastal states.

NEAFC is also participating in the EU-funded SHEEL (Secure and Harmonized European Electronic Logbook) and CEDER (Catch, Effort and Discard Estimate in Real-time) projects, which may lead to direct electronic reporting of real-time catch data.

Pacific Islands

The FFA [16] has 16 country members and one territory member from the western and central Pacific region. It is based in Honiara, Solomon Islands. While the FFA proper was formed over 20 years ago, VMS operation began in late 1997, covering the EEZs of 16 South Pacific countries.

FFA VMS is expected to cover 2000+ vessels, transmitting via Inmarsat-C and reporting every 4 hours.

Southern Africa

Fisheries are a major component of the economies of the coastal member states of the SADC (Angola, Namibia, South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, Mauritius and Seychelles), [17].

Due to limited resources, there is little VMS beyond experiments in Namibia and South Africa. There is a European Union funded project to improve monitoring.

West Africa

The Sub-Regional Fisheries Commission (SRFC) based at Dakar, Senegal is made up of west African States, namely Cape Verde, The Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Sierra Leone and Senegal. Its role is to promote fisheries cooperation between its member States.

The donor is the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and the executing agency is the FAO and Lux-Development. Participating countries are These countries are members of the Sub-Regional Fisheries Commission (CRSP) with the addition of Sierra Leone. The project proposed is a continuation and extension of the AFR/101 Project (FAO), which may add VMS to supplement the present air surveillance.