As the Government is poised to extend the use of vessel monitoring systems (VMS) across the…
Inshore VMS: Consultation Response by the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations
Defra is consulting on a proposal to require all vessels below 12 metres in length to fit and operate inshore VMS equipment when operating in English waters. This mobile phone based technology will allow regulators to track the location, speed and heading of fishing vessels in near real time. English vessels operating outside English waters would also be required to operate the equipment. Over-12 metre vessels (around 327) are already subject to satellite based monitoring. Around 2751 vessels would be included in the new arrangements. The purchase and installation costs would initially be met through EMFF. Reporting costs and replacement equipment would be purchased and installed at the vessel owners’ expense.
Inshore VMS, and the associated plans to enhance catch reporting by the under-12 metre fleet, represents a step-change in the level of monitoring, scrutiny and surveillance of the activities of inshore fleets.
Light touch monitoring for the inshore fleets has in the past been a double-edged sword. Minimal bureaucracy and relative freedom from restrictive measures have been welcome by the small-boat fleets. However there have been a number of downsides:
- Erosion of quota rights,
- A precautionary approach to regulation, carrying more severe measures than if the necessary data had been available
- Displacement from customary fishing areas by marine protected areas, or offshore infrastructure projects
- A general lack of political visibility, due to the absence of hard spatial and catch data
One difficulty has been the sheer diversity of the inshore fleets. Apart from often being geographically peripheral, the scale of fishing operations within the “inshore” fleet can vary considerably. The under-12 metre category can embrace vessels of considerable catching capacity, as well as vessels that are minimally active. It can include operations of considerable commercial and technological sophistication, as well as vessels operating on a basis that would be recognised as artisan, traditional, low-impact, fishing. Even the term “inshore” can be misleading, with operations for some under-12 metre vessels extending 50 or 60 miles from the coast.
Against this background, a means of providing solid data on the spatial dimension of small-scale fishing operations, the appeal of iVMS for fisheries managers is obvious.
It is hard to make the argument that the more active component of the below- 12 metre fleet is operationally so radically distinct and separate from vessels at the lower end of the over-12m category, that they should be treated in a wholly different way.
On the other hand, there will be vessels in the under-12m category that because of their limited range and type of operation, a requirement to fit and pay for iVMS equipment, will be seen as serious overkill.
It is for this reason that we consider that from the outset, the management approach towards iVMS should contain an element of discretion where an evidence-based case for exemption can be made. In other words, a risk-based approach to the requirements should be built in to the regulatory requirements.
The inshore sector stands on the cusp of major change as when the UK leaves the EU and CFP. In this context, the UK authorities will be able to develop a customised, fit-for purpose, management system for the coastal fisheries.
The argument made is that iVMS and accurate catch reporting could provide a robust foundation for such future management measures.
In particular, iVMS could:
- Allow access for inshore vessels to fish in parts of marine protected areas from which they would otherwise be prohibited
- Provide definitive data to resolve gear conflicts
- Provide part of the documentation that could allow parts of the fleet to be treated as low-impact, low regulation vessels
The trade-off is that such vessels, defined as low-impact, and therefore eligible for low levels of regulation, would have to continually demonstrate that, individually and in aggregate, they do indeed merit that status. It is within this context that iVMS is likely to have a role. Remote monitoring may prove to be a low cost means of providing documentary evidence to under-pin low impact status.
New Technologies/New Challenges
It is beyond doubt that satellite and mobile phone spatial monitoring systems can also provide a powerful enforcement tool. By directing enforcement activities to where offences are most likely to occur, resources can be deployed more efficiently and effectively. It is important, however, to appreciate their limitations. Recent case law (Devon and Severn IFCA) has underlined that courts take the view that an electronic indication of the location of a fishing vessel requires corroborative evidence if it is to be used to secure a successful prosecution. In other words, a dot on a screen, which requires further and expert interpretation, does not carry the same weight as a physical sighting by a reliable witness. Nor, in our view, should it.
Furthermore, the retrospective identification of offences, using electronic monitoring can allow sequential prosecutions to stack up, where prior to VMS, the enforcement authority’s intervention through an educative role might have allowed for a change in behaviour, increasing the possibility that offences could be prevented in the first place. This is particularly significant where multiple offences are ratcheted up (whether through ignorance or deliberate intent), escalating the multiple offences to the category of serious criminal behaviour, carrying automatic penalties such as licence suspension with consequences for crews, the master, owner and all dependent on that the fishing business.
These examples illustrate that the new technologies can generate new challenges that require careful and sensitive understanding, if a proportionate, balanced and fair approach to prosecuting fisheries offences is to be maintained.
iVMS will raise issues of commercial and privacy that will under recent legislation, carry significant legal implications for all involved in the supply and operation of the apparatus. We require assurance that these sensitivities will be respected and that future arrangements will provide adequate protections.
If there is to be a legal requirement for large numbers of under -12m vessels to fit iVMS, a number of important preconditions should be met:
- The equipment should be fit-for purpose, taking account of limited wheel-house space, or no wheelhouse
- Given the remote locations of many small vessels’ operations, a degree of tolerance should be built in to allow vessels to keep fishing when there is equipment breakdown, bearing in mind the logistics of repair in such locations
- Care should be taken to ensure that legislative requirements do not expose fishing vessels to exploitative maintenance contracts. Increased reporting requirements associated with fishing within MPAs could make under-12m vessels particularly vulnerable to large cost increases under single supplier contracts.
- Replacement costs could represent a significant financial challenge for some operators at the lower end of the scale for some under-12m vessels.
- EMFF will be used in the first instance to cover the cost of installing iVMS. However, some fishermen still face difficulties in accessing EMFF and this is clearly a matter of concern.
In summary, we can see the attractions of iVMS for fisheries managers. Linked with more accurate catch recording, iVMS can offer powerful tool both to aid enforcement but also to provide data that would allow for more effective and sensitive management. It could be used as a way of exempting large numbers of smaller vessels from some of the more onerous regulations, without sacrificing rigour or the sustainable management of fisheries.
On the other hand, remote monitoring carries with it inherent legal, operational and ethical challenges, outlined above, which require sensitive handling.
All this points to the need for a risk-based approach with a degree of flexibility to provide exemptions, tolerances where the evidence suggests that this is the right course of action.
Experience suggests that with any major change to the monitoring and enforcement regime, especially one involving new technologies, a strong dialogue is required at national, local and if necessary at vessel level to deal with initial issues and to resolve outstanding problems. Such a dialogue should not be considered a desirable add-on but should be considered as integral to the whole roll-out programme.