Successful first workshop under Belgian presidency of the European Coast Guard Functions Forum

In the framework of the Belgian presidency of the European Coast Guard Functions Forum (ECGFF), Frontex and the Belgian Maritime and River Police, assisted by the Coast Guard Secretariat, organised a workshop from February 28th till March 2nd. With approximately 100 participants from different European countries, interesting presentations, a panel discussion and numerous opportunities to exchange expertise and to network, it can be considered a very successful first edition of the workshops.

Cooperation: the key to success 

Over the course of three days, the participants worked on the theme ‘Enhancing cross-sector and cross-border synergies’. The main objective was to share expertise on maritime security, multifunctional operations and building operational synergies, whilst also looking ahead to potential future collaborations. The 15 speakers from various European member states cited many examples of partnerships that are rendering valuable benefits, both across borders and services. Once again, cooperation proves to be the key to success.

Three main themes 

The workshop addressed three major themes that are highly topical in the field of maritime ‘Safety’ and ‘Security’.

The first theme consisted of maritime surveillance. Examples of synergies in maritime surveillance were explained. The various successful operations in cooperation with FRONTEX were reviewed, and in addition attention was given to the formalisation of the partnership between MAOC-N (Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre – Narcotics), Belgium and many European member states. The Belgian MAOC-N membership is an important step in the optimization of information exchange on drug trafficking and smuggling. Furthermore, the security role of the Belgian Maritime Security Centre (MIK) in monitoring security threats was also discussed in detail.

A second major theme was joint, multifunctional operations. In today’s world, it is vital to organise operations across borders and services and build partnerships, thus mutually reinforcing each other. EFCA, EMSA and FRONTEX exchanged views on this topic during a discussion panel. Moreover, participants zoomed in on collaborative partnerships in the law enforcement process of irregular migration.

The third part of the workshop was centered on the future. A whole range of opportunities and challenges were discussed. For instance, how technological developments can help with underwater imaging and how adapted legal frameworks are being developed to ensure efficient monitoring of critical infrastructure such as wind farms, submarine data cables and pipelines.

The Coast Guard is a unique Belgian organisation that pools and coordinates the expertise of 17 partners in the maritime sector to ensure safety and security at sea. Partners also include the Scientific Service ‘Management Unit of the Mathematical Model of the North Sea (MUMM)’, part of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS).

In 2022-2023, the Belgian Coast Guard chairs the European Coast Guard Functions Forum (ECGFF). Together with the European agencies FRONTEX, EMSA and EFCA, it will organise a number of workshops during the year. In cooperation with DG Mare of the European Commission, it will also organise a Cybersecurity Working Group and the summit taking place at the end of September 2023.

New treaty protects biodiversity on high seas

From 20 February to 4 March, the very last BBNJ negotiations, aimed at adopting an international treaty  for the protection of biodiversity on the high seas, took place in New York. The agreement was reached after 17 years of intense discussions and negotiations at the United Nations. Belgium played an active role in drafting and finalising this historic treaty. Among other things, it will now become possible to create marine protected areas on the high seas – outside territorial waters.

© Christopher Michel, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

The new treaty is of great importance for Belgium, as our country is a founder of the Blue Leaders in 2019 and a strong supporter of ocean protection and the conservation of its resources. The adoption of the target of protecting 30% of the ocean by 2030 at the COP Biodiversity in Montreal in December last year was a first important step. The conclusion of this new Convention for the Protection of Biodiversity on the High Seas (BBNJ – Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction) is the second and final step before effective protection can be achieved.

The importance of the ocean

The ocean is crucial for sustaining life on Earth. It is the source of food and energy for millions of people, regulates the climate and provides oxygen. Unfortunately, the ocean is threatened by pollution, overfishing, climate change and other human activities.

Protecting our ocean is therefore essential for the future of the planet. One of the main reasons is the unique role the ocean plays in the fight against climate change. For instance, it absorbs about a third of the CO2 emitted into the atmosphere by human activities. This helps to reduce global warming and to stabilise the climate.

Vincent Van Quickenborne, Minister for the North Sea: “This is a historic treaty. A crucial step for all those who care about the ocean. The BBNJ treaty for the ocean is what the 2015 Paris Agreement is for the climate. After more than 17 years of negotiations, we can finally create marine protected areas on the high seas.”

The importance of nature reserves on the high seas

The new BBNJ treaty was to be created to delineate protected areas (nature reserves) on the high seas. 70% of the earth’s surface consists of water of which 3/4 is high seas which currently could not be fully protected in any way by the international community.

Thanks to this treaty, the final step has been taken to transform 30% of the high seas into marine protected areas by 2030. These are zones in which human activities are very strictly regulated: sustainable shipping, sustainable water tourism, sustainable use of biotic (fish stocks and other marine organisms) and abiotic (sand, gravel, metals, etc.) resources, scientific research with respect for nature.

Scientists agree that at least 30% must be protected with the establishment of natural areas on the high seas to have a resilient ocean that impacts climate change. With 30%, you reach the tipping point to keep the other 70% habitable as well.

Sophie Mirgaux, Belgian Special Envoy for the Ocean, FPS Public Health, who has been following the negotiations since the beginning as a member of the EU negotiating team: “This treaty is truly a gamechanger for ocean protection. It will be a challenge to effectively deliver this protection in an area so far from the coast. You need a lot of capacity to do that and it will be a long-term work. But it is necessary, so we must go for it as an international community.”

© CC0 1.0

Besides natural areas on the high seas, the treaty also talks about access to marine genetic resources and the fair sharing of benefits derived from them, environmental impact assessments of activities on the high seas, capacity building and marine technology transfer. Like the climate treaty, the new treaty will also organise a COP ‘Conference of the Parties’.

Role of Belgium

Our country worked actively for the success of the BBNJ negotiations, including through active participation in the process and through bilateral contacts with other countries. The Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences also cooperated intensively: as a member of the Belgian delegation as well as the EU team, Hendrik Segers was involved in drafting the Belgian and EU positions, and was responsible for aspects concerning marine genetic resources. The importance of finalising the BBNJ Treaty was also underlined during the Blue Leaders event that Minister for the North Sea Vincent Van Quickenborne co-organised on the eve of the Our Ocean Conference 2023 in Panama. Policymakers from around the world called there for the finalisation of the BBNJ treaty.

The high-level appeal was bolstered by the announcement of more than $100 million in funding to support ratification and implementation of the treaty. The funding pledge was made possible by private and public philanthropic institutions such as Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Global Environment Facility (GEF), Oceans5 and others. The European Commission has also pledged €40 million to the BBNJ treaty. In addition, the Commission provides €816 million for ocean research.

As Blue Leader, Belgium will throw its weight behind the idea of quickly fixing the first nature reserve on the high seas. To make this possible, however, some steps still need to be taken.

Hendrik Segers, Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, explains: “In order to proceed to the delineation of marine protected zones in areas outside national jurisdiction, the BBNJ treaty must first be ratified by EU member states and the Commission, and transposed into national and European legislation. It will also be important for scientific research on the high seas to fully understand the consequences of the treaty.”

Belgium candidate for secretariat in Brussels

As is the case for other international conventions, a secretariat will also be established for BBNJ. This will be a separate secretariat, i.e. not under the UN umbrella in New York. This is important to give the new treaty clout. After all, there will be an important lobby against establishing protected areas on the high seas. A separate secretariat, with its own staff and budget, can then make a real fist. Belgium, one of the founders of Blue Leaders, is applying to set up that important secretariat in Brussels. This is not only in line with our country’s commitment in recent years but would also significantly raise Belgium’s international marine standing.

Public consultation Modular Offshore Grid 2

Elia Asset nv has submitted an application for an authorization for the construction and a permit for the operation of the “Modular Offshore Grid 2 (MOG2)” in the Belgian part of the North Sea This application is subject to an environmental impact assessment procedure. The application, the environmental impact statement and the non-technical summary can be consulted from 8 February to 10 March 2023 at the offices of MUMM at Brussels (Vautierstraat 29, 1000 Brussels;; tel 02 627 43 52) or at Ostend (3de en 23ste Linieregimentsplein, 8400 Ostend;; tel. 02 788 77 22), by appointment only and during office hours between 9:00 am and 5:00 pm. The application can also be consulted at every coastal community, during office hours. The list of locations and contact persons of coastal communities is available by simple request to MUMM/BMM/UGMM.

The application is available electronically:

Any interested party may submit its views, comments and objections to Ms Brigitte Lauwaert by letter or email until 25 March 2023:

MUMM Attn. Ms. Brigitte Lauwaert
Vautierstraat 29
1000 Brussels

UNITED wins Blue Innovation Swell Award 2022

On Thursday 15 December, the ceremonial presentation of the Blue Innovation Awards 2022 took place at the Port House in Antwerp. The Belgian Pilot of the UNITED project won the Blue Innovation Swell Award. Within this demonstration project, the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences is working with scientific and commercial partners to optimise the combination of offshore wind, aquaculture and recovery of flat oysters and seaweed cultivation.

Project partners of the Belgian demonstration project within UNITED (Image: UNITED)

Blue Innovation Awards

The Blue Innovation Awards are an initiative of the Blauwe Cluster to highlight innovative projects, products and services in the blue economy. Four categories are awarded: the Blue Innovation Wave for SMEs, the Corporate Blue Innovation Wave for large companies, the Blue Innovation Swell for collaborative initiatives and the Blue Innovation Captain for government initiatives. A public prize will also be awarded.

This was already the third edition of the Blue Innovation Awards in 2022. All entries, involving over 50 organisations in total, were judged on five criteria: innovative character; link with economic activities in, on and by the sea; market potential; international ambitions and appeal; and link with the United Nations’ sustainable development goals. Within each category, two nominees were eventually retained.

The laureates of the four Blue Innovation Awards 2022 (Image: Blauwe Cluster)


The EU Horizon2020 project UNITED (Multi-Use offshore platforms demoNstrators for boostIng cost-effecTive and Eco-friendly production in sustainable marine activities) provides evidence of the economic as well as environmental viability of multiple use of offshore space through the development of five demonstration projects in different European sea areas.

The Belgian demonstration project revolves around the combination of offshore wind energy, cultivation of seaweed (Saccharina latissima) and European flat oysters (Ostrea edulis), and restoration of flat oyster reefs. It is a collaboration between several research groups from Ghent University, Jan De Nul, Brevisco, Colruyt, the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) and Parkwind. The RBINS research group MARECO is mainly focusing on the restoration of flat oyster reefs, and is also responsible for developing a framework for assessing the added value of multiple marine use, which will be applied in the five pilot projects.

“The election of the Belgian UNITED-pilot as laureate of the Blue Innovation Swell Award 2022 shows that the blue economy is very much alive, and that nature development is also becoming an increasingly entrenched condition within economic activities.” says MARECO researcher Annaïk Van Gerven proudly.

UNITED laureates of the Blue Innovation Swell Award 2022 (Image: Blauwe Cluster)

More information about the other Blue Innovation Awards 2022 can be found on the Blauwe Cluster website.

North Sea Monitoring with RV Belgica – 2022/28

Some compiled images of colleagues from RBINS/ODNature, Ghent University and VLIZ on board of our brand new floating office ‘RV Belgica’ during the 2022/28 monitoring and sampling campaign on 7-8 November. These monitoring campaigns are conducted monthly.

The activities included collecting (and bottling) seawater samples at different depths during a tidal cycle, filtering for further analysis in the laboratory (BGCMon, BGPart), using eDNA for the detection of marine species (ZEROIMPACT), launching the LISST-Video Plankton Recorder (TURBEAMS) and testing of the EARS application (Eurofleets Automatic Reporting System), an event logger developed by the Belgian Marine Data Centre (BMDC) of RBINS.

Pictures by Marianne Schlesser (RBINS/BMDC)

Combination of passive fishing and marine aquaculture one step closer to profitable practice

The spatial combination of a sea farm – where mussels, oysters and seaweed grow – and passive fishing with innovative baiting techniques has been extensively tested off our coast in the past three years. That it succeeds is good news, because both activities, unlike traditional (active) beam trawling, are allowed in wind farm zones. Light, sound and smell appear to be successful techniques for catching more cuttlefish, shrimp and fish on the bottom of a multi-species sea farm. Additionally, tools have been developed that allow sea farm operators to better plan sea trips. The results of the VLAIO and Blue Cluster project SYMAPA were presented to press and stakeholders on 24 November 2022 in Ostend by project partners Colruyt Group, Brevisco, AtSeaNova, Flemish Fish Auction, the Institute for Agricultural, Fisheries and Food Research (ILVO) and the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS).

North Sea Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne was there: “We are going to develop the Belgian part of the North Sea as the powerhouse of our country and as an engine of innovation and self-sufficiency. Therefore, in addition to wind farms and floating solar panels, we also want to cultivate seaweed in the North Sea to make biofuel. For this we have allocated 250,000 euros of research money. In the wind farms we can produce food in addition to energy. We import 70% of our marine food in Europe, which illustrates that there is still a lot of potential in our country for mariculture and passive fishing. Proteins extracted in this way from seaweed or shellfish no longer need to be produced through animal husbandry or fishing. The results of the SYMAPA project show that important steps have been taken to make it not only technically and biologically but also economically feasible to combine not one, but two or even three activities in the same North Sea zone.”

Schematic representation of pot fishing on the seabed (image: ILVO)

10 Times More Cuttlefish in Pots with Fluorescent Fibers

In passive “pot fishing”, fish and other marine animals are lured to and caught in pots on the bottom of the sea. This form of selective fishing has little bycatch, little to no bottom impact and little fuel consumption. The pots are emptied regularly and the catch is alive when collected on board, which improves quality.

Fishing capacity can also be optimized through the use of light, sound and, potentially, smell. This is evident from trials conducted by ILVO in the Westdiep zone off the coast of Nieuwpoort:

  • The results for cuttlefish are impressive: by replacing the net of a standard cuttlefish pot with a fluorescent type of fibers, the scientists caught 10 times more cuttlefish.
  • Other techniques that significantly increased catches were the use of LED lights in pots for gray and sturgeon shrimp, sounds of eating in pots for roundfish and the smell of banana in pots for flatfish.

Mattias Van Opstal and Jasper Van Vlasselaer (ILVO): “The study provided a toolkit of innovative techniques that fishermen can use to increase catch in pots. Depending on the spot in the sea and the species present there, one or the other baiting technique will be more interesting to them.”

Passive Catches Score Well on Quality and Taste

SYMAPA partner Vlaamse Visveiling (Flemish Fish Auction) is already satisfied with the quality of the passive capture strategy. Sylvie Becaus (Vlaamse Visveiling): “Not only were we getting more cuttlefish in – a commercially interesting species – the quality of the products was also excellent: extremely fresh and not bruised.”

Tests in the taste lab of the Food Pilot of ILVO and Flanders’ FOOD in Melle confirmed this difference in quality: passively caught cuttlefish received better scores from the professionally trained taste panel than cuttlefish landed as bycatch in beam trawling.

Smart Aquafarming

The North Sea is a well-monitored ecosystem. RBINS but also ILVO and several European partners collect data to monitor the health of fish stocks and of the wider marine ecosystem. RBINS also designed useful tools for planning sea trips. A platform for five-day marine forecasts on tides, wind speeds, wave height, etc., was already in place (the Marine Forecasting Centre), but thanks to SYMAPA and the EU-H2020 FORCOAST-project there is now also a modelling tool to predict the best period for the installation of splash collectors. With those devices, cultivators collect stray seeds of mussels and oysters for subsequent rearing. Too-early placement can cause the nuisance of fouling; too-late placement can ruin the harvest.

Léo Barbut and Geneviève Lacroix (RBINS): “Thanks to these modeling tools, we are another step closer to smart aquafarming. Operators of marine farms can use data to plan when to go to sea for maintenance of their facilities, for seed collection and ultimately for harvesting.”

Mussel Culture and Facilities Optimized

A previous project Edulis already successfully cultivated mussels between wind farms 30 to 50 km from the Belgian coast. SYMAPA coordinator Brevisco also demonstrated in the privately funded Nearshore Mussel project that large-scale mussel farming in the Belgian North Sea is technically and economically feasible. The Belgian “blue mussel” is larger and meatier (40-45% meat values) than the Zeeland mussel (30-35% meat values). It also grows faster and tastes good. In SYMAPA, the cultivation technique was optimized to the beautiful result of 16 kg of mussels per meter. Thanks to seemingly minor adjustments to the installations, there is now also no damage during storms. The installations have been made to be stable and “North Sea-proof”.

Mussel culture lines are reeled in to control the harvest (image: Brevisco)

High Quality Oysters from the Belgian North Sea

The past project Value@Sea demonstrated that the endangered European flat oyster can be cultivated in the North Sea. In SYMAPA, cultivation techniques were further refined in the Westdiep zone, with varying degrees of success. Quality flat oyster farming near the coast is possible but the rapid growth of unwanted organisms (fouling) on the baskets is a technical obstacle that must be overcome for commercially viable farming. It obstructs the flow of fresh seawater, periodically depriving the oysters of enough nutrients to grow.

Fouling on the oyster baskets (image: Colruyt Group)
Quality farmed European flat oysters (image: Colruyt Group)

Colruyt Group remains committed to research to eventually grow flat oysters in the Westdiep zone. Today, Colruyt Group is building our country’s first commercial sea farm there where the first 50 mussel lines of phase 1 will be installed and the first limited harvest is expected in the summer of 2023.

Wannes Voorend (Colruyt Group): “Growing multiple species in a sea farm would allow us to offer a broader pallet of marine products and combining activities also has some operational advantages. The applications in Westdiep Sea Farm are already promising, but we are doing this in a step-by-step approach towards commercial farming.”

Quest for Seaweed Growing Installations that can Resist the North Sea Currents

For seaweed, the natural conditions in the North Sea are an persisting technical challenge. In SYMAPA, both horizontal and vertical structures were tested by partner AtSeaNova. Horizontal structures perform fine on calm waves but in the North Sea the pulling force is too great. That is why they switched to vertical installations with loose suspension lines. It is these structures that are now being further tested in the ongoing EU-H2020 project UNITED.

Useful data for Marine Spatial Plan

The Belgian part of the North Sea is only 3,500 km² but interesting for a variety of activities. Think of mariculture, fishing and energy production but also shipping, sand extraction, recreation, nature and coastal protection. Planning these different activities in the Marine Spatial Plan is a difficult but important puzzle. In the current plan (2020-2026), marine aquaculture is allowed only in the Westdiep and wind farm zones. Passive fishing is also allowed in both, unlike classic beam trawling which is not allowed around the windmills.

Bert Groenendaal (Brevisco), coordinator of SYMAPA: “That synergies between mariculture and passive fishing are possible is a major boost from this project. There is now a toolkit of innovative fishing techniques, mussel farming has been optimized, and there are forecasting models that also make the combination of marine activities more logistically and economically feasible.”

Options for multiple spatial use are an important asset in the Belgian part of the North Sea (image: Marine Spatial Plan 2020-2026)


Article largely based on ILVO press release, 24 November 2022

Interactive socio-economic workshop (UNITED) – 7 December 2022 @De Cierk, Ostend

WE NEED YOU! Share your opinion on the first tests on oyster and seaweed cultivation and oyster reef restoration in the offshore wind farm Belwind, accompanied by a tasty oyster, delicious seaweed products and an active brainstorm.

Multi-use of space at sea. What is it? How can it be applied in the Belgian part of the North Sea? What are the economic and social benefits? What are the expected challenges? The UNITED project has investigated this by conducting a successful test in the offshore wind farm Belwind, studying both oyster and seaweed cultivation and the restoration of oyster reefs. Through an interactive workshop, the first results will be presented and discussed with the general public, with room for questions-andanswers, discussion rounds and the expression of possible expectations and concerns. The workshop is set up in such a way that the morning focuses on the economic aspect and the afternoon on the social aspect. Participants can participate in either or both sessions, and a themed lunch will be provided between both sessions.

Register now via this link.



09h00 – 09h30  Welcoming and ice breaker exercise – up to you now!
09h30 – 09h45  What is the project UNITED?
09h45 – 09h50  Workshop objectives
09h50 – 10h10  Multi-use in the Belgian Pilot and Business Analysis of the Belgian pilot – lessons learned / What is multi-use and how can we apply it in the Belgian part of the North Sea? / Presenting the business case and main results: the pilot, products and services, key revenues and costs, key messages, etc.
10h10- 10h25  Socio-economic characterization of the pilot
Presenting the main socio-economic activities that will surround the pilot
10h25-10h40  Break
10h40-12h00  Brainstorm on potential economic impacts (positive and negative) of the multi-use activities / A discussion with the stakeholders with focus on:
– Extra elements for the business case.
– The other socio economic activities / impacts that were not considered and their impacts (increase in employment, development in activity, increase in revenue, etc.)
– The missing information (in particular seaweed and aquaculture activities)
– Environment: impact on ecosystem services/marine environment.

12h00–13h30  LUNCH ! Come and taste oysters, seaweed products and delicious sandwiches


13h30-13h35  Welcome, Silke Beirens, Schepen Mens & Milieu, Stad Oostende

13h35-13h45  Objectives of the social part of UNITED
Presentation of UNITED and the Belgian pilot (if we have new joiners) / What are the objectives of the social part of the workshop? / What are social impacts?
13h45-14h45  Presentation of scenarios – seaweed farming, oyster farming and oyster reef restoration – inside an offshore wind farm: identification of possible social impact. Several options will be presented:
– Each activity in a separate sea area (no multi-use of space)
– Wind farm combined with one other activity (seaweed farming, oyster farming or oyster reef restoration)
– Wind farm combined with several other activities: oysters and seaweed / aquaculture and nature restoration
14h45-15h45  Ranking of previously identified social impacts / assessment of acceptability / potential optimisation of solutions
15h45-16h00  Closing remarks, brief conclusion from both parts
16h00-16h30  Closing drink

Mini symposium on eDNA, 13 December 2022, Brussels (Belgium)


  • 09:00 – 09:30 Registration
  • 09:30 – 10:00 Welcome & Introduction
  • 10:00 – 10:30 “Towards autonomous monitoring of fish diversity in the North Sea”Prof. Sofie Derycke (ILVO Marine, Marine Genomics Unit, Flanders Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food & Dpt. Of Biology, Ghent University, Belgium)
  • 10:30 – 11:10 Coffee break
  • 11:10 – 11:40 “Invertebrate-derived DNA (iDNA) for biomonitoring and pathogen surveillance”Dr. Jan Gogarten (Applied Zoology and Nature Conservation, University of Greifswald and the Helmholtz Institute for One Health, Germany)
  • 11:40 – 12:10 “Monitoring terrestrial mammals via aquatic eDNA in savannah systems”Dr. Tamara Schenekar (University of Graz, Austria)
  • 12:10 – 14:00 Lunch break
  • 14:00 – 14:30 “The power of eDNA-based methods for fish and amphibian communities in freshwater environments”Prof. Rein Brys (Research Institute for Nature and Forest & Terrestrial Ecology Unit, University of Ghent, Belgium)
  • 14:30 – 15:00  “Improving whole biodiversity monitoring with eDNA metagenomics” – Prof. Hugo Gante (Royal Museum for Central Africa & KULeuven, Belgium)

Full poster/invitation : eDNA_mini symposium invitation_RBINS

New study shows recent sea vessels are emitting more nitrogen in the Belgian North Sea

The Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) has conducted a large-scale study on nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions from ships in the Belgian part of the North Sea. Our waters are part of a low-emission zone for NOx (NECA) that was established to limit its harmful impact on the densely populated coastal states around the North Sea. The study shows that the majority of ships meet the emission standards. However, the measurements also illustrate that recent ships in Belgian waters have higher average NOx emissions than older ships. This is remarkable given that international regulations aim to reduce NOx emissions in the NECA just gradually, with recent ships having to meet stricter standards than older ships.

The Belgian air surveillance aircraft in action during a flight with the sniffer sensor.

With the application of a sniffer sensor in the Belgian air surveillance aircraft, owned by the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) and frequently deployed within Coast Guard duties, our country is known as a pioneer in the international fight against air pollution from ships at sea. The sensor allows on-site measurement of various air pollutants in ship emissions. Sulphur dioxide measurements have been on the programme since 2016. Since the integration of a NOx sensor in 2020, the aircraft also measures the concentration of nitrogen oxides (NOx).

The operators of the Belgian air surveillance aircraft in action during a flight with the sniffer sensor.

Need to Reduce NOx Emissions

That obtaining an effective reduction in NOx emissions, including those caused by shipping, is an important objective stems from the negative effects of NOx on public health and our living environment. Nitrogen oxides penetrate deep into the lungs and are a promoter of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. In addition, they play an important role in the formation of ozone, which is not only a very strong greenhouse gas but can also cause respiratory problems. Furthermore, NOx play a role in the formation of particulate matter. Finally, NOx contribute to eutrophication and acidification of marine and terrestrial environments.

Satellite images visualise nitrogen dioxide NO2 emissions at sea and on land, including clearly highlighted shipping lanes in the North Sea, Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea (in addition to highly urbanised and industrialised zones on land). Note that very high NO2 values are observed not only in the Belgian North Sea, but also throughout Flanders, with an outlier above Antwerp.

Following the Baltic Sea, the North Sea and English Channel were designated as emission control areas, with the aim of better protecting the densely populated coastal regions and sensitive sea areas of the North Sea states from the ill effects of NOx. As shipping density is very high here, and busy shipping lanes are close to land, the reduction of NOx emissions from shipping is particularly relevant here. Provision 13 of Annex VI of the MARPOL Convention of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) imposes stricter limits on nitrogen emissions from ships in the North Sea NOx Emission Control Area (NECA) from 1 January 2021. It sets emission limits based on the construction date of ships. Similar to cars, for which Euro standards are defined based on the year of construction, international maritime NOx emission limits are divided into different levels or ‘Tiers’. Tier 0 applies to ships built before 2000, Tier I to ships built from 2000 to 2010, Tier II to ships from 2011 to 2020 and Tier III to ships from 2021 onwards in NECA’s. For ships from more recent age categories, this involves increasingly stricter standards than for older ships. In this way, the NECA expected Tier II ships to emit 20%, and Tier III ships 80%, less nitrogen than Tier I ships.

Emission control area in the North Sea and Baltic Sea (NECA).
Emission limits for NOx as set out in MARPOL Annex VI Provision 13.

Results of the Belgian Follow-up

With the deployment of the sniffer plane, Belgium is the only country on a global scale to already map NOx emissions from ships in this way. Two years of NOx measurements of individual ships in the Belgian part of the North Sea show that emission standards are largely met. However, contrary to expectations, it was also found that more recent seagoing ships emit more nitrogen in the operating area of the Belgian air surveillance aircraft than older ships.

In 2020 and 2021, nitrogen emissions from as many as 1407 ships were monitored during 127 flight hours. NOx values that call for further investigation were recorded for 59 of these ships. For instance, it was found that for more recent (Tier II) ships, which have to meet stricter standards, the average nitrogen value was higher than that for older ships (Tier I and Tier 0). Moreover, more Tier II ships were observed with NOx emission values that had exceeded a predetermined threshold.

The obtained percentages of ships with suspected NOx values in 2020 and 2021 illustrate the more frequent occurrence of exceedances of the established thresholds by the younger Tier II ships (the ‘yellow’, ‘orange’ and ‘red flag’ categories indicate the degree of threshold exceedance).

Explanation and Further Investigation

In cooperation with the Directorate-General Shipping (FPS Mobility and Transport), the shipping industry and the Antwerp Maritime Academy, the RBINS will conduct further research into the possible causes. One explanation already cited in the study lies in the way the regulations have been drafted for Tier II ships, where NOx emissions at lower engine powers have less weight in the set standards (with even no limit at all at powers lower than 25%). The reasoning behind this is that a ship operates mainly on the higher engine powers, and therefore emissions at the higher powers should weigh more heavily. However, in the Belgian part of the North Sea, because of the busy traffic and for optimising their arrival time in port, ships often sail with lower engine power, while NOx emissions (in g NOx/kWh) are higher at the lower powers … So while more energy-efficient cruising does lead to lower fuel consumption and reduced CO2 emissions, it can, especially for Tier II vessels, also lead to higher NOx emissions. Other pollutants may also increase with lower engine power, such as black carbon and particulate matter. The international regulations that just envisage a reduction in nitrogen emissions thus do not appear to be adapted to the specific sailing conditions in the southern North Sea.

A possible solution to eliminate this unexpected impact of international regulations could be to add a not-to-exceed threshold for NOx emissions regardless of the engine power and construction date of ships. Such Not To Exceed (NTE) limit has been set in the regulations for Tier III ships so there is good hope that this latest generation of ships does lead to NOx emission reductions in our sea areas. The problem remains that even for Tier III ships, no limit was set below an engine power of 25%.

Keel Laying Date

Finally, a weakness in international regulations is that it remains possible to build new ships to old standards for too long. In the regulations, the Keel Laying Year, the year in which a ship’s keel is laid and registered, determines which Tier the ship enters. Of all ships built in 2021, barely 13% turn out to be Tier III ships. It was found that the time between construction date and keel laying date increased sharply with the implementation of the NECA in the North Sea in 2021. In this way, recent ships can still enter Tier II and consequently do not have to comply with the stricter Tier III limit that guarantees an effective reduction of NOx emissions (e.g. by applying NOx reduction systems). Therefore, Belgium (and also the Netherlands) will no longer accept ships built from 2026 onwards but with a Keel Laying Year older than 2021 as Tier II ships.

Studies such as this one show that even within a framework of stricter emission standards, shipping needs to continue its efforts to transition from the use of fossil fuels to the use of more sustainable energy sources with less impact on public health, climate and environment.

A new peanut worm for Belgian waters, and another European flat oyster

On 20 October 2022, a mooring block used for underwater noise monitoring that had been lying on the seabed for three years was recovered from the Seastar wind farm by scientific divers from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences. This operation was carried out as part of the research carried out by the research vessel RV Belgica.

The anchor block had a structure that was supposed to serve as housing for a buoy cable but was now filled with sediment. In that sediment, researchers from the research team MARECO (Marine Ecology and Management) found nothing less than a new species for the Belgian waters, the peanut worm (Sipuncula) Nephasoma rimicola. The species is known from the northeastern Atlantic and has also been found in the English Channel, but was thus not previously observed in Belgium.

The peanut worm Nephasoma rimicola, new to Belgian waters (©RBINS/F. Kerckhof)

On top of that, a European flat oyster Ostrea edulis, estimated to be 2-3 years old, was found on the anchor block itself (bottom right of photo). Molecular techniques will be used to determine the origin of the oyster. A promising observation for possible oyster recovery projects in the Belgian part of the North Sea! (For background on the exceptional nature of this find, see here, among others).

The European flat oyster Ostrea edulis (bottom right) (©RBINS/J. Vanaverbeke)