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







Why Addressing Illegal Fishing Could Help Combat Piracy

Large fishing vessel operating in the South Pacific (Credit:

Large fishing vessel operating in the South Pacific (Credit:

There are many factors that may compromise fish abundance. Some, like the effects of raising temperature, acidification, algal blooms or changing currents can be difficult to predict and act upon. But illegal fishing is one cause of stock depletion that can be addressed and controlled.

Our grossly oversized global fishing fleets are engaged in a fierce effort to capture their share of a decreasing volume of fish stocks. This level of competition, plus a lack of effective fishing vessel controls encourage illegal fishing, organised transnational fisheries crime and cross-over criminal activities.[1]

Like other types of unlawful maritime activity, illegal fishing takes place with more frequency and intensity in coastal maritime regions that governments are less able to monitor, access and control. In these areas, legitimate economic activities have little official protection against the threat of abuse and crime.

Large industrial vessels can illegally harvest vast quantities of fish that subsistence fisherfolk in vulnerable areas depend on. Local official corruption frequently results in the illegal operators being protected and encouraged to act again. Given the efficiency of modern fishing vessels, protracted predatory incursions into the traditional fishing grounds of others may cause enduring fish depletion.[2]

The collapse of fish stocks and ensuing marine environmental degradation are good reasons to put illegal fishing control high on governments agendas. However, recent research by Markus Ludwig and Matthias Fluckiger, of the University of Basel, has highlighted an additional, compelling reason why illegal fishing should be stopped: Piracy.

Photo Credit: Fara Abdi Warsameh, Associated Press

Photo Credit: Fara Abdi Warsameh, Associated Press

Narratives linking foreign illegal fishing as a driver for piracy are not new (see, for example, the work of Bueger on Somali piracy as a form of fisheries vigilantism in Somalia).[3]

However, the Basel University study is novel, taking a wide snapshot of data from 109 coastal countries on the strength of an original, objective methodology to draw its conclusion: That a significant decrease in fish catches can encourage piracy in fishing communities.

The study found that a 1% increase in fish catches can result in a decrease in piracy activity by 1%. The researchers point out that detected increases in piracy activity are likely to be a reaction to the temporary lack in available legitimate income opportunities, rather than a willingness to engage in lifelong criminal careers.

According to the study, the effect of negative fishery productivity changes can be far-reaching, given the detrimental effect that piracy can have on maritime economic activities like transport and other trade.

The logical conclusion is that combatting illegal fishing and prioritising policy measures to discourage it including the prosecution of those involved in fisheries illegality and crime may also be seen as tool to reducing incentives for piracy.

For access to the paper by Ludwig and Fluckiger, see .

[1] For more information on this topic, see Interpol’s Project Scale .

[2] For a recently reported example, see the case of the Fiji tuna fisheries .

[3] .


Illegal Fishing and Maritime Security

Why IUU Fishing is a Security Concern

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) has 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. IUU fishing and overfishing have already affected the food security of vulnerable populations on land (see, for example, the Madagascar food security study carried out by Le Manach et al in 2012 concerning unreported fishing and stock decline, or the work of EJF in Sierra Leone).

Photo Credit: Richard White, Lindblad Expeditions

At a time when fish has a growing importance in feeding the world (FAO, 2014) and against a backdrop of a rapidly increasing human population, the environmental impacts of IUU fishing and legal overfishing are a food security time bomb. In addition, pollution and climate change may also be undermining the ocean’s ability to produce food.

In addition to human security concerns, industrial scale IUU fishing is frequently linked to instances of maritime crime.  Tax evasion, corruption and document forgery can form an integral part of IUU fishing operations. Further, transnational organised crime such as human trafficking can be facilitated by the lack of coordinated surveillance under which fishing vessels routinely operate (UNODC, 2011).

IUU fishing may feed off land insecurity issues that have the effect of impoverishing communities to the point of forcing displacement. Uprooted individuals are routinely trafficked into forced labour, slavery and torture on board of fishing vessels (for real life slavery examples see the case of the Samudera Pasific 8 and the Merkat Bejala here).

UNODC experts have also found substantial evidence of extensive utilisation of fishing vessels for drug trafficking. Research suggest that significant volumes of cocaine and heroin have been seized by coast guards, police and port authorities in Africa, South America and Europe that were being trafficked on board of fishing vessels. Traffickers operated successfully whilst performing fake as well as real fishing voyages (see, for example

Illicit activities carried out by fishing vessels at sea are frequently “invisible”. Fishing vessels are exempt from the requirement of having AIS satellite trackers on board and many are not required to have working transponders (Vessel Monitoring Systems, or VMS) on board either.

Crime can be difficult to detect at sea.

Crime is difficult to detect at sea.

The result is that fishing vessel operations at sea are seldom detectable by flag and coastal States. It is not uncommon for fisheries authorities to be unaware of transhipments carried out by the distant water fishing vessels they are responsible for overseeing (i.e. those on their registers or, in the case of coastal States, operating in their waters).

Although knowingly invisible, those who operate IUU fishing vessels seldom work blindly. As the annexed Interpol notice shows, some IUU vessels feature high masts fitted with radars so that the master can be aware of other vessels present in the vicinity.

In addition, unlike merchant ships, most fishing vessels can currently operate without a permanent International Maritime Organisation (IMO) number that can identify them when they change name, flag or owner. Although the IMO has recently removed the identification number fishing vessel exemption, States have generally continued to permit their fishing fleets to operate without it. Changing a fishing vessel’s name (or even its appearance) is easy, straightforward and is a common practice of operators that seek to circumvent their legal obligations.

IUU fishing is symptomatic of underlying insecurity factors. Examples include a lack of distributive justice in resource access opportunities (Molenaar, 2011), inadequate and/or fragile legal and institutional frameworks, an absence of integrated monitoring, control and surveillance mechanisms and the degradation of the observance of the rule of law in maritime spaces (Gallic, 2008).

Whilst the participation of coast guards and navies is key, IUU fishing cannot be addressed solely by tackling individual vessels and their crews. Successful policies must ensure that national laws empower government agencies so that perpetrators and the financial and institutional powers behind them can be dealt with appropriately.

Difficult issues such as the lack of accountability of flag States and the prevalence of toxic economic drivers must be confronted on an international scale (for more information concerning the need for accountability in ocean governance, see the work of the Global Ocean Commission here).


FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations). (2014). The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture.

EJF (Environmental Justice Foundation). (2013). Keeping Illegal Fish out of Europe: Ensuring Success for the IUU Regulation.

Le Gallic, B. (2008). The use of trade measures against illicit fishing: Economic and legal considerations. Ecological Economics, 64(4), 858-866.

Le Manach, F., Gough, C., Harris, A., Humber, F., Harper, S., & Zeller, D. (2012). Unreported fishing, hungry people and political turmoil: the recipe for a food security crisis in Madagascar?. Marine Policy, 36(1), 218-225.

Molenaar, E. J. (2011). Non-participation in the Fish Stocks Agreement: status and reasons. The International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law, 26(2), 195-234.

UNODC. (2011). Transnational Organized Crime in the Fishing Industry. United Nations, Vienna, 2011.


Maritime Insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea: Illegal Fishing Matters

Like piracy, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing tends to occur in areas marred by insecurity challenges, underdevelopment and poor governance. The European Commission has identified IUU fishing as a key risk for its strategy purposes in the Gulf of Guinea.

Fishing vessel at sunset

Despite ongoing overexploitation concerns, the Gulf of Guinea continues to be a strategically important fishing ground for European fleets. The existence of bilateral fisheries agreements between the EU and Cape Verde, Cote D’Ivoire, Gabon, Sao Tome & Principe and Mauritania speak for themselves. Further, private licence agreements also provide European vessels with access to the EEZs of other nations in the region.

A recent article by Ioannis Chapsos (see full text here), of the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Studies, also highlights the importance of the Gulf of Guinea as a source of oil and gas for the EU, particularly in the light of recent tensions with the Russian Federation (currently Europe’s key energy supplier). 

It is therefore hardly surprising that the EU is seeking to understand and address insecurity issues in the Gulf. What is interesting is that IUU fishing is being given such relevance in the context of European objectives. Perhaps this is a sign of the EU’s recognition that illegal fishing has a powerful destabilising potential. It can derail fledgling coastal development and resilience initiatives as well as persistently undermine attempts at sustainability in the fishing industry itself. 

Implementation efforts by the Gulf of Guinea Commission, ECCAS and ECOWAS concerning their ‘Code of Conduct Concerning the Repression of Piracy, Armed Robbery Against Ships and Illicit Activity in West and Central Africa’ will no doubt be key to future EU strategy development and outcomes.

With the region’s economic outlook and value as emerging market raising expectations despite persistent risks, there is unprecedented interest in IUU fishing, its effects on West Africa and, more widely, on Europe’s long term interests.


Maritime insecurity and sustainable development: building bridges of knowledge

As a social species we human beings rely on communication to achieve our individual and common ends, but work in collaborative initiatives can often highlight the limitations of language. Having participated in a great seminar on Maritime Security and Sustainable Development coordinated by Coventry University’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Studies, it was interesting to hear other people’s opinion on this very subject.

One aspect of discussions that drew attention from attendees, rapporteurs and coordinators was the differing perspectives and understandings that people from different research disciplines can attach to simple words. An attendee commented on how the word ‘risk’, for example, could mean widely different things to people from diverse professional backgrounds. The importance of making an effort to see how someone may be relating to a topic under discussion cannot be overestimated: communication barriers can stop a project before it starts as potential stakeholders can misunderstand the relevance of an issue to them or their business.

At the seminar, the notion that maritime security and sustainable development are distinct academic and professional fields created difficulty when debating concept overlap. Yet, building bridges of knowledge between the areas of maritime security and sustainable development is not as counter-intuitive as it may at first appear. This became apparent when our seminar group began to explore the nature of policy and research stakeholders that would have an interest in each field: before long it became clear that the overlap was so substantial that the stakeholder lists were practically identical. Further debate exposed some causal factors that link both issues, such as the breakdown of the rule of law and failed maritime policies (not necessarily always associated to failed or fragile States). Certainly illegal fishing can be understood as a manifestation of both maritime insecurity and unsustainable resource allocation, development and commercial policies.

Along similar lines, at the 2014 Fishery Dependency Information Conference held in Rome, conclusions seem to have been revolving around the need to break down communication barriers between fishery stakeholders and scientists. Collaboration is key and mutual trust and understanding is not only desirable but vital for the achievement of reliable data and a genuine understanding of human impacts on the marine environment.

Breaking down communication barriers means bringing together disparity and promoting knowledge, inclusivity and respect. Bridging understanding gaps ultimately unites people in the pursuit of a common goal – we need those bridges of knowledge to bring the fragments together and understand the whole: devising truly sustainable ocean utilisation policies depends largely on this.