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 created by the Australian and Queensland Governments to improve the safety and efficiency of vessel traffic and protect the environment.

What is a Vessel Traffic Service?



Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) are shore-based systems which provide everything from 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)
  • other technologies.

Ships in a VTS area are required to keep watch on a specific radio frequency for navigational or other warnings.

They may be contacted by the VTS operator if there is the risk of an incident or, in areas where traffic flow is regulated, they will 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).

VTS contributes to:

  • safety of life at sea
  • safety and efficiency of navigation
  • protection of the marine environment.

A Vessel Traffic Service is defined 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))

Decisions concerning effective navigation and manoeuvring of a vessel remain with the ship's Master.

What are the benefits of implementing a Vessel Traffic Service?

A VTS allows:

  • identification and monitoring of vessels
  • strategic planning of vessel movements
  • provision of navigational information and assistance.

A VTS can also assist in prevention of pollution and coordination of pollution/emergency response.

A VTS depends on reliable communications and accurate and unambiguous information.

The quality of accident-prevention measures depends on detecting developing dangerous situations and timely warning of 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.

VTS has the capability to interact and influence the decision-making process on vessels.

As approximately 80 per cent of maritime accidents can be attributed to human error, a VTS is an additional safeguard.

The Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait Vessel Traffic Service

The objectives of REEFVTS are to:

  • Enhance navigational safety in the Torres Strait and the inner route of the Great Barrier Reef.
  • Minimise the risk of a maritime accident in the Torres Strait and Great Barrier Reef region.
  • Respond quickly to any safety or pollution incident.

What are the defining characteristics of REEFVTS?

The Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait regions have high environmental significance.

Both are protected by a range of national and international measures.

They encompasses some very isolated reef systems and channels which are navigationally challenging.

The environmental significance of the area

The Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait region is nationally and internationally renowned.
This is reflected in the measures adopted to protect the region:

  • 1975: Declaration of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park by the Australian Government
  • 1981: Listing of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area by UNESCO
  • 1983: Designation of the Capricorn and Bunker Groups of Islands as an Area to be Avoided by the IMO
  • 1990: Declaration of the Great Barrier Reef as a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area by the IMO allowing Australia to introduce associated protective measures
  • 2004: 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
  • 2005: Declaration of Torres Strait as a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area by the IMO.

The size of the area

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

Navigational challenges

Parts of the REEFVTS area are isolated, remote and very demanding on navigators. Issues involve:

  • navigation within confined waters for long periods
  • limited water depths are 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 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 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 in Townsville, North Queensland.

What does REEFVTS do?

REEFVTS provides essential and timely information to assist with on-board decision making. This is achieved by:

  • maintaining a traffic image of ships transiting the area
  • interacting with individual ships to provide information such as reports on the position, identity and intentions of other traffic, weather, hazards and other factors.

Why was REEFVTS Introduced?

In 1996 the International Maritime Organization (IMO) adopted Australia’s proposal for a Mandatory Ship Reporting System (REEFREP) to:

  • enhance navigational safety
  • reduce the risk of shipping incidents
  • minimise any resulting ship-sourced pollution within the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait.

REEFREP was one of the world’s first mandatory Ship Reporting Systems and came into force on 1 January 1997.

After the container ship Bunga Teratai Satu ran aground Cairns on 2 November 2000, The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) recommended a review of REEFREP to determine if it was feasible to provide full advisory service.

In 2002, the Australian Government accepted a package of measures, including:

  • the enhancement of REEFREP to improve ship safety and environmental protection in the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait
  • upgrading REEFREP to a Coastal Vessel Traffic Service.

Since then Australia has progressively improved the region’s services, including:

  • Automated Position Reporting via Inmarsat C
  • Automatic Identification System (AIS)
  • the use of decision-support tools.

These measures led to the introduction of REEFVTS in 2004 following IMO approval.

On 3 April 2010, the bulk carrier Shen Neng 1 ran aground on Douglas Shoal in the Great Barrier Reef.

Following the incident, AMSA released a report which recommended that REEFVTS coverage be extended to the southern boundary of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

The IMO approved the submission in December 2010.

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
  • its intended passage through the region.

This information, together with the monitoring and surveillance systems used by REEFVTS, helps proactively monitor a ship’s transit through the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait.

Further information

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