Groundfish Document Library: Vessel Monitoring Systems

In 2003, the Council began using depth-based management for commercial and recreational groundfish fishing in order to avoid harvest of overfished groundfish species. This means that fishing is allowed or disallowed in certain depth zones. Depth-based management can be difficult to enforce with limited at-sea patrolling capabilities. In order to address this problem, managers are implementing “vessel monitoring systems,” or VMS. While VMS creates additional costs and responsibilities for both managers and fishermen, it allows more fishing than would otherwise be possible using current enforcement tools.

What is a Vessel Monitoring System?

A VMS system uses electronic transmitters, placed on fishing vessels, that transmit information about the vessel’s position to enforcement agencies via satellite. This allows someone on land, monitoring such transmissions, to determine if a vessel is in a closed area. There are several issues related to the implementation of VMS, including the variety of equipment types and associated costs, vessels’ ability to carry VMS, VMS operating requirements, vessel coverage, and collaboration with traditional enforcement techniques. However, as a new monitoring tool for West Coast groundfish fisheries, VMS has dramatically enhanced rather than replaced traditional techniques.

Background

In September 2004, the Council began considering an expansion of VMS beyond the limited entry sectors included in the pilot program. The Council focused on including groundfish directed open access vessels in the next phase, as well as vessels in other fisheries such as Pacific halibut longline, salmon troll, and exempted trawl fisheries in California, which incidentally take groundfish or are subject to Rockfish Conservation Area restrictions.

Who does VMS apply to?

At present, VMS requirements only apply to some segments of the groundfish fishery operating in the EEZ. VMS units are required on:   limited entry trawl and limited entry fixed gear fleets; vessels using non-groundfish trawl gear; and vessels using open access gear to take groundfish.   All commercial vessels that take and retain, possess or land Federally-managed groundfish species taken in Federal waters or in state waters prior to transiting Federal waters;  and on all non-groundfish trawl vessels including those targeting pink shrimp, California halibut, sea cucumber, and ridgeback prawn. Regulations applyin to non-groundfish vessels are intended to enhance enforcement of closed areas for the protection of groundfish essential fish habitat.  Fishermen with occasional commercial groundfish landings that primarily target non-groundfish species, such as salmon and tuna, should consider if the added costs of VMS are worth the extra revenue they receive from groundfish.

Who will pay?

Currently VMS costs are borne entirely by the vessel owners; however, at this time there continues to be an equipment purchase subsidy available through the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission VMS Reimbursement Program.

From a broader management perspective, the costs of VMS compare favorably  to the cost of more aerial and at-sea surveillance needed to achieve the same level of monitoring.

What are the safety implications?

Although not primarily a safety device, VMS may contribute to increased vessel safety. Some VMS transceivers allow constant two-way communication between the vessel and shoreside monitors. If an accident were to occur, the recorded track of the vessel may aid rescue efforts. Some units are also capable of sending text messages or distress calls.

What types of VMS systems have been approved, and where can I get them?

Only NMFS approved VMS units may be used.  For further information, please see the NMFS VMS website.

History of VMS decisionmaking

2002

Between September and December 2002, the Council’s Enforcement Consultants group recommended VMS equipment requirements, identified approximate fleet sizes for fishing sectors likely to be considered for VMS units, and estimated the cost associated with purchase, installation, and operation of VMS. The Ad Hoc VMS Committee (VMSC) met to further investigate VMS and other enforcement issues related to depth-based management. In November 2002, the Council made recommendations to NMFS regarding vessel coverage, costs, and gear regulations (for more information, see links below).

2003

National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), in consultation with the Council and the VMSC, prepared a proposed rule for a pilot VMS program. The proposed rule was published in the Federal Register on May 22, 2003. On November 4, 2003, after receiving input from the Council and its advisory subpanels, the final rule implementing the pilot VMS program in 2004 was published in the Federal Register. A list of approved VMS units was published in the Federal Register on November 17, 2003. In October, the VMSC met to develop recommendations on expanding the VMS program to include commercial open access vessels.

Following the VMSC report at the November 2003 Council meeting, the Council postponed a decision on VMS program expansion until the pilot program was implemented in 2004.

2004

At the June 2004 Council meeting, NMFS reported on the successful implementation of the VMS program and the associated telephone declaration system. In September, the Council reviewed a range of alternatives for program expansion. Incorporating comments from the Groundfish Advisory Subpanel and the public, the Council adopted a range of alternatives for expanding the VMS program beyond the limited entry sectors included in the current pilot program. The alternatives focused on including groundfish directed open access vessels in the next phase of the VMS program, but also included vessels in other target fisheries such as Pacific halibut longline, salmon troll, and exempted trawl fisheries in California, which incidentally take groundfish or are subject to Rockfish Conservation Area restrictions.

In October 2004, the VMSC met and reviewed the alternatives that the Council recommended for further analysis and adopted a preferred alternative. The VMSC’s preferred alternative would require any vessel engaged in a commercial fishery to which a RCA restriction applies to carry and use VMS transceivers and provide declaration reports, except salmon troll vessels operating in waters north of 40°10′ N. lat. that only retain yellowtail rockfish. Vessels using salmon, Dungeness crab, CPS or HMS gear that do not take and retain groundfish are excluded. Pink shrimp vessels are excluded.

2005

Between January 10, 2005 and March 5, 2005, NMFS held eight public meetings on the current VMS systems, the expansion of VMS into the open access groundfish fisheries, and how to provide comments to NMFS and the Council. These meetings occurred in the following communities, which have relatively high open access groundfish landings: Westport, WA; Astoria, OR; Newport, OR; Port Orford, OR; Fort Bragg, CA; Morrow Bay, CA; San Francisco, CA; and Los Alamitos, CA.

In April 2005, NMFS presented a revised draft environmental assessment analyzing the nine VMS coverage alternatives for the open access fishery. The Council recommended that further analysis be conducted and brought back to the Council in September 2005. The Council specifically asked that NMFS examine thresholds for identifying vessels that land insignificant amounts of groundfish, and low impact fisheries that could be exempted from the VMS requirement. In addition, the Council express concerns about of the cost of VMS being borne by industry. As a result, NMFS developed three additional alternatives and broadened the analysis.

In June 2005, the Council approved measures to protect groundfish essential fish habitat. Although these measures were developed separately from the VMS program, VMS was considered as a way to monitor the new habitat protection areas.

In November 2005, the Council adopted a preferred alternative that greatly expands VMS requirements. The Council recommended VMS units for all commercial vessels that take and retain, possess or land Federally-managed groundfish species taken in Federal waters or in state waters prior to transiting Federal waters. Additionally, to enhance enforcement of closed areas for the protection of groundfish essential fish habitat, the preferred alternative requires VMS on all non-groundfish trawl vessels including those targeting pink shrimp, California halibut, sea cucumber, and ridgeback prawn.

Last complete update:  May 2, 2014