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.

Autopsy of grey seal Oscar confirms natural death due to advanced age

In the morning of 12 August 2021, a grey seal, known to beach visitors as “Oscar”, was found dead on the beach of Wenduine. The post-mortem examination, carried out by staff from the University of Liège, in collaboration with Ghent University and the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, confirmed what was already suspected: Oscar succumbed to the effects of his advanced age. This could be deduced from the empty digestive system, the badly worn teeth and the severe signs of emaciation, which eventually led to general organ failure.

RIP Grey seal Oscar, Wenduine beach, 12 August 2021 (© Fire Brigade De Haan)

For those who followed the national media on 12 and 13 August, there was no escape: from now on, the iconic seal Oscar will no longer be seen on our beaches. Oscar, an adult male grey seal, was found dead on the beach of Wenduine (municipality of De Haan) in the morning of 12 August 2021. Since 2019 he had been regularly found on the Belgian and northern French beaches, where he has become a familiar sight to many beach visitors and nature lovers. Recently, he even enjoyed national public attention and became known as a mascot of the Belgian coast. However, from the beginning of his Belgian adventure, it was clear that Oscar was an old animal. He looked rather thin and often lay passively for long periods on the beach, which gave the impression to many that he had health problems. However, his appearance and behaviour were well-suited to an old animal, and there was no need for human intervention. So it was expected for some time that his end was not far off.

Oscar in better times on the Belgian coast. He often looked lifeless and thin throughout his stay, indicative of an advanced age. Nieuwpoort, 9 September 2020 (© Luc David)


Oscar’s carcass was collected immediately after the discovery by staff of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS), which since the early 1990s has been coordinating research on the health status and causes of death of wild marine mammals in Belgium. A post-mortem examination was immediately organised by the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (Department of Morphology and Pathology) of the University of Liège, in collaboration with the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of the Ghent University and the RBINS.

The investigation confirmed what was already suspected: Oscar died a natural death from the effects of old age; his body was exhausted. The autopsy revealed the following aspects:

  • the digestive system was completely empty, so the animal had not been able to get any food for some time
  • the teeth did not help any more either: many teeth were missing and the remaining teeth were very worn down
  • severe emaciation (skin and bones): no fat tissue was found and most of the muscle tissue had also disappeared (atrophied)
  • its weight was barely 100.1 kg, whereas for a male grey seal measuring 2 m in length, a ‘healthy’ weight of 170 to 200 kg would be expected (note that Oscar, at 2 m, was a rather small adult grey seal; some males grow up to 2.5 m in length)
  • the weakening caused by emaciation eventually led to general organ and heart failure
  • some tumours have yet to be diagnosed, but are not expected to be directly responsible for the death
The missing and badly worn teeth did not make it easier for Oscar to feed himself. Wenduine, 12 August 2021 (© RBINS/J. Haelters)

Oscar reached an estimated age of 20 years or more (the exact age is difficult to determine), which is respectable for a male grey seal. Females are known to live up to 35 years, but males tend to live shorter, possibly because they put a lot of strain on their bodies during the mating season, when they try to gain the favour of females (including fights with other males).

Oscar’s skeleton will be prepared to be used for educational purposes, but its final destination has not yet been decided.

Reporting marine mammals: when, where, how?

To report sightings of marine mammals at sea, please contact the RBINS at dolfin@naturalsciences.be. Dead or stranded animals or animals caught in professional or recreational fishing nets (dead or alive) can best be reported ad hoc (by phone), directly to the RBINS or indirectly through a local authority or general emergency number. Healthy live seals on the beach can be reported to the NorthSealTeam who can call on many volunteers to monitor the situation locally to avoid disturbance. For seals in distress contact SeaLife. A harbour porpoise or dolphin on the beach is always in trouble: releasing the animal into the sea on the spot is usually not an option. In such cases it is best to contact a general emergency number.

Oscar in better times on the Belgian coast. De Panne, 11 November 2020 (© Hilde Saesen)

The Belgian coast – 76 years ago versus today

On 4 August 1945 an American military aircraft flew the entire length of our country’s coastline from Knokke to De Panne. From the air a photographer took more than 80 photographs that produce a unique insight into how the coast of West Flanders looked just after the Second World War. The photos had been neatly stored in the US national archives, and were recently accidentally discovered by some archaeologists of Ghent University who were looking for photos on which they could see remnants of the war.

These photos are not only interesting because of their historical value, but also allow a comparison with the current state of our coast. If only there were a similar series of recent images …

RBINS to the rescue!

On Tuesday 14 April 2020, at low tide, the RBINS aerial survey team flew the same trajectory along the entire Belgian coastline using the RBINS aircraft OO-MMM, taking unique images of empty beaches during the first Covid lockdown.

The press loved it, and on 4 August 2021, 76 years after the American flight of 1945, the Flemish Radio and Television Broadcasting Association (Vlaamse Radio- en Televisieomroeporganisatie – VRT) put two and two together and compared the two image series, revealing both amazing similarities and remarkable differences.

Comparison of the images of the Ostend coast in 1945 (© US Army) and 2020 (© RBINS)

Check out the image comparisons (and more information) on the VRT website (in Dutch, with a shorter version without comparison in English).

Maybe one day, 76 years from now, people will rediscover our footage in some archive … 😉

Offshore wind farms increase carbon storage in seabeds – useful knowledge for marine spatial planning and climate change models

Marine animals that grow on offshore wind turbines (such as mussels) affect the sea floor. We already knew that, but thanks to recent Belgian-Dutch research results, we now know exactly how important this effect is.  The results were presented in two recently published papers. They describe in detail how organic material is concentrated in and around the wind farms and deposited at a greater distance in lower quantities. This leads to increased carbon storage in the seabed of the wind farms, which is important in the context of climate compensation, but also to changes in the fragile benthic fauna. The results can contribute to decision-making on sensitive issues such as the spatial planning of offshore wind farms in marine protected areas and the future decommissioning of offshore wind turbines.

Aerial view on Belgian offshore wind farm. (©RBINS)

As part of the transition from non-renewable (fossil) to renewable energy sources, the number of offshore wind farms is increasing worldwide. This is also the case in Belgium, currently the fifth largest offshore wind energy producer in the world. A new offshore wind zone, the Princess Elisabeth Zone, is marked on the Belgian Marine Spatial Plan for the period 2020-2026. It will more than double the surface that is set aside for the national offshore wind energy production (from 238 to ca 530 km²) and almost double the capacity (from 2,26 tot > 4,26 Gigawatt). The new zone partly coincides with the Marine Protected Area ‘Vlaamse Banken’, a designated Natura 2000 site under the EU Habitats Directive.

Zones for offshore wind farms in the Belgian part of the North Sea (blue = 1st zone, operational; black = Princess Elisabeth Zone, future) and MPA ‘Vlaamse Banken’ (large green polygon in SW). (derived from Marine Spatial Plan 2020-2026)

Thirteen years of monitoring of the ecological effects of wind farms in the first Belgian offshore wind zone showed that large quantities of invertebrates (mussels, anemones, small crustaceans etc.) colonize the turbines, and that these in turn attract fish species such as cod and plaice. However, knowledge of the colonizing species and their effects on the marine ecosystem remained largely restricted to the level of individual turbines and wind farms.

Mussels are dominant in the fouling community on offshore wind turbines. (©RBINS)

Geographical Upscaling

The FaCE-It project (Functional biodiversity in a Changing sedimentary Environment: Implications for biogeochemistry and food webs in a managerial setting), that ran over the period 2015 – 2020, greatly expanded this knowledge.

“In FaCE-It, we studied the effects that offshore wind farms have on the functioning of the marine ecosystem. For the first time ever, we also investigated the effects of multiple offshore wind farms in multiple countries on a large geographical scale. A combination of detailed observations, experiments and model simulations was used, with focus on the effects on the sea floor.” explains project coordinator Jan Vanaverbeke of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences.

The project partners report on their findings in two papers in Frontiers in Marine Science.

Changes in Organic Enrichment of the Seabed (Ivanov et al., 2021)

Animals that colonize wind turbines filter food from the water column, and then provide a supply of organic material to the seabed around the turbines, both in the form of their feces and of sinking dead organisms. But where exactly does this organic material end up? This could be verified by models that describe water currents (hydrodynamics, including tides and waves) and sediment transport. These models were linked to knowledge about the dynamics of organic carbon and mineral particles in the water column and sediments. That data integration clearly showed that the presence of offshore wind farms leads to strong changes in the deposition of organic matter on the seabed, both inside and outside the wind farms. Since this organic matter is the food for the organisms that inhabit the seabed, (part of) the food chain may be affected.

Evgeny Ivanov of the University of Liège details: “Within offshore wind farms, and in the areas surrounding them, a significant increase is observed in organic matter deposited on the seabed (up to 15%, and locally even up to 50% more), especially in the areas along the strongest tidal currents (along a NE/SW axis relative to the turbines). In the other directions (to NW and SE), a decrease in organic matter deposition is predicted (up to 10% less).  Multiple offshore wind farms will therefore result in a mosaic of areas with increased and decreased carbon deposition to the sea floor. In the wind farms and in an area of 5 km around the turbines the resulting balance is positive (more organic material), while deposition is notably reduced in the surrounding area up to 30 km further away.”

Modelled annual carbon deposition on the seabed in and around offshore wind farms (in %) compared to its natural values (note that the wind farms in the Princess Elisabeth zone – the western zone on the map – is not yet in place and that a hypothesized implantation of wind farms was used). (©University of Liège)

Carbon Storage in Offshore Wind Farms (De Borger et al, 2021)

The increased organic deposition results in increased carbon storage in the seabed within an offshore wind farm. Emil De Borger, at the time at Ghent University and now at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Sea Research (NIOZ), calculated exactly how much carbon is involved: “During the life span of an offshore wind farm (here defined as 20 years), between 28715 and 48406 tons of carbon is stored in the upper 10 cm of the seabed in offshore wind farms. This carbon is sometimes referred to as “blue carbon”, carbon trapped in organic forms (such as animals or plants), which is then buried. Knowing that these numbers correspond to 0.014–0.025% of Belgium’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, this can be considered a small, but nevertheless significant carbon offset.“

This carbon offset comes on top of the much larger amount of carbon (CO2) that is not emitted by using a renewable instead of a fossil energy source. For comparison: In Belgium, CO2 emissions would reduce between 1,04 and 2,86 millions of tonnes by using wind-generated power as opposed to a gas turbine (based on data from 2018). To this, the estimated quantities of carbon that are stored in the sediment contribute an additional 1 to 4.6 %.

Modelled changes (%) to total organic carbon stored in the top 10 cm of the sediment in and around offshore wind farms, for the “current” (A) and “future” (B) scenarios. (©Ghent University)

Implications for Spatial Planning of Offshore Wind Farms

These findings have important implications for the design of the new offshore wind farms in and near the Marine Protected Area (MPA) of the Vlaamse Banken. Within this MPA, valuable and threatened gravel beds are found, which are home to rare species and are protected by EU legislation. An increase in organic matter deposition in this gravel bed area is not necessarily beneficial for the filter feeding fauna present. The choice of location for the new offshore wind farms will determine the magnitude of the impact on the gravel beds to a much greater extent than the number of turbines, and careful implantation of the turbines is necessary to allow offshore wind farms and gravel beds to coexist in an environmentally friendly manner within the MPA of the Vlaamse Banken.

Using the model developed in FaCE-It, it was calculated that locating the new offshore wind farm at least 3 km downstream of the gravel beds would only result in a moderate increase of organic matter deposition. When the choice would be to locate the offshore wind farms upstream, the recommendation is to respect a distance of 7 km. In the direction orthogonal of the tidal current, a distance of 2 to 4 km is advised.

It is also illustrated that nature knows no geopolitical boundaries. The effects cross national borders: future offshore wind farms in the neighbouring French part of the North Sea will affect the Belgian part, while the operational Belgian offshore wind zone is already affecting the Dutch part of the North Sea.

Carbon storage of a temporary nature?

The increased carbon storage in the sediments in and around offshore wind farms – and thus the climate-regulating effect – may be of limited duration. If the seafloor is disturbed, the accumulated carbon can be released again into the water column. This may happen as consequence of bottom-disturbing activities such as trawling (allowed outside a 50 m radius around individual turbines in the United Kingdom and France, but prohibited completely in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany during the operational phases of the wind farms, where it may be allowed again after their decommissioning), or when the concession zones would be restored to their original condition after the expected lifespan of the wind turbines (20–25 years).

Therefore, the FaCE-It results on carbon storage in sediments aren’t only useful in support of spatial planning of offshore wind farms but can also inform decision making on future decommissioning scenarios and methodology. One possible scenario is partial decommissioning, whereby part of the subsea structure remains in place, is repurposed or relocated.

FaCE-It (Functional biodiversity in a Changing sedimentary Environment: Implications for biogeochemistry and food webs in a managerial setting) is a project funded by Belspo, coordinated by the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS), and a cooperation between RBINS, the Marine Biology Research Group of Ghent University, the Department of Astrophysics, Geophysics and Oceanography of the University of Liege, the Flanders Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (ILVO) and the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ).