Global Fishing Watch calls for EU to follow Norway’s lead in sharing VMS data

Global Fishing Watch's map of fishing activity across the globe.

Norway recently became the first European country to share its vessel-monitoring system (VMS) data on the Global Fishing Watch (GFW) system.

A memorandum of understanding signed between Global Fishing Watch and Norway’s Directorate of Fisheries on 30 June at the 2022 United Nations Ocean Conference will give GFW access to Norway’s vessel-monitoring system data for the estimated 600 fishing vessels in Norway that are 15 meters or more in length, allowing it to be accessed via the Global Fishing Watch map.

“Wild living marine resources are a common good and belong to everyone,” Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries Director-General Frank Bakke-Jensen said in a press release. “When a commercial fishing fleet is licensed to utilize this common good, we are obliged and committed to share fisheries data documenting the environmental footprint of commercial fishing activity. We hope that others will follow this approach and share more fisheries data.”

Norway is the second-largest exporter of fish and fish products by value in the world, though much of that value stems from salmon raised via aquaculture. Since October 2019, Norway has shared its VMS tracking information on the Fisheries Directorate website, but the partnership with Global Fishing Watch will help make its vessel tracking data more accessible to a wider range of stakeholders, according to Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries Head of Monitoring, Control, and Surveillance Thord Monsen. Monsen said concurrently with the data-exhange partnership with GFW, the country is also expanding its VMS requirement to include all commercial fishing vessels and increasing the frequency that vessels need to report their position.

“We believe that improved transparency of fishing data is necessary to reduce the risk of illegal fisheries and set the groundwork for improved compliance,” Monsen said.

Founded in 2015, Global Fishing Watch is a partnership between Google and the advocacy groups Oceana and SkyTruth that collects vessel location data from satellite images and tracking systems. GFW said Norway’s participation marked a milestone for the nonprofit, as the country is “an influential voice when it comes to fisheries issues and a leader on blue economy issues.

“We’re seeing more and more countries embrace fisheries transparency, demonstrating their understanding of just how essential public data is to the effective management of fishing activity,” GFW CEO Tony Long said. “Norway has taken a leading global role in the sustainable ocean economy and is using its experience and expertise to promote better ocean governance. By bringing its fishing fleet into our map, Norway is paving the way for other countries, including developed nations, to follow suit.”

Global Fishing Watch International Policy Director Courtney Farthing called for the European Union to follow Norway’s lead and share vessel-monitoring system (VMS) data for its distant-water fleet

The E.U. is already integrated into the Global Fishing Watch by sharing its Automatic Identification System (AIS) data. Like AIS, the VMS system uses satellite tracking to transmit vessel locations and both systems are used by GFW to track global fishing activity and illegal fishing.

"We have not seen this ambition from the E.U., likely because, in the broader scheme, good initiatives around fisheries and data transparency have already existed," Farthing said. 

GFW is keen to credit Brussels for work to date on improved transparency.

“The E.U. has demonstrated progressive leadership in fisheries management, especially when it comes to embracing fisheries transparency,” said the spokesperson, who pointed to the E.U. mandate of AIS for fishing vessels, as well as the publication of registries, fishing authorizations and some access agreements with third countries.

The E.U.’s data privacy regulations are an obstacle to sharing the coordinates of European vessels, Daniel Voces, managing director at European fisheries industry lobbying group Europêche, told SeafoodSource.

“E.U. member-states are in control of the VMS and are responsible for its proper functioning. Public authorities should be the ones overseeing and controlling fishing operations since they have the powers of investigation, prevention, sanction, and authorization. It is still unclear to us what the business model and ultimate objectives of Global Fishing Watch are and we need to know more about those before we can be comfortable with such a move,” Voces said. “In the case of Global Fishing Watch, we do not know which data would be required and neither how that would clash with E.U.’s data-protection regulations.”

Voces said there are compelling reasons for keeping the date private – primary among them, competitive interests in the E.U. fleet.

“It has to be understood that data generated onboard vessels are more and more relevant to the sector’s activity each year, similarly to all industries, and it is something that needs to be thought through before delivering sensitive data to private interests,” he said. “As we have said, we do not know what the Global Fishing Watch business model is and whether our data would be monetized or how would it be treated. Also, it is important that data could easily be used by competitors from other flags that have not and are not investing in vessel quality and technology and crew well-being operating in similar areas. Our data could enhance their operations without the needed investments whilst selling their products in the same markets.”

Voces said E.U. distant-water fishing fleets already have to log fishing activities and catches onto the electronic logbooks, which are then transmitted and, after that, crosschecked with automated positioning information received in member-states’ control centers.

“These data are shared with other member-states and regional fishery management organizations as well as third countries where vessels operate and with specialized agencies,” he said.

The Global Fishing Watch spokesperson acknowledged “challenges” for the E.U. in sharing VMS data but suggested the bloc is still able to follow Norway’s lead.

“Compliance with general data-protection regulation has historically played a role in shaping data-sharing trends,” the spokesperson said. “It’s important to note that Norway has similar data laws and has had no issue sharing VMS and catch data. This sets a significant precedent for other countries in Europe and could reopen the discussion on VMS sharing in the EU.”

Access to VMS data could help overcomes limitations in AIS data, Farthing said.

“Distant-water fleets may operate in areas that have issues with satellite coverage, and vessels may limit their AIS use or broadcast inconsistently. For these reasons, public VMS with a 72-hour delay would be a step forward for transparency within the sector, helping demonstrate compliance by E.U. vessels and support for further advances in fisheries science. We are seeing an increasing number of nations embrace transparency as a tool to drive greater ocean governance. Norway’s decision to share its VMS data should be rightfully recognized as a leading initiative that other European countries can and should follow.

Image courtesy of Global Fishing Watch


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