Vessel monitoring tech can save lives, make fisheries transparent

Proper vessel monitoring can save lives and make fishing more sustainable.

Seven sailors drowned when a Filipino merchant ship crashed into the USS Fitzgerald in the Sea of Japan last 17 June. The accident was caused when the American destroyer turned off its Automated Identification System (AIS), making it difficult for the Filipino merchant ship to spot and avoid it. Last 21 August, the USS John McCain crashed into a commercial tanker near Singapore, leaving 10 dead.

A fisherman installs a vessel monitoring device in his boat in Negros Occidental. Vessel monitoring is required under the amended Fisheries Code, to institutionalize measures for sea safety and fisheries transparency in the Philippines.

For safety and fisheries transparency, all Philippine commercial fishing vessels must comply with the Amended Fisheries Code by installing AIS or other Vessel Monitoring Measures (VMM) by 2020, larger vessels having started AIS installation since 2015.

The European Union estimates that about 26 million tonnes of seafood – 15% of global yields – are caught via Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing. The Philippines was issued a yellow card in June 2014 for previously failing to curb IUU fishing, serving to warn the country that unless it addressed IUU fishing, its seafood products would be banned in Europe, our biggest market for fish and fish products.

The Philippines acted swiftly by amending its aged Fisheries Code, with VMM identified as the best method to ensure that fishing vessels operate only in designated zones, enhancing transparency and traceability. VMM systems can use satellite, GSM or radio waves to plot the location and course of vessels.

An all-Filipino company called Futuristic Aviation and Maritime Enterprises (FAME) offers an alternative. Instead of satellite-dependent AIS, FAME uses radio waves. One-pound electronic transponders broadcast a vessel’s location and route to a receiver or relay station up to 50 kilometers away. The data is then beamed up to the web, where administrators can check data in real-time. The transponders have added value. If say, a fishing vessel runs low on ice, the transponder can instantly relay the need to its users.

Developed by Pinoy engineer Junjun Fetizanan, the system is certainly affordable. “The FAME platform costs about PHP800 monthly, making it a dozen times cheaper than AIS. After the third year of subscription, fishers will own the transponders.”

Affixed to boat masts or roofs and powered by solar panels, the tamper-proof devices can send data every specified intervals, acting as warning devices when a switch is triggered and ensuring that fishing vessels stay within their designated zones. The Bureau of Fisheries and other designated enforcement agencies can then check whether fishers entered off-limits areas.

Oceana, a global marine conservation working to promote sustainable fisheries, is helping pilot-test VMM measures in Visayas and Mindanao. “We’re looking for ways to better implement our environmental and fisheries laws – so we welcome solutions offered by service providers such as FAME and other innovators,” adds Oceana Philippine Vice-president Atty. Gloria Estenzo Ramos.

Around 15 transponders were pilot-tested in the Visayas’ Tañon Strait, Siquijor, Estancia in Iloilo, Negros Occidental, plus the waters of General Santos in Mindanao. These areas are among the top fishing grounds in the Philippines which comprise almost 10% of the country’s wild fish catch, frequented by commercial fishers. Over 50 commercial fishing vessels will be kitted-out with the device before the year ends.

Fisheries law enforcer Jose Tajonera from Negros Occidental says they are using vessel monitoring to detect illegal and commercial fishers in their area. “Vessel monitoring will greatly help us find and deter illegal fishers as we patrol our municipal waters. Our home waters need to be protected as they give us the food and livelihood needed to survive.”

Whatever the case, vessel monitoring is now required by law  – and in presenting affordable, real-world solutions, it will be far easier for medium and small-scale fishers to comply with the new Fisheries Code – another step forward in making global fisheries more sustainable.

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