September 18, 2020 — In ports, effective management of the flow of marine traffic is a key to maximizing efficiency. Any number of complications, caused by human activities such as departure delays, or confusion from nature, tides, weather or such, can skew this traffic movement. Most ports now try to better manage the movement of vessels in and out of port as well as within the port using some form of vessel traffic service/management.

VTS as it is commonly called can vary from simple radio contacts to sophisticated systems with multiple stations and the most advanced radar and electronic sensors used by highly trained operators. Efficient movement of vessels is a prime concern but so is marine safety and security which are also attributes of an approved VTS system.

The authority for VTS systems, port, coastal, riverine or other is generally held by the administration of a maritime nation which will then operate the system themselves as in Canada and most of the United States. Most often however, the administration will, under a set of guidelines from IALA (International Association of Lighthouse Authorities), pass the establishment and operation of VTS systems to other bodies, mostly ports. The majority of VTS systems in the world are operated by Port Authorities while some are operated by Coast Guards, Hydrographic services, Pilotage Authorities and a few by private organizations such as the one in Tokyo Bay. To obtain authority from the country’s Maritime Administration, the majority will follow the IALA guidelines for establishment and operation of the VTS system. IALA is on the cusp of becoming an IGO (Inter Governmental Organization) which means that many of their guidelines for the marine industry (VTS), like those of the International Civil Aviation Organization, could in the near future become mandatory under IMO convention.

Ports may have implemented vessel monitoring systems as simple as a few in-transit radio calls or as sophisticated as those with advanced radar, electronic monitoring and major control centers yet always keeping in mind legal protocols that discourage anyone but the vessel master from actually directing the vessel. In other words, most VTS systems simply ask for and provide information regarding vessel transits. This is usually under rules of a VTS Authority designated by the maritime nation’s Competent Authority. In Canada, the Coast Guard is the Competent Authority and the VTS Authority, and additionally, under their operating agency, Marine Communications and Traffic Service (MCTS), provide marine safety broadcasts, weather information, continuous marine broadcasts and other marine safety services.

Up to standard?

Given that your country’s “Competent Authority,” usually the Maritime Administration or its equivalent, has decided to use the international standards of IALA or some version of this, VTS authorities (usually ports) may want to consider the following guidelines in establishing or upgrading a VTS system. Final approval is usually required by the Competent Authority.

It is occasionally appropriate to review the capabilities of an existing VTS system as shipping volumes and types of traffic are continually changing and expanding. A port’s traffic management capability often requires upgrading. IALA recommends that the following should be considered for VTS upgrading and for new VTS installations.

  • Consider functional requirements. Who are the stakeholders in the port operation? What are the links with port management? Include government agencies.
  • Define new or expanded VTS areas, system users and their requirements.
  • What is the type and level of service to be provided?
  • What categories of vessels will be participating in VTS reporting?
  • What tasks will be performed by VTS staff, and what is the regulatory framework?
  • Determine reliability and availability along with organization of information flow.
  • Define traffic management technology and equipment requirements.
  • Determine operational procedures and equipment requirements.
  • Prepare staff requirements and mandated training.
  • Determine costs and implementation schedules.

During the above review, a risk assessment can be carried out as dangers within ports and their approaches can often change or may not have been previously addressed. The cost and implications of possible marine casualties within the port should be considered in the final evaluation of any proposal for VTS implementation or upgrade.

The above details are a very simplified version of the IALA recommended procedures for VTS implementation and all subjects would require expansive evaluation. For example, the IALA simple risk assessment process, when carried out by an IALA certified assessor, would provide an accurate view of risks within the port, suggestions to address them and what the scale and cost of casualties might be.


In today’s modern shipping world, the connection of shore-side management of a port’s activities is becoming more and more integrated with the vessel traffic movement component. Many options are offered for port management programs, as are those for different types of VTS systems, but full integration of both components, port operations and ship movements is not yet widespread. Such total cargo and ship movement management integration must surely be the way of the future in the world of e-navigation and ever increasing efficiency.

Captain Tuomi is a graduate of the Canadian Coast Guard College and following a career there including 12 years as a ship’s captain, has been a consultant for Nautical Consulting International. He has worked in 18 countries on marine infrastructure and safety projects for agencies such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. Recent projects include Port Vessel Traffic Management development and implementation in South East Asia and in North America. More detail on VTS systems and standards can be obtained at

*photo courtesy KASI Malaysia