Australian Maritime Safety Authority

Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait Vessel Traffic Service (REEFVTS)

The Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait Vessel Traffic Service (REEFVTS) is a coastal Vessel Traffic Service which has been put in place by the Australian and Queensland Governments to improve safety and efficiency of vessel traffic and to protect the environment.

An overview of REEFVTS can be found below, otherwise the following information can be found on subsequent pages:


What is a Vessel Traffic Service (VTS)?

Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) are shore-based systems which range from the provision of simple information messages to ships, such as the position of other traffic or meteorological hazard warnings, to extensive management of traffic within a port or waterway.

Generally, ships entering a VTS area report to the authorities, usually by radio, and may be tracked by the VTS using radar, Automated Identification System (AIS) or other technologies. Ships in a VTS area are required to keep watch on a specific radio frequency for navigational or other warnings, and they may be contacted directly by the VTS operator if there is risk of an incident or, in areas where traffic flow is regulated, to be given advice on when to proceed.

Vessel Traffic Services are recognised internationally as a navigational safety measure through the International Convention on the Safety of Life at Sea 74/78 (SOLAS). In particular, the provisions in SOLAS Chapter V (Safety of Navigation) Regulation 12 provides for Vessel Traffic Services and states , amongst other things, that:

  • “Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) contribute to safety of life at sea, safety and efficiency of navigation and protection of the marine environment, adjacent shore areas, work sites and offshore installations from possible adverse effects of maritime traffic.”, and
  • Governments may establish VTS when, in their opinion, the volume of traffic or the degree of risk justifies such services.

Under the framework provided by SOLAS the International Maritime Organization (IMO) Assembly resolution A.857(20) - Guidelines for Vessel Traffic Services provides guidelines for implementing and operating Vessel Traffic Services, including guidelines on recruitment, qualifications and training of VTS Operators. Specifically, the resolution defines a Vessel Traffic Service as:

“A service designed to improve the safety and efficiency of vessel traffic and to protect the environment. The service should have the capability to interact with the traffic and to respond to traffic situations developing in the VTS area”. (IMO Resolution A.857 (20))

The guidelines also clearly state that decisions concerning effective navigation and manoeuvring of the vessel remains with the ship's Master.

What are the benefits of implementing a Vessel Traffic Service?

The benefits of implementing a VTS are that it allows identification and monitoring of vessels, strategic planning of vessel movements and provision of navigational information and assistance. It can also assist in prevention of pollution and coordination of pollution/emergency response.

The efficiency of a VTS will depend on the reliability and continuity of communications and on the ability to provide accurate and unambiguous information. The quality of accident-prevention measures will depend on the system's capability of detecting a developing dangerous situation and on the ability to give timely warning of such dangers. In particular, a VTS can contribute to:

  • Preventing incidents from developing;
  • Preventing incidents from developing into accidents;
  • Preventing accidents from developing into disasters;
  • Mitigating the consequences of incidents, accidents and disasters; and
  • Unlike other aids to navigation, VTS has the capability to interact and influence the decision-making process on board the vessel. VTS might detect the development of close quarter situations between vessels or vessels standing into danger and can thus alert such vessels accordingly. In some cases the VTS may advise or instruct vessels to take certain avoiding action, providing that any instructions or advice issued by the VTS is result orientated only. As approximately 80% of maritime accidents can be attributed to the human factor, there is considerable value adding through the involvement of and interaction with the VTS as an additional safeguard.

About the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait Vessel Traffic Service (REEFVTS)

The objectives of REEFVTS are to:

  • Enhance navigational safety in Torres Strait and inner route of the Great Barrier Reef by interacting with shipping to provide information on potential traffic conflicts and other navigational information;
  • Minimise the risk of a maritime accident and consequential ship sourced pollution and damage to the marine environment in the Torres Strait and Great Barrier Reef region; and
  • Provide an ability to respond more quickly in the event of any safety or pollution incident.

For more information, please see the following:

What are the defining characteristics of REEFVTS?

The Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait region has high environmental significance which is renowned as one of the wonders of the world and protected by a range of national and international measures. It is the largest VTS in the world in terms of area and encompasses some very isolated reef systems and channels which are navigationally challenging. The defining characteristics include:

1. The environmental significance of the area

The environmental significance of the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait region is nationally and internationally renowned and is reflected by the following measures adopted to protect the region:


Declaration of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park by the Australian Government


Listing of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area by UNESCO


Designation of the Capricorn and Bunker Groups of Islands as an Area to be Avoided by the IMO


Declaration of the Great Barrier Reef as a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area by the IMO allowing Australia to introduce associated protective measures


Introduction of Designated Shipping Areas by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to allow ships to transit the Reef in designated shipping areas only, and


Declaration of Torres Strait as a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area by the IMO.

2. The size of the area

REEFVTS is the largest VTS in the world in terms of area.

3. Navigational challenges

Parts of the REEFVTS area are isolated, remote and very demanding on the navigator. Passage through these waters also involves navigation within confined waters for long periods, with limited depths of water being a constant threat. Tidal streams can be strong and variable. Most of the region has a monsoon climate and visibility is frequently adversely affected by seasonal rain squalls. The area as a whole is subject to tropical storms and cyclones.

There are narrow fairways and areas of converging traffic which, while not heavy by some standards, represents a wide range of ship types and flag states, carrying a variety of cargoes, including potentially dangerous and polluting materials. Ships navigating the area may encounter concentrations of fishing vessels, tourist vessels and recreational craft which, by their very numbers, increase the dangers of collision.

Who operates REEFVTS?

REEFVTS is operated under joint Australian and Queensland Government arrangements between the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) and Maritime Safety Queensland (MSQ). The system is manned on a 24 hour basis from the REEFVTS Centre, situated in Townsville, North Queensland.

What does REEFVTS do?

REEFVTS provides essential and timely information to assist the on-board decision making process. This is achieved by maintaining a traffic image of ships transiting the area and interacting with individual ships to provide information such as reports on the position, identity and intentions of other traffic, weather, hazards and other factors that may influence the ship's transit.

In circumstances where information available to REEFVTS may assist on-board decision-making, REEFVTS may initiate interaction with an individual ship. This may include circumstances where information suggests a ship may be deviating from a recommended route and in danger of running aground.

As highlighted in IMO Resolution A.857 (20) Guidelines for Vessel Traffic Services, responsibility for “decisions concerning the actual navigation and the manoeuvring of the vessel remain with the Master”.

Why was REEFVTS Introduced?

In 1996 the International Maritime Organization (IMO) adopted Australia’s proposal for a Mandatory Ship Reporting System (REEFREP) as a mechanism to enhance navigational safety, reduce the risk of shipping incidents and minimise any resulting ship-sourced pollution within the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait. This was established in accordance with SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) Regulation V/11. REEFREP was one of the world’s first mandatory Ship Reporting System and came into force on 1 January 1997.

On 2 November 2000, the container ship Bunga Teratai Satu ran aground on Sudbury Reef, near Cairns. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) report into the incident identified a number of features of REEFREP operations that could be improved and recommended a review of the role of REEFREP to determine the feasibility of providing a full advisory service.

In 2002, the Australian Government accepted a package of measures recommended by the Review of Ship Safety and Pollution Prevention Measures in the Great Barrier Reef (GBR Review). Two measures identified in the report included the enhancement of REEFREP to improve ship safety and environmental protection in the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait and upgrading REEFREP to a Coastal Vessel Traffic Service.

Since then Australia has progressively enhanced the delivery of services in the region through a suite of measures such as Automated Position Reporting via Inmarsat C, Automatic Identification System (AIS) and the use of decision-support tools.
These measures led to the introduction of REEFVTS in 2004 following IMO approval of Australia’s submission proposing amendments to REEFREP.

On 3 April 2010, the bulk carrier Shen Neng 1 ran aground on Douglas Shoal in the Great Barrier Reef. This incident highlighted the need to reassess measures for mitigating risks associated with shipping activity in the Great Barrier Reef.

Following the incident, AMSA released a report entitled Improving Safe Navigation in the Great Barrier Reef (April 2010)” [PDF Icon PDF: 10Mb]. The report highlighted that Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) provide a cost effective mechanism and proven track record of mitigating the risk of groundings and recommended that REEFVTS coverage be extended to the southern boundary of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

The IMO approved in December 2010 Australia’s submission to extend the mandatory ship reporting requirements of REEFREP to the southern boundary of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. This came into force on 1 July 2011.

What is the link between REEFREP and REEFVTS?

REEFREP provides REEFVTS with information about the ship, its characteristics and intended passage through the region. This information, together with the monitoring and surveillance systems used by REEFVTS, assists with the proactive monitoring of a ship’s transit through the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait.

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