WinMon.BE, the Belgian offshore wind farm (OWF) environmental monitoring programme, started in 2008 and is coordinated by the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS). RBINS and the WinMon.BE partners INBO (Research Institute for Nature and Forest), ILVO (Flanders Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) and Marbiol (Marine Biology Research Group at Ghent University), assess the extent of the anticipated impacts of offshore wind farms onto the marine ecosystem and aim at revealing the processes behind these impacts.
On May 18th, from 9:00 to 12:00, the WinMon.BE consortium is organizing an event to share and discuss results from the monitoring programme. This symposium is hosted as a side event of the 52nd Liège Colloquium on Ocean Dynamics (Towards an understanding and assessment of human impact on coastal marine environments, 17th – 21st of May 2021; http://labos.ulg.ac.be/gher/home/colloquium/colloquium-2021/), and will be conducted in English.
Lessons learned from the WinMon.BE programme will be presented, followed by a panel discussion. During the discussion, special attention will be paid to the science-management-policy nexus as how to best achieve an environment-friendly implementation and an ecosystem-based management of offshore renewables. This session is free of charge and targeted at scientists, industry, managers and policy makers.
9:00 – 9:05: Welcome (Vincent Van Quickenborne – Minister of North Sea)
In 2020, the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) performed a total of 158 flight hours over the North Sea in the framework of the national programme of aerial surveys. Ten cases of operational discharges by ships have been observed, and one case of accidental pollution that resulted from a collision between two tankers. Additionally, suspicious sulphur values have been measured in the smoke plumes of 10 vessels. Since 2020, the sniffer sensor is able to measure nitrogen emissions as well. With this capacity expansion, Belgium keeps on playing an international pioneering rolein the field of ship emission monitoring. Notwithstanding the COVID-19 pandemic, the aircraft also successfully participated in an internationally coordinated surveillance mission of the oil and gas installations in the central part of the North Sea. Furthermore, the annual marine mammal counts were also carried out successfully.
Overview of Surveillance Flights
A total of 158 flight hours have been performed in the framework of the national North Sea aerial survey programme in 2020. This programme is organised by the Scientific Service MUMM (Management Unit of the Mathematical Model of the North Sea) of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, in collaboration with the Ministry of Defence. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, less flight hours could be performed than initially planned. However, due to the elaboration and application of an extensive Covid-19 switching plan, a considerable part of the anticipated hours (approximately 75%) was performed despite the exceptional and difficult circumstances.
Most of the flight hours were for national flights (136 hours):
92 hours for pollution control: 56 hours for the detection of discharges of oil and other harmful substances (MARPOL Annex I, II and V) and 36 hours for the monitoring of sulphur emissions from ships (MARPOL Annex VI / SECA – Sulphur Emission Control Area enforcement;
27 hours for fishery control, on behalf of and in cooperation with the Flemish Fishery Inspection Services;
9 hours in response to a specific alerts: a collision with pollution, a considerable accidental oil pollution in the western Scheldt, an alert for large amounts of brown substances in the water (after verification it turned out to be algae) and a search for a whale in Belgian waters.
8 hours for marine mammal monitoring.
A smaller part (22 hours) has been spent on the international level: the Tour d’horizon-mission for aerial surveillance of offshore oil and gas installations in the North Sea, an international mission framed in the BONN Agreement.
On 12 and 13 May 2020, a small accidental spill of a liquid noxious substance (LNS) other than oil was observed after a collision between the vessels ISOLDE and NAVIGATOR CERES. The pollution originated from the slightly damaged ISOLDE. The traces, which had an oily appearance, could be observed in the vicinity of ISOLDE at the sea surface for 2 days during 4 consecutive flights. The pollution was not a consequence of a loss of cargo but due to an accidental loss of Bioneptan, a bio-oil used to lubricate the screw drive. Given the nature and the limited discharged volume (<100L), this accidental pollution did not pose a major threat to the marine environment.
Operational Discharges from Ships
Besides the accidental spill, 10 cases of operational discharges from ships have been observed throughout the year:
2 minor oil spills (MARPOL Annex I), that could not be linked to a polluter.
8 spills of liquid harmful substances other than oil (MARPOL Annex II). In one of these cases a link could be made with a ship; a port state control was requested in the next port of call. This made clear that it consisted of a permitted discharge of sunflower seed-oil (MARPOL Annex II).
In addition to aerial surveillance with the Coast Guard aircraft, MUMM also regularly receives alerts from satellite detections of possible marine pollutions. This Clean Sea Net (CSN) satellite surveillance service is provided by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA). In 2020, the aircraft carried out 5 verification flights in response to a CSN satellite detection alarm of a possible contamination in the Belgian surveillance area. In one case, a contamination was effectively confirmed by the aircraft, involving a harmful liquid substance other than oil. During the other 4 verifications, no detections of pollutions could be made (anymore). Feedback was provided to EMSA for each verification.
The numbers show that the number of oil spills has been greatly reduced in the last decade (graph 1), while the number of spills of other harmful substances remains a common problem, that even appears to be on the rise (graph 2). It should be noted that it often concerns discharges that comply with international discharge standards, as contained in Annex II of the MARPOL Convention. From 2021, stricter MARPOL Annex II discharge standards are in force for so-called “persistent floaters” such as paraffin-like substances. The impact of these stricter discharge standards at sea will be monitored in the coming years.
Oil Pollution in Belgian Ports and the Western Scheldt
During transit flights from the airport of Antwerp (the home-base of the Coast Guard aircraft) to the North Sea, one oil spill has been observed in the port of Antwerp and one accidental oil spill in the western Scheldt. In the latter case, sludge oil was pumped out by a vessel during debalasting operations as a result of corrosion between the ballast and sludge tanks. Both observations were immediately reported to the competent authorities to ensure follow-up.
Monitoring of Sulphur Emissions from Ships at Sea
Due to application of a ‘sniffer’-sensor in the aircraft our country is known as a pioneer in the international combat against air pollution from ships at sea. The sensor makes it possible to measure pollutants in the emissions of ships on site.
Sulphur measurements have been on the program since 2016. In order to monitor compliance with the stringent fuel sulphur content limits for ships sailing in the North Sea SECA (Sulphur Emission Control Area), 25 sniffer fights (36 hours) were conducted. Of the 394 vessels of which the sulphur exhaust was measured at sea, 10 showed a suspiciously high sulphur value. These cases were systematically reported to the competent maritime inspection services for a further follow-up in port.
Thanks to the successful integration of a NOx sensor, the aircraft can now also measure the concentration of nitrogen compounds (NOx) in the smoke plumes of ships. This new sensor was extensively tested in 2020, where it was also possible to determine the nitrogen emissions of the 394 monitored ships. The associated monitoring and reporting procedures were also worked out, which means that Belgium is the first country ready to start monitoring and enforcing the strict restrictions that will apply in the North Sea from 1 January 2021 regarding nitrogen emissions from ships. Therefore, RBINS continues to play a key role on the international level in the field of MARPOL Annex VI. During the 2020 tests, it was found that the majority of the inspected ships already complied with the new rules, although some were documented with nitrogen concentrations in their emissions that were more than double of the 2021 limit values.
International ‘Tour d’Horizon’ Mission
The annual TdH-mission for the surveillance of offshore platforms in the central part of the North Sea (in Dutch, German, Danish, Norwegian and British waters), performed in the framework of the Bonn Agreement, was conducted in September 2020. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the team was forced to change the classic flight route (with stops in several North Sea countries) and to operate exclusively from the United Kingdom. The Belgian surveillance aircraft detected 24 pollutions, of which 21 oil could be directly linked to offshore installations. The 3 remaining detections – 2 oil spills and 1 detection of another harmful substance – were made without a vessel or platform in the vicinity. All detections were systematically reported for further follow-up to the competent Coastal State, in accordance with agreed international procedures.
Monitoring of Marine Mammals
In 2020, RBINS conducted two surveys in Belgian waters to determine the distribution and density of harbour porpoises. Such surveys are also carried out in other North Sea countries in a standardized manner, in order to obtain long-term data that yield a bigger picture of the population dynamics for the entire southern and central North Sea. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the seasonal surveys could only be carried out at the end of June and the beginning of September. Although these months are not the peak months for the presence of harbour porpoises in our waters, considerable numbers were still spotted during these campaigns.
During the survey in June 34 harbour porpoises were spotted, whereas in the beginning of September 37 individuals were recorded. The resulting estimates of average density in the Belgian part of the North Sea were 0,56 and 0,55 harbour porpoises per km², corresponding to about 1900 animals in Belgian waters. Besides harbour porpoises, other marine mammals were spotted too during the campaigns: in June 3 seals were recorded, in September this number was 13, the highest number recorded since the start of the surveys. Of those 13 seals, 3 were identified as adult grey seals. In September one bottlenose dolphin was spotted in the north-western part of the Belgian waters.
So far in 2021, 22 dead seals have washed ashore along the Belgian coast. Half of them, mostly young grey seals, showed characteristic neck and head injuries. There was talk of decapitations and this caused quite a stir. A forensic analysis by the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences and the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of the University of Liège concludes that these seals were unintentional by-catch from professional fishing with trammel or gill nets. The sudden large number of dead animals can be explained by the high number of young grey seals currently present on our coast, following the large population growth in the south-east of England.
Seals, both harbour seals and grey seals, are no longer endangered species in the southern part of the North Sea: populations are growing and, in the case of grey seals, they are larger than at any time in the history of the North Sea. This also means that seals are increasingly present in our waters and on our beaches.
From December 2020 until spring 2021, there was an invasion of very young grey seals: young animals were spotted daily on our coast. Undoubtedly, the vast majority of these animals came from colonies in the south-east of the United Kingdom, where record numbers of grey seals were born in November and December 2020. For example, the largest colony, that at Blakeney Point (Norfolk, England), gave birth to around 4,000 grey seals in the winter of 2020-2021, compared to 3,399 in 2019-2020 and just 25 in 2001.
Dead Seals in 2021
Together with the high number of grey seal sightings, a striking number of seals have washed ashore dead in recent weeks, sometimes several a day: 22 this year. Half of these animals, most of them very young grey seals born last winter, showed a characteristic injury on the neck and head. Most of them washed ashore between Ostend and De Panne. In collaboration with a veterinarian and a forensic pathologist, some of the animals showing typical injuries were examined.
The injuries on the young grey seals are almost identical. The following observations and conclusions were made:
The head is usually not gone, but badly damaged; the skull is often still there, with fractures and exposed bone: the overlying skin and tissue are gone;
The skin is torn off from the head in a circular manner from the neck down (scalping);
The injuries are post-mortem (no bruising in the exposed fatty tissue);
The injury is more of a laceration, in layers; no hairs have been cut, which rules out incision by a sharp knife;
The injuries were caused by mechanical action: not by knives but by a rotating device.
Probable Cause of Injuries
Scavengers have the easiest access to a dead seal through the head. Gulls will quickly peck out the eyes and from there remove fat and meat via the head. Especially decomposing animals often first cause major damage to the head. The injuries to the dead seals in the spring of 2021, however, clearly have an identical background, which is not to be sought in scavenging but in a human factor.
The conclusions of the study are as follows:
The seals have been caught incidentally in professional fishing with warren nets or gill nets, they get stuck in the net on the bottom and drown.
The animals are trapped with their heads in the net; the net retrieval system (system with a large pulley/”drum”), together with the fine nylon thread, causes a circular incision, not typical of a knife cut, and leads to the turning of the seals’ heads through the system with crushing of the lower and upper jaw and scalping of the skull.
After the catch, the fishermen throw the animals overboard.
The following additional remarks are important:
The number of seals washed ashore is only a fraction of the total number of seals caught incidentally.
Animals that are very fresh when washed up have been caught incidentally close to shore. Animals in a state of decomposition may have been caught incidentally both close to and further from shore.
It is highly unlikely that fishermen deliberately kill seals.
A probable explanation for the sudden large number of dead animals is the high number of young grey seals currently present on our coast, something which used to be much less the case.
Possible explanations for why only relatively small seals show such injuries are that (1) larger seals will fall out of the net before coming into contact with the drum due to their weight when hauling it up and (2) many more small seals were present during this period.
The incidental catch of seals is well known, and is dealt with in the context of the OSPAR Convention and implementation of European directives. The incidental catch cannot be considered a violation. What is necessary, but hardly ever happens, is the reporting of by-catch to the authorities if the by-catch is by a Belgian fishing vessel (obligatory according to the Royal Decree of 21 December 2001).
The mortality of seals through incidental catch is not of a level that would endanger seal populations in our waters. However, bycatch is potentially problematic in the context of our obligations under the European Habitat Directive and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive.
The renewed presence of seals leads to conflicts: seals are increasingly caught incidentally during fishing activities, both recreational and professional.
Professional fishing with gill and trammel nets is suspected to be the cause of the typical injuries in at least 11 seals washed ashore in 2021. These are mostly young grey seals born in the winter of 2020-2021 which, after weaning, start to roam the southern North Sea. Passive fishery with gill and trammel nets often involves setting miles of nets from a vessel. The nets are left in place for up to 24 hours. In the southern part of the North Sea, this type of fishing is especially intensive in February to May, the season when sole migrates. It is popular in the north of France, but occurs less in our coastal waters. French fishermen do not have access to our 12-mile zone. The same phenomenon of high numbers of stranded young grey seals is observed in the North of France.
Incidental catches of marine mammals should be considered as one of the negative effects that fishing has on the ecosystem. Because seals are popular, such mortalities often lead to public outcry. It should also be remembered that any form of fishing has an impact on the ecosystem, and passive fisheries, which are dangerous for marine mammals, have environmental advantages over beam trawling in terms of CO2 emissions, selectivity and bottom disturbance.
The Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) has, together with a number of scientific institutes, been carrying out research on marine mammals stranded in Belgium (and to a lesser extent in northern France) since the early 1990s. This is regularly reported in professional journals and in the framework of international obligations. Since 2014, the Institute also publishes annual reports on marine mammals. These can be consulted on www.marinemammals.be/reports.
The RBINS would like to thank the many volunteers who reported strandings, especially those from the NorthSealTeam, the technical and fire services of the coastal municipalities, and the forensic pathologist and veterinarian for their cooperation.
Text: Jan Haelters(1), Francis Kerckhof(1), Kelle Moreau(1) and Thierry Jauniaux(2)
(1) Scientific Service Management Unit of the Mathematical Model of the North Sea (MUMM); Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS)
(2) Faculté de Médecine vétérinaire, Département de morphologie et pathologie (DMP) – Faculté des Sciences, Département de Biologie, Ecologie et Evolution; Université de Liège
From 1 March to 30 September 2021 inclusive, the Marine Environment Service of the FPS Public Health is organising a public consultation on the draft “coastal water management plan for Belgian coastal waters”. The general public has the opportunity to give its opinion on this plan, which the public authorities can then take into account when drawing up the final plan.
This management plan for the Belgian coastal waters has been drawn up in accordance with the Water Framework Directive, which was approved by the European Union in 2000. The aim of this directive is to achieve and maintain good status for all water bodies (rivers, lakes, coastal and transitional waters and groundwater). The management of Belgian coastal waters is the responsibility of the Belgian federal authority.
On 8 March 2021 a harbour porpoise got stuck in an illegally placed gill net or entanglement net on the beach of Oostduinkerke (Koksijde). Harbour porpoises that get stuck in such nets drown at the rising tide. This animal (see first picture and subsequent video links) could be rescued just in time by an alert beach visitor. Another porpoise found on the beach in the same area on 4 March appeared to have died very recently and was probably killed in this way (photo at the bottom of the page).
The type of net in question was already banned in Belgium for recreational use at sea in 2001. In 2015, following a court procedure against our country by the European Commission, their recreational use on the beach was also banned. The Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences takes infringements very seriously, and systematically reports violations to the competent authorities. They then take action against the people who placed the illegal nets on the beach.
Ocean observing and forecasting are critical to underpin any ocean-related activity, from science to blue economy, from management to ocean-human interactions. Despite the ocean’s paramount importance to society, there are fundamental gaps in today’s ocean observing and forecasting systems, limiting our capacity to sustainably manage our activities in the ocean. These gaps cannot be filled by individual nations.
Cooperation to Fill the Gap
The project EuroSea supports the European integration of coordinated observations and predictions of the ocean state and variability that can be sustained in the long term. Three innovation demonstrator work packages focus on operational services, ocean health and climate.
EuroSea Vision : Advancing Research and Innovation towards a user-focused, truly interdisciplinary and responsive European ocean observing and forecasting system, that delivers the essential information needed for human wellbeing and safety, sustainable development and blue economy in a changing world.
EuroSea is an EU Innovation Action titled “Improving and Integrating European Ocean Observing and Forecasting Systems for Sustainable Use of the Oceans” and is part of “The Future of Seas and Oceans Flagship Initiative” funded through the Horizon 2020 Blue Growth call (BG-07-2019-2020). The project brings together key European actors of ocean observation and forecasting with key end users of ocean observations. An interdisciplinary consortium of 55 partners is working together for 50 months and is allocated a budget of almost € 12.6M. The project is coordinated by GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, Germany. The kick-off (1st EuroSea Annual Meeting) took place at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) in Brussels on 27-29 November 2019, organized by GEOMAR, RBINS and EuroGOOS. RBINS is active in the work package ‘Communication: Engagement, Dissemination, Exploitation and Legacy’ that has, among others, produced the EuroSea Communication Plan (coordinated by EuroGOOS, RBINS and GEOMAR) and the EuroSea Video presented above (coordinated by SOCIB – Balearic Islands Coastal Observing and Forecasting System).
2nd EuroSea Annual Meeting and General Assembly
The (virtual) second EuroSea week ran from 18 to 22 January 2021 bringing together over a hundred experts participating in the project as well as invited speakers from related global and European initiatives.
The European Commission DG Research Innovation shared their aspirations and stressed the important role of EuroSea in helping to improve ocean knowledge and sustainability. The newly established G7 European Office, hosted by Mercator Ocean International in Toulouse, France, shared their plans in relation to the G7 Future of the Oceans and Seas Initiative. Presentations were given from international and European ocean observing coordination programmes and initiatives including the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) – programme under the UNESCO-IOC, the Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS) – the GOOS Regional Alliance in Australia, and the European Ocean Observing System framework led by EuroGOOS and the European Marine Board.
The EuroSea work packages presented the progress made during the first 14 months of the project, aiming at better coordinating European ocean observing and forecasting. Special emphasis was made during the week on the EuroSea impact assessment. The protocol put forward by leaders of work packages 1 (governance) and 8 (engagement, dissemination, exploitation & legacy) consists of determining key EuroSea impact areas and developing a pathway to analyze impacts within each of them, which are possible to measure or to illustrate. EuroSea impacts span coordination, decision support, science, and operational services, with many innovations planned along the way. The best practices collected during the project will be transferred to the global oceanographic community through the IOC Ocean Best Practices System.
Diversity and inclusion were another special emphasis of the week, with the EuroSea Gender and Diversity Board presenting the first results of both an institutional and a personal survey of the EuroSea partners. At a subsequent thought-mapping session, participants shared the way forward for EuroSea on topics of gender, diversity, career, and culture as linked with the scientific and innovation work of the project and its community.
Four scientific lunches were hosted during the week with seven presentations highlighting a range of EuroSea tasks, from data collection to data products and services or network coordination mechanisms.
10 European projects relevant to the goals of EuroSea were invited to highlight their efforts in flash talks. Collaboration between EuroSea and some of these projects has already been initiated through the European Commission’s Horizon Results Booster service.
The General Assembly concluded the week with the Executive Board elections, plans for the project’s Exploitation Strategy, and a discussion on the recommendations from the EuroSea International Scientific and Technical Advisory Board.
An expert Workshop aiming to develop a common strategy and operational procedures on the monitoring of air emissions by ships in the Greater North Sea area was held on 2 – 5 February 2021. The Workshop was chaired by Ronny Schallier of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) and concluded on a set of recommendations that will be further explored. A promising start!
Pollution from Shipping Must be Tackled Internationally
The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution From Ships (MARPOL) is a treaty of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and constitutes the main mechanism for the prevention of pollution of the marine environment by ships from operational or accidental causes. Six annexes lay down rules for the prevention of various types of pollution. Annexes I to V deal with various substances that can be released directly into the water by ships (oil, other noxious liquid substances, harmful substances in packaged form, sewage and garbage), while Annex VI deals with air pollution from ships.
On a regional scale, ten countries that surround the North Sea and its Wider Approaches, together with the European Union, cooperate in dealing with pollution of the North Sea by ships in the framework of the Bonn Agreement. Prevention, preparedness and response are on the agenda. The scope of work of this Agreement was recently extended by including MARPOL Annex VI surveillance, which implies the development of a region-wide monitoring strategy.
The Way to Harmonized and Coordinated Monitoring
On 2-5 February 2021, more than 60 experts from the Bonn Agreement Contracting Parties joined the Workshop together with the Chair of the North Sea Network of Investigators and Prosecutors and representatives from other regional agreements. The plenary session was chaired by Ronny Schallier of the Belgian Scientific Service MUMM (Management Unit of the Mathematical Model of the North Sea, part of RBINS; experts Ward Van Roy and Kobe Scheldeman of the MUMM surveillance team co-convened the meeting) and four parallel breakout groups were organised to discuss the legal, operational and scientific issues relating to the monitoring and enforcement of MARPOL Annex VI. On behalf of Belgium also DG Shipping (FPS Mobility and Transport) made a valuable contribution, explaining the legal context and the role of port inspections.
The use of the different platforms and sensors to monitor sulphur oxides (SOx) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) in the emissions from vessels was considered along with regional monitoring programs and using assets of the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) to boost regional cooperation. The Workshop concluded on a set of recommendations to be further explored through a Strategic and Operational Working Group and a Technical Working Group under the umbrella of the main Technical Working Group of the Agreement, OTSOPA.
“Sulphur oxides and nitrogen oxides in the emissions of ships not only have a significant environmental impact but are also important triggers of fine particulate matter and pose a serious public health problem. This Workshop can be considered a successful start of a coordinated, effective compliance monitoring of the strict international standards for ship emissions in the North Sea” Ronny Schallier explains. “In the fight against air pollution from ships, the 10 countries of the Bonn Agreement and the EU will jointly deploy various platforms (aircrafts, drones, fixed measuring stations) and innovative sensors throughout the wider North Sea area, from the Gulf of Biscay to the Scottish and Norwegian waters. In this joint effort, the Coast Guard aircraft of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (MUMM) will continue to play an important pioneering role.”
PRESS RELEASE Cabinet Science Policy & City of Ghent, 31 January 2021
The city of Ghent will be the godfather city of the new Belgian research vessel Belgica. The ship will be baptised in Ghent in September 2021. This was announced on 31 January 2021 by the State Secretary for Science Policy, Thomas Dermine, and the Mayor of Ghent, Mathias De Clercq.
The city of Ghent will be the godfather of the new research vessel. The State Secretary for Science Policy, Thomas Dermine, took this decision after consultation with the Mayor of Ghent Mathias De Clercq. The city of Ghent had already expressed its interest in becoming the godfather of the advanced research vessel. A candidacy supported by the University of Ghent, an important scientific partner of the Belgica.
“At the moment, the finishing touches are being put to the vessel in Vigo, Spain, which is also undergoing extensive testing. In September 2021, Belgium’s pride in marine research and technology will be christened in Ghent,” jubilates State Secretary for Science Policy Thomas Dermine. “With the Belgica, we are helping our country to become one of the world leaders in marine and underwater exploration. I am very happy with Ghent’s enthusiasm to become the godfather city of this exceptional ship”, continues Thomas Dermine.
“We are particularly honoured and proud to be the godfather city of the new research vessel Belgica”, says Mayor Mathias De Clercq enthusiastically. “Ghent will use this title to stimulate young people’s and schools’ interest in science and to make the most of Ghent’s assets as a knowledge and port city. The ship is powered by Ghent engines and the people of Ghent will proudly welcome the Belgica”, Mathias De Clercq continues.
The new Belgica, a 71-metre oceanographic research vessel, will play a key role in Belgian and European marine research in the coming decades.
Starting in autumn 2021, the ship will embark on expeditions to research numerous issues, such as the fight against global warming and better protection of the environment.
As a multidisciplinary research vessel, the Belgica will support scientific research in the fields of fisheries, biology, geology, climate and chemistry.
The Belgian State, represented by the Federal Science Policy Office (BELSPO), is the owner of the ship. The Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) will manage the vessel in cooperation with the Ministry of Defence and a private operator.
The new research vessel will succeed the current research vessel Belgica (launched in 1984), which in the past 36 years has travelled almost one million kilometres and facilitated more than 1,000 scientific expeditions.
Like its predecessor, the Belgica will operate within the European EUROFLEETS network, which gives European researchers access to a common marine research infrastructure.
The new ship will be baptised in September in Ghent after an inauguration trip between Zeebrugge and Ghent in the presence of Princess Elisabeth. As a reminder, the Duchess of Brabant is the godmother of the new Belgica.
Activities for the general public will be organised in the margins of this official inauguration.
Agentschap voor Maritieme Dienstverlening en Kust, afdeling Kust, van C.B.R. Cementbedrijven nv – Afdeling SAGREX en De Hoop Bouwgrondstoffen bv c.o. SATIC nv have applied for the prolongation and/or extension of their concession for sand and gravel extraction in the Belgian part of the North Sea. These applications are subject to an environmental impact assessment procedure.
The applications and the environmental impact assessment report, including a design of appropriate assessment, can be downloaded below (in Dutch). Objections received shall be added after the public consultation.
While Belgium emerged as a world leader in the offshore wind industry, the Belgian scientists that monitor the environmental impact of offshore wind farms have also developed extensive knowledge and expertise. Shortly after the first Belgian offshore wind zone was completed (the world’s biggest to be operational), the monitoring consortium presents its latest conclusions and recommendations in a new report. Different components of the marine ecosystem are impacted in different ways. Therefore, the environmental impact is not a black or white story. Balancing the energy and biodiversity crises was never expected to be an easy task. The monitoring continues, as does the development of mitigation measures where needed.
The European Commission imposes targets for the contribution of renewable energy sources to the total electricity production by all Member States (Directive 2009/28/EC). For Belgium, 13 % of the total energy consumption must be covered by renewable energy by 2020. Offshore wind farms in the Belgian part of the North Sea make an important contribution, and a first zone of 238 km² along the border with the Netherlands was reserved for wind farms to achieve this goal. At the end of 2020, after 12 years of construction, the wind farms in this zone were completed. A total of 399 turbines is now operational in eight wind farms, with an installed capacity of 2,26 Gigawatts (GW) and the production of an average of 8 TWh. This represents approximately 10 % of Belgium’s total electricity demand, or 50 % of the electricity needs of all Belgian households. At the moment, the construction works have ended, but a second area for renewable energy of 285 km² is foreseen in the new Marine Spatial Plan for the period 2020-2026, intending to add a minimum of 2 GW to the total Belgian offshore wind energy production capacity.
Balancing the energy and biodiversity crises
It is very challenging to find a balance between the installation of offshore wind farms as measures to combat the energy/climate crisis and acceptable environmental impacts in the light of combatting the biodiversity crisis. Both crises need to be tackled, but within conditions that do not worsen the other crisis. It also needs to be kept in mind that the Belgian offshore wind farms are not unique cases: on the scale of the southern North Sea, offshore wind farm areas are also foreseen in the adjacent Dutch Borssele zone (344 km²) and in the French Dunkerque zone (122 km²). Cumulative ecological impacts will hence continue to be a major concern in the years to come. Only by closely cooperating towards the common goal of increasing the production of renewable energy with acceptable ecological impacts, science, industry and policy can jointly address the challenge.
Permits and Monitoring
Before a wind farm can be installed in Belgian marine waters, developers must obtain a domain concession and an environmental permit. This permit imposes a scientific monitoring programme to assess the effects of the project on the marine ecosystem and includes terms and conditions that are intended to minimise and/or mitigate aspects of the impact that are evaluated to be unacceptable. The monitoring programme is carried out by the WinMon.BE consortium. Annual reports that target marine scientists, managers, policy makers and offshore wind farm developers are published in the ‘Memoirs of the Marine Environment’-series of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences.
The monitoring programme covers a broad range of ecosystem components from soft sediment and (artificial) hard substrate invertebrates and fish to seabirds and marine mammals, as well as their interactions. In other words, the monitoring does not only focus on the quantification of the extent of the impacts on the marine ecosystem but also aims at revealing the cause-effect relationships of certain impacts.
Because the different studied ecosystem components are impacted by offshore renewable energy developments in different ways, and at different spatial and temporal scales, the environmental impact cannot be easily summarised as positive or negative. The main conclusions and recommendations of the latest studies include:
The use of double bubble curtains proved partially effective to reduce underwater sound associated with the installation of 8 m diameter monopiles to levels in line with national standards.
Following a review of compliance with relevant environmental license conditions, an optimization of the use of acoustic deterrent devices and noise mitigation measures, and formalizing marine mammal surveys, are recommended.
Over 80% of the estimated number of seabirds colliding with turbines in Belgian waters are large gulls. Wind farm location, layout and turbine size determine the expected number of collisions.
Future research should address specific aspects of the impact on individual birds and populations, and mitigation: correlation between displacement and wind farm characteristics, large gull movements and an empirically informed species-distribution model to support marine spatial planning.
Sediments become finer and organically enriched close to jacket foundations, accompanied by higher abundance and diversity of macrofauna. Typical coastal species from productive waters are colonizing the now finer sediments around the turbines.
Nine years after construction, the first signs become apparent that wind farms can act as refugia for fish that prefer soft sediments (e.g. plaice), probably resulting from fisheries exclusion and increased food availability, while the reef effect expands to soft sediments between the turbines (colonized by invertebrates of hard substrates).
Offshore wind farms influence the local food webs from the basis, with colonizing fauna reducing primary producers, to higher trophic levels, with several fish species intensively feeding on the colonizing fauna.
The fact that the first Belgian zone for offshore wind farms has been fully completed does not mean that the monitoring now comes at an end. Although the understanding of the effects of wind turbines on the marine environment and its inhabitants has grown significantly over the past 10 years, there is still much to learn about the longer-term environmental impact of offshore wind farms. To allow for that, the current cooperation model in which scientists and the offshore wind industry document the impact of the operational phase of the wind farms will continue to remain active. “Examples of fields that we have started to explore but cannot yet report on include the improvement of modelling of bird and bat collision risks, the monitoring of the impact of continuous underwater sound that is generated by operational turbines, and the longer-term effects on fish populations. It also remains unknown how fouling communities on the wind turbines will further evolve, and how the observed behavioral changes impact the individual fitness, reproductive success and survival of marine animals.” says Steven Degraer, coordinator of the WinMon consortium and head of the Marine Ecology and Management team of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences. Degraer continues “Extending the cooperation will also allow to further evolve in the field of designing, testing and improving mitigation measures to directly manage unwanted effects on the marine ecosystem.”
Monitoring activities will also have to be initiated in the same way in the second Belgian offshore wind zone once the construction will start there. The collection of baseline data on the state of the marine ecosystem in that area, on which a future assessment of changes will rely, is already ongoing. In addition, rapidly evolving technology and construction practices require frequent reassessment of observed impacts.
In the meantime, the Belgian expertise on the monitoring of the environmental impact of offshore wind farms is also getting international attention. “Monitoring plans that are inspired by the Belgian work are being set up in both France and the United States, so Belgium should not only be considered a world leader in the offshore wind industry, but also in the monitoring of their environmental impact.” Degraer concludes.
The Monitoring Programme WinMon.BE is a cooperation between the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS), the Research Institute Nature and Forest (INBO), the Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (ILVO) and the Marine Biology Research Group of Ghent University, and is coordinated by the Marine Ecology and Management team (MARECO) of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences.