Plastic pollution in the Belgian North Sea: no alarming amounts of microplastics in fish and shellfish, plastic fibers everywhere and a hotspot near Zeebrugge

More than three quarters of all waste in the Belgian North Sea consists of macroplastics (larger particles of plastic waste), and this is a major source of pollution, especially in the coastal zone. Plastic fibers, mostly from dolly rope (plastic fibers attached to trawling nets), can be found everywhere, even at a distance from the coast. Smaller plastic particles or microplastics of >50 µm (one-twentieth of a mm) also appear to turn up much more frequently along the coastal strip and in ports than further out to sea. This has all been shown by a systematic monitoring study in the Belgian North Sea. Through the MarinePlastics research project, scientists now have the necessary input to set up a macro- and microplastics monitoring plan for the Belgian part of the North Sea, a European obligation.

In the fishing grounds where Belgian fishermen are active, the researchers have also examined commercial fish species and crustaceans for microplastics. There, the numbers are very low to absent. On the basis of this study, the researchers are already calling the fish and crustaceans from Belgian fisheries a safe food source as far as microplastic pollution is concerned.

In addition to marine organisms (fish, crustaceans, etc.), Belgian fishermen also catch all kinds of plastics. © ILVO

The Flanders Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (ILVO) and the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS), within the research project MarinePlastics, have mapped out how much and what types of plastic occur in Belgian fishing grounds. This involved both larger pieces of waste (macroplastics larger than 5 mm) and small to minuscule plastic particles (microplastics smaller than 5 mm). This research was not optional, but rather an obligation from Europe, which has been demanding since 2012 that every member state collect figures on macroplastics on the seabed. As of 2020, data must also be collected on microplastics in the sediment and in the water. The MarinePlastics project also examined the extent to which microplastics are present in the commercial fish and crustaceans from our fishing areas (North Sea, English Channel, Celtic Sea, Irish Sea). The researchers made a distinction between the plastic particles in the fish stomach (which people do not consume) and the fish fillet (which we do eat).

Belgian Fish Safe to Eat

The results of this research are reassuring: it was found that microplastics >50 µm (this is one-twentieth of a mm; contamination with nanoplastics, i.e. even smaller particles, was not investigated in this project) do not accumulate in commercial fish and crustaceans sampled in fishing areas where Belgian fishermen are active. In almost all fish and crustacean samples (both edible and non-edible parts), the numbers of microplastics were so low that the concentration could not be precisely determined. In only 5 out of 42 fish fillets, 2-6 microplastic particles per 100 g of fish fillet were found, which is not alarming. Thus, the public may be informed that fish and crustaceans from Belgian fisheries are currently a safe food source in terms of microplastic contamination.

Plastic fibres in water from the port of Zeebrugge, filtered through a 100 μm sieve (photographed by microscope). © RBINS/C. De Schrijver

More Microplastics Close to Ports and the Coast

Still, concentrations of microplastics in the seabed and in seawater can sometimes be quite high, albeit variable. In this study, the concentration of microplastics in coastal sediments (near Zeebrugge) was about nine times higher than further out to sea. In seawater, the difference was even more spectacular: water from the port of Zeebrugge and near the coast contained 48 and 10 times more microplastics, respectively, compared to more seaward locations. Currently, there is no monitoring program that follows the evolution of this type of pollution in Belgium. In order to meet the European obligations, a national monitoring program for microplastics must therefore be set up. To this end, the researchers also recommend that the transport of microplastics in the marine environment, possible hotspots and the link with the spread of macro-waste be further investigated (or commissioned).

Karien De Cauwer, KBIN researcher: “This study gives us a good picture of the degree of microplastic pollution near the coast and further out to sea. Based on a good detection methodology, the evolution can be followed up according to European standards. This will allow to evaluate if measures and actions taken are effective. With more knowledge about locations where microplastics might accumulate, more targeted measurements can be taken.”

Plastic Fibers from the Fisheries

Large pieces of waste – macroplastics – make up 77 to 88% of all marine waste in terms of numbers. One item is apparently present everywhere: plastic fibers. The very light monofilaments of dolly rope – the mat of loose threads that are supposed to protect the belly of a trawling net from damage – is the main plastic item that is spread evenly across our part of the North Sea, even further offshore. Heavier plastics (such as crates, bottles and containers) are mainly found near the coast. Important detail: in the Dutch part of the North Sea, there is more pollution from plastic fibers than in the Belgian part. The researchers ask the policy and sector to make it a top priority to find and implement a good biodegradable alternative to plastic dolly rope. Obviously, this not only concerns the Belgian fishing industry, but initiatives should be taken at the scale of the entire North Sea or even Europe.

‘Dolly ropes’, the mats of loose threads protecting the belly of a trawl net from damage, are an important source of synthetic fibres in the Belgian part of the North Sea. © ILVO

Route for Plastic Pollution?

While there may be a link between plastic pollution and fishing, there is no unequivocal causal relationship with fishing intensity. In other words, most litter is not necessarily found in places with most intensive fishing. Nor was a direct link found with sand mining or offshore wind farms. A hotspot of waste was identified at one dredging site, near the port of Zeebrugge. However, it remains unclear whether this is due to the dumping itself, or due to currents or other driving forces. A detailed study of marine litter hotspots is therefore needed, examining the impact of different sources and modeling the transport processes of litter.

Bavo De Witte, ILVO researcher: “In our turbulent North Sea, it is not surprising that sea currents can exert a strong influence on plastic pollution. Through modeling, it should be possible to learn even more about the origin of different waste types.”

The full reports can be downloaded via the following links:

Microplastics in seafood from Belgian fisheries areas – ILVO Vlaanderen

Distribution and sources of macrolitter on the seafloor of Belgian fisheries areas – ILVO Vlaanderen

Marine Plastics project synthesis and recommendations – ILVO Vlaanderen & RBINS

The MarinePlastics research project was funded by the European Fund for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries and the Funding Instrument for the Flemish Fisheries.

Belgium, Candidate for the Council of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO)

Belgium is standing for re-election to the Council of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in category C. This United Nations organisation is committed to safe and sustainable international shipping. Our country has been a member of the IMO since 1951 and is proud to have contributed to the development of the maritime industry with other countries.

To support our candidature for the IMO Council of 2021, DG Shipping is pleased to share a video presenting Belgium as a maritime nation and highlighting the key points of our motto: “Be sustainable, be safe, be together, be Belgium”.

The promotional video also covers scientific research, monitoring of the marine environment and monitoring of compliance with international rules on air pollution from ships. The Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (KBIN) contributed to the video and provided images. The support of the Management Unit of the Mathematical Model of the North Sea (MUMM), and in particular of the airborne surveillance team of MUMM, as well as of scientific divers and various other RBINS teams was indispensable.


In its candidature, Belgium emphasises the following points, among others:

  • promoting inclusive governance
  • managing an increasingly complex maritime space and a wide variety of actors
  • innovating for a sustainable maritime sector
  • implementing IMO regulations and protecting seafarers
  • strengthening the maritime cluster

Vincent Van Quickenborne, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for the North Sea: “Shipping is of great importance to our economy. At the same time, we are strongly committed to the protection of the seas and oceans. In this way, our country plays a leading role at an international level in reducing emissions. Our North Sea is itself part of an ECA (Emission Control Area) in which we use our sniffer aircraft to strictly monitor emissions of nitrogen, sulphur and, this year, black carbon. Our ambition is to reduce CO emissions by 55% by 2030 and achieve zero emissions by 2050. That is why it is important for us to remain in the cockpit of the IMO. In this way, we can make a real difference in the development of a sustainable maritime policy.”

Peter Claeyssens, Director General of Directorate General Shipping: “The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) sets the rules for a safe navigation and the protection of our seas and oceans. As a prominent maritime nation, Belgium is strongly committed to safe and environmentally friendly shipping. This is why Belgium wants to be at the wheel of this organisation to make a difference in the ongoing development of a sustainable maritime mobility worldwide.”

The elections will take place in London during the 32nd ordinary session of the Assembly, which will be held from 6 to 15 December 2021.

More information on the IMO Council and the Belgian candidature is available here.

Source : FPS Mobility and Transport

Iconic Belgica gets second life as Ukrainian research vessel

On 13 September 2021, the agreement was signed for the transfer of the legendary research vessel Belgica from the Belgian to the Ukrainian authorities. A few days later, the ship will start her journey to her new home base in Odessa. During this transit, several scientific samples will be taken. In the Black Sea, the ship will continue to do what she does best: carry out scientific research and monitor the state of health of the sea. On this basis, measures can be defined that should lead to the ecological recovery of the Black Sea.

The RV Belgica ends her last campaign as a Belgian oceanographic research vessel, 25 March 2021. ©Belgian Navy/J. Urbain

On Monday 13 September 2021, Mr. Thomas Dermine, State Secretary for Economic Recovery and Strategic Investments, in charge of Science Policy, Mr. Roman Abramovskyy, Minister of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources of Ukraine, and Mr. Viktor Komorin, Director of the Ukrainian Scientific Centre of the Ecology of the Sea, signed the agreement for the transfer of the research vessel Belgica from the Kingdom of Belgium to Ukraine. This followed a Memorandum of Understanding signed in July 2021 between the Federal Science Policy Office (BELSPO), the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) and the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources of Ukraine.

State Secretary Thomas Dermine: “After more than one million kilometres travelled and more than 1,000 scientific campaigns to increase knowledge of the seas, Belgium bids farewell to the research vessel Belgica today. As a sailing laboratory, the ship was the flagship of Belgian marine science for 37 years. It is with pain in our hearts that we say goodbye, but I am very happy that the ship will have a second life thanks to our cooperation with the Ukrainian Scientific Centre of the Ecology of the Sea“.

State Secretary Dermine (Science Policy), Minister Abramovskyy (Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources of Ukraine) and Mr. Komorin (Director of the Ukrainian Scientific Centre for Marine Ecology) sign the agreement for the transfer of the research vessel Belgica to Ukraine. 13 September 2021. ©RBINS/K. Moreau

An Invaluable Legacy

The importance of a performant national research vessel cannot be underlined enough. As a multidisciplinary research vessel, the RV Belgica was able to support scientific research in the fields of fisheries, biology, geology, climate and chemistry, and Belgium was able to punch above its weight class in terms of marine research and monitoring, marine spatial planning and blue economy. And that both at a national level and in an international context. The ship also gave thousands of students the opportunity to gain their first sea experience. Many of them acquired a taste for it to such an extent that they remained active in the various STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) sectors, often rising to managerial positions.

Vincent Van Quickenborne, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the North Sea: “The Belgica is an icon in the research world and has been of inestimable value for North Sea policy. Among other things, she was responsible for monitoring the effects of sand extraction, wind farms and the munitions dump on the Paardenmarkt. Her field of work was also much broader than our North Sea. For example, she discovered cold water coral mounds beyond Ireland and mud volcanoes off the coast of Morocco. With the new Belgica, there will be a worthy successor to continue the work of the ‘old white lady’.”

Research vessel Belgica during her last days in her traditional home port of Zeebrugge. 13 September 2021. ©RBINS/K. Moreau

A New Life in the Black Sea

After 37 years of active service, the RV Belgica completed her last campaign as a Belgian oceanographic research vessel on 25 March 2021. Although Belgium will welcome a new state-of-the-art Belgica in the late autumn of 2021, the farewell of the ‘old white lady’ is tough.

On 16 September, the RV Belgica will leave her traditional berth in the Zeebrugge naval base and become officially Ukrainian property. Ukraine did not have an operational ship suitable for oceanographic research in recent times but has great ambitions in this field. From now on, the Belgica will strengthen the monitoring of the marine environment in the Black Sea region, and thus will be of great importance for the implementation of the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive, which is part of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. Moreover, in the longer term, monitoring will contribute to the establishment of an evidence-based programme of measures and thus to the restoration of the state of the Black Sea. As a follow-up, joint Belgo-Ukrainian surveys are also planned in both the Black Sea and the North-East Atlantic.

On the Ukrainian side, Minister Abramovskyy said: “We are very grateful to the Belgian Party for such an important gift to Ukraine. With the help of the research vessel Belgica, we plan to resume monitoring in the open waters of the Black Sea as early as this year.

Minister Abramovskyy is rightly proud that the Belgica will be Ukrainian property from 16 September 2021. 13 September 2021. ©RBINS/K. Moreau

The ‘First’ Cruise

In the coming days, the ship will start her journey from Zeebrugge to her new Ukrainian home port Odessa. During the 8 600 km voyage, Ukrainian scientists will be active right away. They will collect seawater and bottom sediment samples for analysis of a wide range of pollutants, document floating marine debris and microplastics, take environmental DNA samples for biodiversity assessment and analyse microbial DNA to reveal the presence of antibiotic resistance genes. This ambitious scientific programme, entitled “Cruise of Three European Seas” (North East Atlantic, Mediterranean and Black Sea), as well as the transfer of the vessel, is organised and funded by the EU/UNDP project “European Union for Improving Environmental Monitoring of the Black Sea” (EU4EMBLAS), and scientifically supported by the EU Joint Research Centre.

Defence Minister Ludivine Dedonder: “For 37 years, Defence deployed the Belgica in the service of scientific research at sea. The ship is now being transferred to Ukraine to start a second career as a scientific research vessel. I am pleased to know that the Belgica – albeit under a different name – is heading for new scientific assignments. We expect the successor to arrive in Belgium shortly and we will continue our good cooperation with the Federal Science Policy and the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences.”

The Belgica is expected to arrive in Ukraine in mid-October 2021. There, the ship will be renamed, and then begin her operations in the Black Sea region.

Post-breeding migration phenology for birds ringed in Belgium 2011-2020

Migration is a crucial phase in the annual cycle of wild birds.

In some cases migration is innate, in others it is learned. But it is always a question of successfully joining one area to another, sometimes, often, thousands of kilometres away.

The journey requires remarkable abilities in terms of orientation, reaction to weather conditions, choice and availability of stopover places. The ability to feed efficiently during stopovers in order to replenish the energy reserves used during the first leg so as to be able to cover the next, and so on, is also crucial.

The phenology – the timing – of migration is an essential parameter in successful migration. The bird must leave in time to reach its destination site at the right moment, taking into account the stages to be covered and the food resources available from the beginning to the end of the journey. In the case of insectivorous passerines, these resources are essentially a function of the annual cycle, which in turn depends on the local weather.

Some species/populations consistently adapt their migration timing. Others seem to be “set” on a genetically predetermined schedule.

But what happens when the weather conditions are peculiar, when the climatic situation changes rapidly? To what extent do different bird species react appropriately? And if some do not, to what extent does this influence the evolution of their populations in terms of abundance and distribution?

By studying the migration phenology of different bird species ringed in Belgium during migration, we wish to contribute to this evaluation.

This first presentation of results compiles, in three-day periods, the ringing data collected throughout Belgium over the last 10 years. The results are expressed as a percentage of the total number of birds, from the species concerned, ringed during the reference period. The sample size (“n”) is presented next to each graph. These data are particularly robust considering the sample sizes in relation to the high density of their harvest – the land area of Belgium being ‘only’ 30,528 km².

The inter-annual variation in peak abundance will be presented in a second step.

Thanks to all the RBINS ringers who contributed to the collection of these data and to Paul Vandenbulcke who wrote papageno, the software for encoding these data.