Satellite Technology and IUU Fishing

We end the year with this timely blog post from Beatriz Ortega-Gallego. Our contributor has a lifelong curiosity about all things nautical, and a passion for the ocean that led her to complete a degree in Environmental Sciences. She is currently pursuing a career as a fisheries inspector, and we wish her the best in her endeavour.

This topical blog, which surveys the main satellite technology applications for IUU fishing control, will be of special interest to those concerned with fisheries compliance. With increasing emphasis on the eradication of IUU fishing across domestic domains and internationally, and with global efforts to establish high seas marine protected areas underway, satellite technology is taking centre stage across the sector.

In this informative contribution to the IUU Fishing Blog, Ms Ortega-Gallego unveils the mechanisms and functions of Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS), Electronic Recording and Reporting Systems (ERS), Automatic Identification System (AIS), Vessel Detection Systems (VDS), and voluntary Electronic Monitoring Systems.

Happy New Year!


Control and management tools are essential in order to fight overfishing, protect fish stocks, and ensure fish supplies for future generations. The main fishing management tools are based on access requirements (fishing licenses or authorisations), technical measures (when, how and where it is possible to fish), limitations on fishing effort (that is, the time spent at sea by a fishing vessel of a given engine power). Also they are based on the management of total allowable catches and on quotas.

These management tools are effective in theory, but they must be combined with control tools which monitor the fulfilment of legal obligations, while identifying and sanctioning breaches. The traditional way of doing this is through fisheries inspections. However, in practice there are insufficient traditional control resources (a lack of trained inspectors, aircraft or vessels) to adequately monitor the correct implementation of domestic legal requirements on each fishing vessel in any part of the ocean.

How technology solves these surveillance difficulties 

In the 80s, Inmarsat and IMO (International Maritime Organisation) established the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS). This is a combination of a global positioning and a satellite communication system. Throughout the decade of the 90s this system was revealed as a very efficient tool in the control of the fishing vessels activities at sea.

The development of new monitoring, surveillance and control technology has gone a long way in counteracting the aforementioned difficulties, and is now able to detect suspicious illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing activity effectively, in any part of the ocean, and without any additional monitoring support.

Credit: European Commission DG Mare

Which systems are useful as a fishing control tool?

There are several different types of control technologies. The most widespread of them is the Vessel Monitoring System (VMS). It is a satellite-based monitoring system placed on board of certain fishing vessels. It receives position data signals from satellites and retransmits them at regular intervals to the flag State´s monitoring and information centre, which in turn forwards them to other control centres and inspection authorities. In addition to knowing the vessel´s position, this system is also able to determine the vessels course and speed.

All this data is stored in a closed and sealed box to avoid manipulation. This allows that, if an action suspected of constituting an infraction was not detected immediately, it could be discovered later by contrasting data.

Why is this data useful?

Knowing the position of vessels allows, for instance, monitoring of the closed areas or fishery protection zones, contrasting effort data and capture area with the data entered by the captain in the logbook, and/or ascertaining the exact coordinates of the vessel, allowing an on board inspection to be carried out.

From course and speed data we can calculate the estimated time of arrival at port, whether a vessel is fishing (3-5 knots) or sailing (10-12 knots) and even determine the type of fishing activity that is being carried out. For example, a trawler shows many consecutive positions in a small space and traces that intersect each other. A longline vessel can show numerous positions in a certain direction to set the fishing gear and others in the opposite direction to pick it up.

Therefore, VMS is considered a powerful instrument in the fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and is present in more and more RFOs like NAFO, NEAFC, ICCAT, CCAMLAR or IOTC. The contracting parties must send the VMS data to the control centres of the RFMOs with the frequency established by these organisms. For the purposes of EU legislation, for instance, VMS is mandatory for vessels of 12m in length and over, and they must transmit their data with a minimum frequency of 2 hours, as a general rule.

Another control technology is the Electronic Recording and Reporting System (ERS) or electronic logbook. It is a system that allows the recording, processing, storing and transmitting of data relating to fishing activities such as catch, transhipment, landing declarations, prior notifications, etc.

Through this system, illegal practices can be detected, alarms can be set up in case of non-compliance with legislation, and it is also a way of recording catch data facilitating quota control.

By cross-referencing electronic logbook data with VMS data, control authorities can detect untimely notifications, captures in fishery restricted areas, lack of mandatory prior notifications, or any other IUU activity. It replaces paper logbooks and also sales notes.

In 2002, the IMO approved the Automatic Identification System (AIS). It is used for maritime safety and security, but it may be used for control purposes. It allows identification, position, course and speed data to be communicated from vessels to other proximate vessels, to control authorities or to anyone interested in reviewing the data globally. The AIS is an autonomous and continuous system which implies an advantage over VMS, which transmits data approximately (varying according to legislations) every two hours. It does, however, have the disadvantage of not being able to be used in the high seas.

It is a system with a great potential as a tool again IUU fishing but will need implementation at a global level.

It may be the case that vessels turn off their AIS or VMS. The Vessel Detection System (VDS) allows position data derived from images captured by remote sensing (satellite imaging of sea areas) to be contrasted with vessel data transmitted by the VMS or AIS. Thus, if a satellite image shows, for example, the presence of 6 vessels in an area, but only a signal of 5 ships is received, it could be assumed that the vessel not transmitting is a vessel suspected of being IUU. It also determines the number of fishing vessels and their position in a given area and cross-checks the positions of the fishing vessels detected by VDS with position reports from VMS.

This system is still implemented experimentally in some RFMOs.

New technologies for the control of fishing continue to be developed and tested, like the Electronic Monitoring System. This is being used experimentally and voluntarily in some fishing fleets. It consists of multiple on board cameras recording all fishing activities.

None of these technologies substitute traditional control methods, but nevertheless they do focus efforts and as a consequence it increases the effectiveness and reduces costs of inspections. At the same time, control technologies improve the access to good quality fisheries data and make it possible to cross-check information from different sources.

Author: Beatriz Ortega-Gallego







IUU Fishing and Europe: Control Begins at Home

Oceana has reported on the concerning state of swordfish fisheries in the Mediterranean, highlighting in particular the indiscriminate targeting and trading of this fish by EU (particularly Italian) vessels.

Photo Credit: Greenpeace, sourced from

Photo Credit: Greenpeace, sourced from

According to the NGO, EU inspectors recorded a series of serious incidents in Italy during March 2013. These included the widespread trading of undersized swordfish, unusually large volumes of landings, pervasive irregularities in vessel and catch documentation, disinterest by local authorities and disregard for regional conservation measures.

Oceana have also denounced the fact that high market prices are working as an incentive for this irresponsible harvesting of vulnerable Mediterranean swordfish populations. The NGO is calling for the EU to work towards defining sustainability measures in ICCAT and be coherent with European sustainability objectives.

Having visited the beautiful coast of Southern Italy last year, I was struck by the widespread presence of undersized fish in markets, the ubiquitous presence of monofilament net in small fishing vessels and the presence of gill nets in areas that were supposedly protected. In addition, superficial enquiries revealed that flaunting fisheries laws in respect of tuna and swordfish appears to be accepted as common.

Of course this was in no way a scientific research exercise and I accept that the views of the people I spoke to may not be representative of others in the region. However, the reports made by the Commission’s own inspectors are, according to the NGO, alarming and strongly suggestive of a widespread culture of non-compliance.

In my opinion, this should concern the Commission deeply, and not just from the perspective of swordfish conservation.

Firstly, whilst some countries in Europe are making an effort to implement the Control and IUU regulations, it is becoming increasingly obvious that others are not. The strength of our common legislation lies in the success of coordinated control measures. Any systemic compliance voids are, effectively, tears in the European fabric of fisheries control and they must be identified and closed before they become gaping wounds.

Further, and perhaps most importantly, the EU has sustained a very high-profile campaign against IUU fishing internationally. The IUU Regulation is a legal achievement whose technical and political success at global level may not have been possible just a few years back. However, if the EU wants to continue to lead the fight against IUU fishing unchallenged, it must be itself a model of compliance.

The Commission now needs to act urgently and decisively to ensure the uniform implementation of our common fisheries laws in the territory of the Union and to show the world that IUU fishing will not be tolerated wherever it occurs. If our domestic fleets’ depredations go unaddressed, others may begin to question the legitimacy of the Control and the IUU Regulations and the significant compliance efforts that some European countries have made may yet turn sterile.

Mercedes Rosello

PhD Candidate (University of Hull)


European Policy on Illegal Fishing: Emergence of an International Trend?

Google Earth image featuring illegal fishing in European waters

Google Earth image featuring illegal fishing in European waters

Editor’s Note: This blog post was first published on on the 3rd of July 2014.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and the European Union (EU) have singled out illegal unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing as one of the main factors contributing to fishery depletion and a key obstacle to achieving sustainability.[1]

IUU fishing and overfishing have already affected the food security of vulnerable populations on land.[2]

At a time when fish has a growing importance in feeding the world, against a backdrop of our rapidly increasing human population, the environmental impacts of IUU fishing are a food security time bomb. This is made worse by the fact that pollution and climate change may also be undermining the ocean’s ability to produce food.

IUU fishing refers to fishing or fishing support activities performed in breach of fisheries management or conservation laws in national or international waters. It is a persistent phenomenon that thrives due to complex interactions.

IUU fishing is a complex problem, symptomatic of underlying factors that can also contribute to insecurity. Examples include a lack of distributive justice in resource access opportunities, inadequate and/or fragile legal and institutional frameworks, an absence of integrated monitoring, control and surveillance mechanisms and poor observance of the rule of law in maritime spaces.

For policies against IUU fishing to be successful, difficult problems such as the lack of governance accountability or the success of illegal global markets in wildlife and natural resources must be tackled.[3] The EU, current leader in the fight against IUU fishing, has developed a trade policy to address some of these issues.

In January 2010 the EU started to enforce a comprehensive system of port and market controls. By way of a pan-European law (Council Regulation 1005/2008 “the IUU Regulation”), the EU has devised a WTO-compatible methodology for detecting IUU fishing trade flows as well as identifying States that do not address the illegal fishing activities of their fleets.[4]

By engaging exporting States in a certification system that guarantees fish capture legality, the European Commission is able to identify exporting countries that allow IUU fishing trade flows to reach Europe. The Commission deals with this by working with such countries in the first instance, under a warning that failure to improve IUU fishing compliance controls may result in trade restrictions.

To date, the Commission has formally warned several countries, namely Panama, Fiji, Sri Lanka, Togo, Vanuatu, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Korea and Ghana. The European Council, following the Commission’s recommendation, has banned seafood imports from Guinea, Belize and Cambodia on IUU fishing concerns.[5]

The IUU Regulation also enables European governments to use port tools in the fight against IUU fishing. For example, it establishes a system of notifications and inspections for fishing vessels and refrigerated seafood cargo vessels. It has also established the foundations for the creation of an EU illegal vessel black list. Vessels that feature in this list are not able to access European ports for commercial purposes.

The fact that combatting IUU fishing is considered a priority in European policy is also exemplified by the recent publication of the Commission’s External Action Service ‘s Security Strategy for the Gulf of Guinea.[6] IUU fishing has been integrated in this document as a priority due to its impact on food security as well as its links with transnational organised crime.[7]

This is a policy trend with international echoes. It is unlikely to be coincidental that the African Union’s new strategy has this year been expanded to include IUU fishing. Further, in the United States, President Obama has recently announced the creation of a comprehensive framework to combat IUU fishing and seafood fraud.[8]

There have also been international developments, with the UN Fisheries Committee (COFI) formally endorsing the Guidelines for Flag State Performance. This voluntary instrument sets out a common minimum due diligence standard for combatting IUU fishing. COFI has also assessed the ratification status of the Port State Measures Agreement, an agreement widely hailed as a vital legislative tool to prevent illegally obtained seafood from entering the ports of signatory nations.

IUU fishing is a global problem that requires the collective, sustained effort of governments as well as industry and civil society. Despite the challenges, the above policy developments demonstrate that there is a deepening understanding of IUU fishing and a growing will to address it.

[1] The IUU strategy of the European Union is set out in the DG Mare website. For more information, please see

[2] See, for example, the Madagascar food security study carried out by Le Manach et al in 2012 concerning unreported fishing and stock decline.
[8] Full press release: