Better Vessel Tracking Would Help Fight Illegal Fishing in Indian Ocean

Tuna management body should enhance rules to match available technology

Better Vessel Tracking Would Help Fight Illegal Fishing in Indian Ocean
Vessel tracking
Standardizing data collected from vessels via satellite tracking—as well as other measures—can help Indian Ocean tuna managers better prevent illegally caught fish from going to market.
The Pew Charitable Trusts

This blog was updated June 21, 2019, to amend which authorized vessels should require VMS tracking outside of their flag State’s exclusive economic zones.

The Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) manages fisheries in one of the world’s largest ocean areas, covering more than 27 million square miles, and has 31 member governments that are responsible for ensuring the sustainability of tuna and tuna-like species that are worth $2.3 billion at the dock and $8.7 billion at the final point of sale each year.

But the fishery is not without problems: Many of the purse seine, longline, and pole-and-line vessels, and carrier boats used to transship fish throughout this massive area, operate far out at sea—often out of view of authorities—where illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing is harder to detect. IUU fishing is a major problem worldwide, accounting for up to $23.5 billion worth of marine fish annually. To help counter this threat in the Indian Ocean, the IOTC should improve its rules at its annual meeting June 17-21 in Hyderabad, India.

IOTC should expand measures on high-tech vessel tracking

In recent years, governments’ adoption of satellite-based technology has made remote tracking and monitoring of vessel journeys far out to sea both easier and safer. One satellite-based method, called vessel monitoring systems (VMS), enhances monitoring, control, and surveillance by enabling authorities to track vessels individually, transmit their location to the ship’s flag State monitoring center, and indicate whether the boat is fishing or simply moving from one place to another. IOTC members already require a high degree of VMS coverage but the implementation of comprehensive coverage of all authorized vessels has been lacking. Most critically, there are no universal standards in place across all member systems to ensure consistent coverage, tracking, and data sharing.

Without consistent, straightforward ways to comprehensively monitor fishing vessels wherever they operate, and share data among relevant authorities, the IOTC is leaving its waters more open to IUU fishing than they should be. Better rules on vessel monitoring will help the Commission keep illegally caught fish from entering the market.

Four ways to upgrade VMS

With the adoption of a Resolution on VMS in 2015, IOTC recognized the importance of this tracking and monitoring technology to its fisheries. Now, given enhancements to this technology since then, it’s time for the Commission to update its requirements to bring more comprehensive VMS coverage to the Indian Ocean. To achieve that this year, the IOTC should:

  • Create consistent monitoring practices and procedures for authorized vessels to ensure that VMS data provide comprehensive coverage of all fishing vessels and are easy for relevant authorities to analyze.
  • Strengthen VMS reporting requirements and information collection by standardizing      what data need to be shared under what conditions between relevant flag, coastal, and port State authorities and the IOTC Secretariat.  
  • Require VMS tracking of all authorized vessels that operate outside of their flag State’s exclusive economic zone.
  • Mandate that all longline, purse seine, pole-and-line, and carrier and bunker vessels greater than 15 meters in length that operate within IOTC members’ waters have VMS installed to allow monitoring by flag States and coastal States where the vessels are licensed to operate.

The Pew Charitable Trusts commends the IOTC for having VMS requirements but encourages the commission to make the enhancements outlined above. By doing so, member governments can vastly improve monitoring and tracking of thousands of authorized vessels.

The Indian Ocean’s valuable tuna fisheries deserve comprehensive efforts to ensure that fishers are doing the right thing. By upgrading VMS requirements, IOTC would demonstrate that it is committed to the long-term viability of its fisheries—and to effectively fighting IUU fishing.

Mark Young supports The Pew Charitable Trusts’ efforts on fisheries conservation and enforcement.

A Fishing Boat in the North Sea
A Fishing Boat in the North Sea
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Tracking Fishing Vessels Around the Globe

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Vessel monitoring systems (VMS) are an essential tool for modern fisheries management. With proper implementation and appropriate sharing of data, these systems can also help detect, deter, and eliminate illegal fishing.