Fully equipping a national fishing fleet with vessel tracking systems: Malta leads, the EU must follow

Date: 9 March 2022

Malta has installed tracking systems on its entire fishing fleet, including General Packet Radio System (GPRS) trackers on 750 artisanal fishing vessels below 10 metres in length, which represent 93% of the country’s fishing boats. This means that today, all active Maltese fishing vessels have a tracking device to transmit their position, course and speed to the Maltese Fisheries Monitoring Centre.

Maltese authorities confirm that the use of geo-locators is not only intended to monitor the activities of their fishing fleet, such as ensuring that vessels do not access restricted areas; it also serves to gather essential information to understand the evolution of fish stocks. Once all the information from the tracking devices (and catches reported in the fishing logbook) is collected, the Maltese authorities intend to carry out assessments of their fishing grounds. This includes drawing up maps to locate the most valuable fishery resources. This can facilitate sales, provide market information and optimise the business management of the artisanal Maltese fishing families.

This decision was years in the making. In 2014 and 2015 the Maltese authorities installed GPRS in vessels ranging between 6 and 17 metres in length that were authorised to fish for Dolphinfish. Along with the vessels already equipped with the Vessel Monitoring System (VMS), a total of 135 fishing vessels had a tracking system in place. However, the National Act adopted in 2019 brought a big structural change: it made the installation of tracking systems mandatory for every fishing vessel. For small vessels below 10 metres in length, Maltese authorities decided to require the installation of a simple GPRS tracking system, which transmits the vessel’s position in the same way as a VMS. This transmission is then received by the Maltese authorities. Fishers do not have to worry if the system fails. The Department of Fisheries, along with the technology supplier, arranges its repair or replacement at no cost to the fisher. The local company handling the GPRS project also provides at a small cost a service enabling the fisher to view the location of its fishing vessel(s) from home. 

The adoption of  new technologies elsewhere in the EU has often led to some resistance by those having to implement these changes. Yet, the case of Malta shows that even in an EU Member State with a large small-scale fleet, installing mandatory tracking on all fishing vessels is possible. It can get political buy-in from (artisanal) fishers: the Maltese fishing community has understood that these tools can help them improve their knowledge of their catches and fishing needs, and enable them to manage their stocks more sustainably.

Where Malta has led the way, other EU Member States must follow. The ongoing trilogue negotiations, between the European Commission, the EU Council of Ministers and the European Parliament on the revision of the EU Fisheries Control Regulation is the best opportunity to do so. EU governments should not feel encouraged by Malta’s example, they should use what Malta has learned to support an EU-wide requirement to install vessel tracking systems on all fishing vessels from EU countries.