Exploring VMS Capabilities to Complement Vessel Safety

The WA Coroners Court recently handed down findings into the loss of the fishing vessel Returner in the Pilbara in July 2015 together with the tragic loss of the three crew onboard.

The Returner was a refurbished prawn trawler (formerly the Freda Jess) operating in the Dampier/Port Hedland region.

The Coroner’s recommendations included:

  • WA Department of Fisheries (now DPIRD) prioritise communicating with a vessel that has issued a Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) overdue alert that cannot be resolved as an important secondary safety aspect;
  • Where DPIRD VMS staff are unsuccessful in contacting the vessel or ascertaining its whereabouts within 4 hours of becoming aware of the alert, they should notify Water Police; and,
  • That DPIRD should consider ways in which the VMS can be monitored 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and if a practical means can be found, they should be resourced accordingly.

WAFIC and DPIRD have met several times to discuss and explore VMS capabilities to complement vessel safety.

Overdue alerts are a priority for DPIRD staff and are addressed first thing in the morning and prior to close of business in the afternoon. Extra measures are taken to contact the masters on board including contacting vessels potentially nearby as well as utilising vessel nominated onshore contacts and owners. These steps are documented in the VMS standard operating procedures and staff are aware there is a safety element to these checks.

Overdue incidents will be escalated to Water Police after four hours of not being able to reach a vessel after identifying the alert. DPIRD has incorporated this procedure into their vessel breakdown policy towards the end of 2017. Following discussions DPIRD will provide Water Police with an ‘information package’ which includes last known location, details of the incident and contact details.

DPIRD has approached Water Police and the Australian Safety Management Authority (AMSA) to monitor the VMS system overdue alerts outside of DPIRD office hours. Both agencies declined and cited that they were not resourced to carry out that kind of monitoring and VMS is not part of the Search and Rescue System.

DPIRD and WAFIC recognise that the VMS system has limitations in terms of operating as a safety system. VMS Officers manually checking each overdue alert, (which can be as frequent as 100 alerts per month), to determine which ones are legitimate indicators that a boat has missed a scheduled report. More recently, due to a major satellite migration, there has been an increase in delayed reporting by individual vessels that does not pose an issue for fisheries compliance purposes, but would be a major concern if the system was relied upon as a safety device.

DPIRD advises that VMS technology and the DPIRD VMS unit can, during office hours, contribute to safety processes if, for example, a master has missed a scheduled call to their onshore contact, the onshore contact is able to contact the VMS unit to determine if the vessel location unit is still ‘polling’ and the general area of the vessel in question.

Alternatively a master is able to utilize the VMS system to report their scheduled calls to on shore contacts, via email whilst offshore and out of phone range.

DPIRD and WAFIC identified several other options for tracking/sched calls as follows:

  • Utilising the VMS already installed on vessels – owners can download their own‘identifiers’ into the units and monitor them as DPIRD VMS unit. They can change ‘polling rates’ and update positions. Several WA companies monitor their own vessels in this way as part of their own safety management system processes.
  • Utilising Automatic Identification System (AIS) – vessels would require an AIS tracker capable transponder to utilize the free web based service. A potential drawback is that AIS is an open network therefore anyone can see a vessel’s movement tracks.
  • FIND ME SPOT scheduled notification device – Spot Gen 3 is a device that sends a position and message update to up to ten (10) saved mobile numbers and will update your position on a web page after you press a button.

WAFIC has agreed to raise this discussion on the national fishing industry agenda and that a holistic approach nationwide may be required to VMS and safety. WAFIC is still not convinced that the current VMS system is the right tool to use in terms of safety and other marine management matters such as in the recent implementation of 18 Commonwealth Marine Parks in WA.

For more information on using VMS to assist companies to contact and track their vessels contact Fionna Cosgrove at fionna.Cosgrove@dpird.wa.gov.au / (08) 9432 8041