SEADETECT: Reducing ship strikes with whales

As part of the SEADETECT project financed by the EU LIFE programme, the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences will contribute to the development and validation of an automated detection system of marine mammals to prevent collisions between ships and cetaceans.

A fin whale gets stuck on the bulbous bow of a ship after a collision, arriving in the port of Ghent with it in November 2015. (© RBINS/J. Haelters)

Today, global economy is mainly based on maritime traffic which represents 80% of world trade in volume and 70% in value. This intense traffic involves a growing number of ships moving ever faster through the world’s seas and oceans, which markedly increases the risk of collision with cetaceans.

Collisions between vessels and whales often result in the death of the animals. In recent decades, shipping traffic in combination with the increased speed of individual ships has led to a doubling of the number of fatal collisions. Several studies have shown ship strikes to be the leading cause of death of cetaceans in some areas. For instance, ship strikes are the highest form of mortality for fin whales and sperm whales in the Pelagos Sanctuary in the Mediterranean Sea, an area for which France, Monaco and Italy concluded an agreement to protect marine mammals.

In the arctic, climate change is predicted to result in increased exposure of vulnerable cetacean species to collision risk. Worldwide, reductions in collision mortality will benefit whale populations which are still recovering from the effects of historic over-hunting, and continue to suffer from human induced habitat degradation.

Faced with this situation, the SEADETECT project is developing a new solution that should enable vessels to reduce collisions with cetaceans by 80%.

Preventing ship strikes

Collisions are often due to a combination of three factors: the ability to detect, the reaction time of the crew and the time it takes to maneuver the ship, all depending on the size and speed of the ship and the state of the sea. The SEADETECT project will develop three systems to reduce such collisions:

  • A system on board ships that will detect unidentified objects, in particular marine mammals, in real time.
  • A network of passive acoustic monitoring buoys located in high-risk areas at sea that will determine and triangulate the position of cetaceans in real time.
  • Detection data sharing software, fed by the future detections, to inform vessels in the area about the risk of hazards.
Set-up of the SEADETECT project for automated detection of marine mammals and obstacles, and anti-collision system for vessels. (© SEADETECT)

RV Belgica as pilot platform

“The automatic detection and anti-collision system will be used in the existing multi-sensory infrastructure of the national oceanographic research vessel RV Belgica and will be validated by scientists of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences during the expeditions and monitoring campaigns of the ship”, Bob Rumes of the RBINS Marine Ecology and Management team (MARECO) clarifies.

The automatic detection and anti-collision system will autonomously detect cetaceans but also obstacles or floating objects such as containers to prevent collisions with ships. Thanks to a high-performance data fusion and processing system, this solution will make it possible to detect in real time a 2-metre long object on the surface at a distance of 1km, by day and night, even in complex maritime conditions (strong sea states or bad weather conditions). In addition, the researchers will also investigate the impact of a general application of this detection and anti-collision system on several target species as an alternative to other possible measures.

The RV Belgica will also be used as a test platform in SEADETECT. (©Belgian Navy/J. Urbain)

The SEADETECT project, led by the French Group Naval, will last four years and brings together ten partners from three European countries: Belgium, France and Italy. More information can be found on the project website:

The LIFE programme is a financial instrument of the European Commission, dedicated to supporting innovative private and public projects in the fields of environment and climate.

Kick-off of the Anemoi project: Towards minimal chemical pollution and increased sustainability of offshore wind energy production

Offshore wind energy offers many advantages: next to the primary aim of renewable energy production, offshore wind farms also offer multi-use opportunities with nature conservation and aquaculture activities. The environmental impacts of wind farms in the North Sea are being studied in depth, with a great deal of attention already being paid to the introduction of new habitats, underwater noise and the exclusion of fisheries. However, the chemical impact of offshore wind farms remains largely unknown. The new Anemoi project will improve our understanding of this impact by (1) identifying relevant chemical emissions of known and unknown pollutants from offshore wind farms, (2) assessing the impact on the ecosystem and aquaculture activities, (3) reviewing current regulations and (4) proposing sustainable solutions and options to reduce chemical emissions from offshore wind farms.

Chemicals enter the marine environment through numerous land-based sources, related to industry, traffic or households, and activities at sea like shipping, mariculture, dredging and offshore energy.

In the upcoming four years (2023-2027), 11 European institutes will investigate the occurrence and impacts of chemical emissions from offshore wind farms in the North Sea. Wind turbine foundations contain corrosion protection systems, which leach metals such as aluminium or zinc into the sea. Paints on the turbines leach organic compounds into the water, while the paint can crack and flake from the turbines by wave motions, and plastic particles can be torn down from the turbine blades.


Within Anemoi, an Interreg North Sea project, the emission, concentration and distribution of known and unknown chemical compounds in the water and sediments will be identified by means of field monitoring and lab experiments (e.g. by mimicking particle distribution in a wave flume system).

Secondly, the impact of chemical leachates from offshore wind farms on marine life and different aquaculture products will be assessed through ecotoxicology studies and risk assessments, and the effects at different trophic levels will be modelled for both single and mixed chemical compounds.

Thirdly, different regulations are currently in place at the national and European levels to limit the impact of chemical emissions from offshore wind farms. To further reduce the potential impact, the different regulations within the North Sea region will be reviewed and an aligned regulatory framework will be proposed. Finally, Anemoi will investigate sustainable and non-harmful solutions (e.g. alternative corrosion protection systems) and optimizations to further reduce chemical emissions from wind farms at sea.

A flying start

The fieldwork has already started. During a campaign at sea in the last week of April 2023, water and sediment samples have been collected at more than 40 locations. The sites sampled were located in and nearby wind farms in the Belgian marine waters as well as in reference areas at a larger distance from the offshore wind farms.

ILVO – RBINS sampling team & collected samples on board of RV Belgica © RBINS

The accompanying photos illustrate the sampling work on board the RV Belgica by collaborators of RBINS and ILVO. Water samples were taken with a “MERCOS” sampler (from BSH) for the analysis of metals and with the “GIMPF” device (Geesthach Inert Microplastics Fractionator, from Helmholtz Centrum Hereon) for the analysis of microplastics.

Sediment samples were taken with a box corer for various analyses: metals, organic compounds and microplastics. Methods are completely harmonised with the work done during the cruise in the German marine waters in May 2023.

MERCOS sampler & Box corer in action during the first Anemoi field campaign in Belgian waters © RBINS

RBINS will analyse the quantity of microplastic particles, including paint particles, in the top layer of the sediments to identify the emissions of wind turbines and study the distribution of these particles within and nearby the wind farms.

The GIMPF Geesthach Inert Microplastics Fractionator © ILVO

Cooperation is the key

To reach the project goals, Anemoi will work in close collaboration and interaction with the offshore wind farm sector and with policymakers. A first stakeholder event is foreseen on 30 and 31 May 2023 in Hamburg (Germany), to exchange knowledge on the effects and risks of chemical emissions from OWFs and to discuss potential solutions to further increase the sustainability of offshore wind energy.

The Anemoi project is funded by the Interreg North Sea programme, with co-funding from Provincie West-Vlaanderen (Belgium) and VLAIO (Belgium), and is coordinated by Flanders Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (ILVO, Belgium). Further information: website & LinkedIn.

Project partners: Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS, Belgium); Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency (BSH, Germany); Sintef Ocean AS (Norway); French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea (Ifremer, France); Provincial Development Agency West-Flanders (POM-WVl, Belgium); Foundation of Dutch Scientific Research Institutes – The Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NWO I – NIOZ, The Netherlands); Helmholtz Centrum Hereon (Hereon, Germany); University of Technology Braunschweig (TU BS, Germany); University of Antwerp (UAntwerp, Belgium); Technical University of Denmark (DTU, Denmark).

Offshore wind turbines in the Belgian part of the North Sea © ILVO

Cyber threats in the maritime sector: cybersecurity working group

In January 2023, the maritime world was rocked by a large-scale ransomware attack on a leading classification society. More than 1,000 ships were affected. That attack is unfortunately not an isolated incident: in recent years, the entire maritime sector, from ports to passenger ships to classification societies, has been the target of cyber attacks on several occasions.  That is why the Cybersecurity Working Group within the European Coast Guard Forum was set up a few years ago. Thanks in part to the knowledge exchanged by member states in the working group on cybersecurity, many attacks can also be avoided every year. This Cybersecurity working group, consisting of 32 experts from the various member states, met from 22 to 24 May in Brussels.  

New insights and developments   

There were seven presentations on the agenda, covering various aspects of cybersecurity. Belgian speakers dealt with the topic of geopolitical impact on coast guard structure and activities and introduced the Centre for Cybersecurity Belgium and the brand new Cyber Command, which is part of the Ministry of Defence. Furthermore, the EMSA (European Maritime Safety Agency) spoke its new “cyber task forc”e and the training that it will set up about cyber security for maritime inspectors, the EFCA (European Fishery Control Agency) in turn made a presentation on the growing concerns about cyber threats in fisheries. Maritime cybersecurity exercises, the latest research on maritime cybersecurity and, finally, the French Maritime Computer Emergency Response Team were also presented.

During the last conference day, Eurocontrol presented how it deals with GNSS interferences for aeronautical domain, in order to learn from each other expertises. Then the working group discussed the possible orientations for the group in the near or mid-term future and elected a new chairman.

Future cybersecurity challenges   

The ongoing threat of cyber attacks necessitates a good exchange of knowledge between different countries. In recent years, the Cybersecurity Working Group has been a valuable platform for consultation. Given current developments, there is likely to be a greater need for closer European cooperation through EMSA in the near future. In this way, the maritime sector will continue to be safeguarded as much as possible from cyber threats in the future.

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.

30 years of Belgian North Sea aerial surveillance

Although the Belgian part of the North Sea only represents 0.5 % of the North Sea surface, it is situated in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and combines a large number of human activities on a limited space. All the more reason to keep close eye on the health of the marine environment and the compliance of the many actors with regulations, also from the air. In their just-published multiannual activity report, the aerial surveillance team of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences describes the various missions and results, trends and developments of the Belgian program for aerial surveillance over the North Sea over a period of 30 years, from its start in 1991 up to and including 2021. The numbers are downright impressive.

The report “30 years of Belgian North Sea aerial surveillance : evolution, trends and developments” was presented on 16 May 2023 at Restaurant Runway in Ostend, in cooperation with the federal cabinets of Mr Thomas Dermine, Secretary of State for Relance and Strategic Investments, in charge of Science Policy, and Mr Vincent Van Quickenborne, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice and North Sea, and with the support of Bruges-Ostend International Airport.

State Secretary Dermine (left) with the air surveillance team. From left to right : Brigitte Lauwaert (head of MUMM), Ward Van Roy (operator), Annelore Van Nieuwenhove (operator), Kobe Scheldeman (operator), Geert Present (pilot), Jean-Baptiste Merveille (operator), Pieter Janssens (pilot), Alexander Vermeire (pilot) & Dries Noppen (pilot). Absent: Ronny Schallier (team coordinator). (Image: RBINS/MUMM)

Aerial surveillance tasks

The core tasks of the Belgian aerial surveillance programme can be grouped under three themes:

Surveillance of illegal and accidental pollution: Besides detecting water pollution originating from ships (ship discharges of oil and other harmful liquids), Belgium currently plays a leading international role in monitoring sulphur and nitrogen emissions from ships to air. The aircraft also plays a role in the internationally coordinated monitoring of oil and gas installations in the North Sea.

Environmental and scientific monitoring: The team performs important scientific monitoring tasks including marine mammal counts and the monitoring of various environmentally licensed human activities at sea (sand and gravel extraction, wind farm construction, compliance within marine protected areas, etc.).

Broader maritime surveillance in the remit of the Coast Guard: These tasks include the control of fishing activities, compliance with navigation rules and AIS violations by ships (not using Automatic Identification System).

By being active in these three areas, the aerial surveillance has an important contribution to the sustainable management of the Belgian North Sea.

Oil pollution in the North Sea documented from the air (Image: RBINS/MUMM)

Facts and figures

The report describes how aerial surveillance over sea evolved from the surveillance of marine pollution in the early years to a broader environmental and maritime surveillance above sea, following the extension of the Belgian jurisdiction at sea and the creation of the Belgian Coast Guard structure.

In relation to pollution, the major facts of the Belgian North Sea aerial surveillance program in the period 1991-2021 can be summarized as follows:

  • 9574 flight hours were conducted, of which 7100 hours above sea (approximately 6400 flight hours in national and 700 hours in international context).
  • 625 operational (deliberate) oil spills were reported in the Belgian survey area, resulting in an estimated 1013 tonnes of oil pollution. When monitoring began, oil spills were a prominent problem, now they are almost entirely a thing of the past.
  • 158 operational spills of other harmful liquids (Noxious Liquid Substances, e.g. vegetable oils, biodiesels, paraffin) were observed. This type of contamination unfortunately shows a slightly increasing trend.
  • 51 ships were caught red-handed while performing an illegal discharge.
  • 35 serious shipping accidents have taken place in or around the Belgian marine areas, with accidental marine pollution or a high risk thereof. In 26 of these cases, the aircraft was effectively activated to monitor the emergency situation from the air and provide air support to response units.
  • 24 international “Tour d’Horizon” missions were executed, during which the offshore gas installations and oil rigs in the central part of the North Sea were surveyed, resulting in 430 flight hours and a total of 296 pollution detections (272 mineral oil detections, 9 detections of a harmful substance other than oil, and 15 contaminants whose nature could not be visually verified).
  • There was participation in 10 Coordinated Extended Pollution Control Operations, regional missions consisting of a series of successive pollution control flights carried out by multiple surveillance aircraft from different North Sea countries.
  • The Belgian aircraft participated in a total of 33 national and international pollution response exercises and related experiments at sea.
  • 353 emission monitoring flights were conducted with a sniffer sensor since 2015 and 6012 exhaust plumes were sampled. 9% of the monitored ships had a suspicious Fuel Sulfur Content. Since 2020, when the aircraft was further equipped with a NOx sensor, 3% of the monitored ships did not comply with the international NOx regulations. This form of monitoring the gaseous emissions from ships at sea is a Belgian pioneering work, and contributed greatly to the name and fame of the air monitoring team.
The aerial surveillance aircraft prepares to monitor emissions from a ship at sea. (Image: RBINS/MUMM)

Notable figures regarding monitoring of the marine environment, fishing activity and navigation rules are:

  • In the period 2009 to 2021, 214 flight hours were spent on marine mammal counts. A total of 3223 harbour porpoises were observed during the monitoring campaigns (3 to 404 animals per survey, on average 87 per survey). In addition, 100 seals were seen and sporadically some other species of marine mammals such as white-beaked dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, a minke whale and a humpback whale.
  • From 1993 to 2021, 1239 fishery control flights were carried out, leading to a total of 1185 flying hours. This resulted in a total of 7272 monitored and identified fishing vessels.
  • Between 2011 and 2021, 112 violations on the use of Automatic Identification Systems by ships were observed, together with 148 navigation violations. In recent years there has been a sharp increase in the annual number of observed navigation violations with the highest number in 2021 (36).
Seals on a sandbank along the Western Scheldt. (Image: RBINS/MUMM)

The future of aerial surveillance

Using and interpreting these facts and figures, the activity report also looks to the future, by explaining the programme evolution from pollution control and environmental surveillance at sea, to broader maritime surveillance in support of the overall Coast Guard framework, and by outlining that the substantive challenges of aerial surveillance above the sea are and will remain innumerable in the years to come.

Indeed, in addition to the tasks described above, some newer tasks are becoming increasingly important elements of aerial surveillance, such as the efficient enforcement of a new European external border (post-BREXIT), promoting maritime security, and offering support to search and rescue operations.

Finally, the report also explains the medium-term need for renewal of the aircraft. Only in that way can the Coast Guard renew its strategic vision and increase its cooperation on airborne surveillance, and modernise and expand its surveillance capacity with the aim to effectively deal with current and future needs at sea.

State Secretary for Science Policy Thomas Dermine receives a safety briefing before joining a flight over the North Sea. (Image: RBINS/MUMM)

Thomas Dermine, Secretary of State for Science Policy, who also personally participated in an operational flight of the aerial surveillance aircraft before the presentation of the report on 16 May: “The North Sea is a complex ecosystem, an important fishing zone, a busy shipping area and, since the Brexit, an external border of the European Union. It is therefore essential to study our North Sea and continuously monitor what is happening there. The aerial surveillance aircraft has been doing this for 30 years, thanks to a smooth cooperation between Defence and the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences. Now that the aircraft is outdated, I will fully support the dossier for its renewal.”

Vincent Van Quickenborne, Minister for the North Sea: “Belgium was the first and only country in the world to use a sniffer plane for ship pollution controls. Some 5,500 different ships call at Belgian ports every year. So it is impossible to check them all. With the sniffer plane, work can be much more targeted because suspicious ships are already identified at sea. Thanks to aerial surveillance, our port inspection services can detect 50% more violations and save 20% per inspection. We must cherish our North Sea. It is Belgium’s largest nature reserve. The increasing number of marine mammals and the return of species such as the European flat oyster, which has reappeared in our North Sea for the first time in decades, show that progress is being made. But the plane is in need of replacement after 30 years of service as a sniffer. Together with colleague Dermine, I am putting my full weight behind this.”


The implementation of the Belgian aerial surveillance programme over the North Sea is organised by the Management Unit of the Mathematical Model of the North Sea (MUMM), scientific service of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS).

For the aerial surveillance, MUMM uses a Britten Norman Islander aircraft (immatriculation OO-MMM) equipped with scientific sensors for detecting marine pollution. The aircraft is owned by RBINS/MUMM but can only fly thanks to the support of the federal policy areas “Science Policy” and “North Sea” and good cooperation with Defence, which provides the pilots.

Vision for aquaculture at sea and decommissioning of offshore wind farms

Aquaculture at sea and the decommissioning of offshore wind farms come with many opportunities and challenges. For the efficient development of future policy on these activities, it is essential that the priorities and concerns of the many stakeholders are heard and integrated in an open and transparent manner into a broad-based vision that policymakers can subsequently work with.

To address this, the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences launched two separate participatory trajectories on these themes on behalf of the Marine Environment Department of the Federal Public Service Public Health, Food Chain Safety and Environment and Minister for the North Sea, Vincent Van Quickenborne. More than 50 different organisations responded to this interactive cooperation initiative.

Steven Degraer (Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences): “Getting stakeholders to talk to each other always yields surprising insights and this for all parties around the table. It is the way to get to know each other, share insights and look for a sustainable future for the sea together.”

The kick-off of both trajectories took place in Bruges on Tuesday 18 October 2022. Stakeholders met almost monthly, and also worked intersessionally on vision-building. During a closing event on Monday 15 May, also in Bruges, the resulting visions around aquaculture and decommissioning of offshore wind farms in the Belgian part of the North Sea were presented to the trajectories’ participants and the press.


Key elements identified within the stakeholder consultation on marine aquaculture are:

Sustainable food production for our and future generations is the primary goal of aquaculture in the Belgian part of the North Sea. Various organisms are suitable for this purpose. First and foremost, oysters and mussels are considered, but also algae, whelks, scallops and other bivalves, crustaceans and fish. Aquaculture of jellyfish, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, sea grasses and even bacteria is also theoretically possible. To what extent combining the farming of different species (integrated multitrophic aquaculture) is possible our Belgian North Sea needs further investigation.

European flat oysters (Ostrea edulis) (©Walwyn, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, < >, via Flickr)

Other economic activities (such as fuel and cosmetics production, tourism) can be linked to aquaculture and thus play a role in eliminating residual flows.

Optimal use of available space is one of the main concerns. Potential spatial conflicts with other users of the sea were raised, as well as opportunities for multiple use of space.

Attention to the environment also scores very high. Here, there is not only concern about possible forms of negative impact, participants also see opportunities to combine aquaculture with nature conservation, nature restoration and coastal protection.

Basic and preconditions

Several conditions must be respected when looking for suitable sites and forms of aquaculture.

Important basic conditions are:

  • To start with, it is important to understand in which locations the target species thrive. This varies between potential target species and depends on species-specific abiotic and biotic factors.
  • Sustainable aquaculture should be extractive, meaning that no additional nutrients or drugs should be added. It should also not exceed the carrying capacity of the surrounding natural ecosystem.
  • In nature reserves, aquaculture will no longer be allowed before the areas are in good conservation status, and then only with native species.
  • Aquaculture products must comply with common food safety requirements.

Additional preconditions that should be pursued to the maximum extent possible relate to personal and marine traffic safety, multiple space use, social acceptability, environmental damage, cooperation, ecological footprint, engineering/technical aspects, socio-economics, legal and insurance aspects and broad governance context.

The future

A North Sea in good conservation status is a prerequisite to provide sufficient carrying capacity for aquaculture. To promote opportunities and mitigate concerns, well-designed licensing criteria must be established. Administrative obstacles and red tape must be removed. The development of a central monitoring and warning system and a pooled knowledge platform would offer many benefits. Targeted grants could help address knowledge gaps and develop opportunities.

In the next phase, additional data and map material will be collected to create an opportunity map for aquaculture in the Belgian part of the North Sea, linked to the predefined basic and boundary conditions. Taken together, these elements will form a solid basis for policy support.

Cooperation and coordination between the North Sea countries is also desirable, including in terms of drafting uniform European regulations.

Vincent Van Quickenborne, Minister for the North Sea: “The North Sea is a breeding ground for innovation. With no fewer than 53 partners, we have joined forces in recent months on two important themes. For instance, despite our small North Sea, we have a lot of space to do aquaculture. E.g. between the windmills. We are now mapping those areas. We are looking into species of which we can combine the cultivation. And we are looking for European money to invest in this.”

Decommissioning of offshore wind farms

The licences to operate Belgium’s already operational wind farms date back 10 to 15 years. The decommissioning of that first generation of wind turbines is now approaching. Just as the installation of these farms was pioneering work, their decommissioning will be too. Moreover, in the time that has passed, many questions arose about the phased decommissioning process in the period 2034-2047. On the one hand, new technologies are succeeding at lightning speed and, on the other, new insights are constantly emerging around the interaction between wind farms and biodiversity.

New technologies: New options for decommissioning offshore wind farms are being developed, with regard to techniques, materials and cost. For example, options for repurposing and recycling blades and ways to remove monopile foundations in their entirety from the ground are being explored.

Biodiversity: Monitoring the ecological effects of wind farms shows that additional biodiversity has been created in and around the offshore wind turbines, the so-called artificial reef effect. The new hard substrates underpin a rich underwater fauna of invertebrates, which in turn attracts various fish species, bird species and marine mammals.

Decommissioning options

To decommission offshore wind farm infrastructure, there are several theoretical options. The foundations can either be completely or partially removed or remain entirely on site. Erosion protection layers and cabling can also be removed or remain on site. The majority of the participants to the process of vision creation favoured complete removal of all man-made structures.

Offshore wind turbine showing decommissioning options for the monopile, erosion protection and cabling. (Image property RBINS/MARECO & Marine Environment Service; creation Hendrik Gheerardyn – Illustration & Infographics)
Decommissioning scenarios for monopile, erosion protection and cabling of offshore wind turbines. (Image property RBINS/MARECO & Marine Environment Service; creation Hendrik Gheerardyn – Illustration & Infographics)

The naturally occurring and desirable fauna of dynamic sandy substrates is adapted to high dynamics, allowing it to withstand a temporary disturbance caused by decommissioning activities well and recover quickly. The new biodiversity created as a result of the artificial reef effect is not considered of such interest in a naturally dynamic sandy-bank ecosystem to be left untouched because it is a habitat that does not naturally occur at that site. Moreover, when decommissioning in the context of repowering, hard substrate will again be provided in the form of a new wind farm, so that those additional habitat, shelter and resting opportunities will recover in the short term and in phases.

Leaving some of the infrastructure in place could be useful for attaching structures for aquaculture, passive fishing or as a research base (sensors, testing new technologies, etc.), for example, but these functionalities could equally be envisaged for yet-to-be-built wind turbines.  In addition, retaining (part of) the monopiles and leaving erosion barriers and cables in place do not outweigh the disadvantages of insecurity and the missed opportunity to reuse materials.

In contrast, wind farm operators, who after all have to carry out and pay for decommissioning, are rightly concerned about whether it will be both feasible and affordable engineering-wise to completely remove a monopile. Also, removing the erosion protection, even if it is to be reused for the same purpose when repowering, is a costly and time-consuming activity. Thus, further research and consultations still appear necessary to identify the feasibility and the advantages and disadvantages of the alternative decommissioning scenarios (complete removal, partial removal or complete abandonment of wind farm infrastructure, including erosion protection layers). By starting this in time, with the vision process as the first component, we give time to the public and private partners involved to prepare.

Useful info for future wind farms

The findings from the participatory process also offer insights into how future wind farms can be optimally designed, taking into account the decommissioning phase. In particular, promoting circular use of materials offers sustainability opportunities.

The Princess Elisabeth zone contains zones of natural hard substrate, a low-dynamic habitat with high ecological value. Decommissioning activities will therefore have a greater impact here than on the dynamic sandy soils where the current wind farms are located. On the other hand, in the gravel beds of the Princess Elisabeth zone, many win-wins can be achieved by implanting artificial hard substrate such as wind turbines and erosion protection layers. Whereas in the first zone it is advised, for reasons of natural value, to remove everything when decommissioning, in the Princess Elisabeth zone it remains to be seen how to avoid disturbance of the gravel beds during decommissioning as much as possible, and how to preserve the natural value of the artificial hard substrate in the vicinity of the gravel beds as much as possible.

Vincent Van Quickenborne, Minister for the North Sea: “Our country is among the world leaders in offshore wind. Now we are going to have to decommission the first generation of offshore wind turbines within a few years. We are now figuring that out with all kinds of agencies and researchers. Because we also want to decommission in a sustainable way. By being a pioneer in this activity, we ensure that our companies will once again be world-class specialists.”


The final reports of the stakeholder projects ‘Aquaculture’ and ‘Decommissioning of offshore wind farms’ will be available for consultation from mid-June on the Marine Environment Service website, specifically in the ‘North Sea Publications’ section (DutchFrench).

Photo exhibition RV Belgica, Nieuwe Gaanderijen, Ostend

From 10 May until 4 July 2023, you can visit the Nieuwe Gaanderijen in Ostend for the photo exhibition ‘Christian Clauwers: on the front line of global warming’, which focuses on the RV Belgica and marine science. All the images were made by explorer-photographer Christian Clauwers during an expedition on the Belgica, the Belgian research ship of the Federal Science Policy and the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences.

Address: Nieuwe Gaanderijen, Koning Boudewijnpromenade (Zeedijk) z/n – 8400 Ostend

Price: free

A floating laboratory

Christian Clauwers is not only a photographer, but also an explorer, speaker and author. He has already sailed around the world twice, visited no fewer than 114 countries on all seven continents, and explored some of the planet’s most remote islands. His work focuses on the fragile relationship – and potential conflict – between humans and nature.

Scientists on the front line

Christian Clauwers was given the unique opportunity to sail on the TalPro22 expedition that set sail for the Tyrrhenian Sea.  Aboard the Belgica, he captured both scientific research and the impact of the relationship between man and nature on film. The ship has more than 400 square metres of laboratory space and carries several high-tech oceanographic measuring instruments. For example, the rozette, a cylindrical structure from which sampling tubes and measuring equipment hang, can be lowered to a depth of up to 5,000 metres. It takes two hours to bring the measuring instrument back up, and this in conditions that can change rapidly. The ship is equipped with satellite technology that allows it to hold position to within a metre, even in the most difficult weather conditions. The photos let us take a look behind the scenes of these impressive experiments.

A must-see for anyone concerned about the future of our planet

But the expo is more than just looking at pretty pictures. Facing the sea, it is a call-to-action to take the fragility of our planet seriously.

Christian Clauwers: ” I want to give people the chance to witness what nature has to offer us and at the same time show them how precious it is. The series on the Belgica expresses this very nicely, because the scientific research carried out there makes that fragility of nature measurable. The scientists on board measure what I try to photograph, and now I photograph what they measure. It’s an exchange where the arrow goes both ways and that’s what makes it so fascinating.”

The expo shows the consequences of the human footprint and what is at stake if we do not act to tackle climate change. It is an impressive and inspiring example of how images can be used to raise awareness and change the world.

Marine mammals in Belgium in 2022

In its new report ‘Marine mammals in Belgium in 2022’ (available in Dutch and French), the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences compiles the results of monitoring and scientific research on marine mammals in Belgium in 2022. Relatively few Harbour porpoises washed ashore, but numbers at sea were among the highest since counts began. The numbers of dead seals washed ashore follow an upward trend, although there were fewer in 2022 than in 2021. The probable birth of a young Harbour Seal in Nieuwpoort was a first for our country. Two Humpback whales, two groups of White-beaked dolphins and a Sowerby’s beaked whale are among the rarer species in the southern North Sea.

Harbour seal, Koksijde, 3 March 2022 (© Dominique Nootens)

Which dead or dying marine mammals washed up on our beaches? Which causes of death could be identified? What are the trends of marine mammals in Belgium? How many seals did Sealife take in? Which rare species were observed? These are the questions to which one can find the answers in the latest marine mammal report, which focuses on the results from 2022.

Harbour porpoises

In 2022, 45 Harbour porpoises washed up on our beaches, the lowest number since 2004. Four of these stranded alive, but all died on the beach or during attempts to rescue them. One of the animals was pregnant.

However, the fact that relatively few Harbour porpoises washed ashore cannot be related to the numbers present at sea. Indeed, aerial surveys over the Belgian part of the North Sea in March and October resulted in estimates of over 11,000 and over 2,000 Harbour porpoises. The March number was the third highest number documented since surveys began in 2009. The highest number was over 18,000 in April 2018. Although Belgian waters are only part of the habitat of Southern North Sea Harbour porpoises, and numbers in Belgium can fluctuate widely, the results confirm a pattern already evident in previous years: our waters contain the largest numbers in spring, with a shift to the west – English waters – in summer and autumn.

Harbour porpoises, Nieuwpoort, 18 October 2022 (© Christian Vandeputte)

What was striking in 2022 was that half of the strandings occurred between July and September, often involving juveniles and starved animals. In previous years, Harbour porpoises stranded mainly in March and April, the period with the highest numbers at sea, and bycatch in fishing was the main cause of death. In 2022, bycatch could only be identified in two cases, while six Harbour porpoises fell victim to predation by Grey seals. A number of Harbour porpoises were too decomposed to determine the cause of death.


With 54 seals washed ashore dead (18 Grey, 10 Common and 26 that could not be identified to species), 2022 was a quieter year than 2021, when 101 dead seals washed ashore. A large proportion of these appeared to be victims of fishing with passive gear. It seems unlikely that such fishing was conducted in a different way or in a different area in 2021 compared to previous years and 2022, so possibly the 2021 peak can be partly explained by different meteorological conditions in spring or an anomalous movement pattern of Grey seals after weaning in the English east coast colonies.

Nevertheless, 2022 involved the second highest number of dead seals in the time series. At least 14 of them died in fishing nets, all between January and May. At least one animal was killed by another seal. Many seals were too decomposed to determine the most likely cause of death.

Young Grey seal, Nieuwpoort, 17 January 2022 (© Filip De Ruwe)

12 Grey seals and three Harbour seals ended up in the shelter of Sealife Blankenberge in 2022. As in 2021, some young seals, both dead and alive, had noticeable injuries around the neck, no doubt caused by monofilament yarn from passive fishing gear.

A Harbour seal was probably born on the right bank of the IJzer estuary at Nieuwpoort: a first for our country. We found no other data on seal births in Belgium in the 20th or 21st century.

Rare Species

In 2022, two Humpback whales were seen in Belgian waters (May-June and December), and there were two sightings of groups of White-beaked Dolphins (June and December). The solitary Bottlenose dolphin, social towards humans, was still present in the border area with France. Also a dead Bottlenose dolphin washed ashore (October). This animal possibly died after a ship strike. In 2022, as was the case in 2020, a live Sowerby’s beaked whale washed ashore (July). This is a very rare species in the southern North Sea. The animal could be returned to the sea. A month later, very close to shore, a live, non-identified beaked whale was seen. A dead Fin whale drifted along the Belgian coast before finally washing up in the Netherlands (September-October).

Humpback whale, Knokke-Heist, 3 June 2022 (© Julien Hainaut)
Humpback whale, Knokke-Heist, 3 June 2022 (© Diederik D’Hert)

Additional contributions

Boxed sections take a closer look at 30 years of ASCOBANS (Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic, North East Atlantic, Irish and North Seas), a project to avoid collisions of ships with whales, the role of the North Seal Team in protecting seals and measures related to the avian flu virus, which also affected marine mammals in a number of places around the world in 2022.

All marine mammals are legally protected in Belgium. Monitoring of the populations and research into explanations for the observed trends, for which the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences was appointed as the responsible institute, is part of the implementation of the Royal Decree on the protection of species in marine areas under Belgian jurisdiction, whereby, among other things, the agreements made within the Coast Guard are followed. Research into the state of health and causes of death is also an obligation in international agreements, which moreover teaches us a lot about the state of the marine environment. However, the monitoring and scientific research on marine mammals are only possible thanks to the support of the local emergency and control services and the enthusiasm and willingness to report of many observers.

The report ‘Marine mammals in Belgium in 2022’ was produced with the cooperation of the Department of Veterinary Pathology of the University of Liège, the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of the University of Ghent, Sealife Blankenberge and the North Seal Team.

For information on recent sightings of marine mammals in Belgium and instructions on what to do when stranded, please visit the website The annual marine mammal reports (available in Dutch and French) can also be consulted here.

Effect of bottom trawling on carbon emissions from seabed overestimated

In 2021, an article in Nature made world headlines because it equated the carbon released from seabed disturbance due to bottom trawling to the amount of CO2 generated by the global aviation industry. Now these conclusions are refuted by an article also published in the prestigious journal. The authors, including Sebastiaan van de Velde of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences and the Université Libre de Bruxelles, fear that using exaggerated figures for bottom trawling will increase global CO2 emissions while reducing global food supply.

Sediment plumes following seabed disturbance by bottom trawling. (©SkyTruth, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, <>, via Flickr, adapted)

An article published today in Nature refutes the conclusions of an earlier paper by Sala et al on the amount of CO2 released from the seabed by bottom trawling. That article made world headlines when it was published in 2021 because it equated the carbon released from disturbance by bottom trawling to the amount of CO2 generated by the global aviation industry.

In the new paper, however, researchers show that the methodology used by Sala et al greatly overestimated carbon emissions. To calculate the amount of CO2 released by bottom disturbance from bottom trawling, the authors of the 2021 study modelled the amount of carbon that would be disturbed, assuming that most of this carbon would be converted to CO2.

However, most of the organic carbon in the seabed would decompose and be released as CO2 anyway, regardless of whether it is disturbed by bottom trawling. Only a very small proportion of seabed carbon potentially responds to disturbance by bottom fishing. The effect of bottom trawling on carbon storage in the ocean floor appears to be as much as 100 to 1,000 times smaller than that of global air transport, according to the new study.

Beam trawling is a form of bottom fishing using towed nets. (Ecomare/Oscar Bos, CC BY-SA 4.0, <>, via Wikimedia Commons)

“The authors of the original study focused their calculations on the ‘juicy’ and reactive organic carbon at the surface, which would be rapidly released by natural processes anyway, rather than on the aged and much less reactive carbon stored on the seabed,” explains Sebastiaan van de Velde, senior researcher at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences and the Université Libre de Bruxelles, and second author of the study. “Since the most reactive carbon is rapidly converted into CO2 anyway, assuming it is affected by bottom trawling greatly inflates the estimated CO2 emissions.”

Unjustly reassured

There is no doubt that bottom trawling disrupts natural carbon fluxes and disturbs marine life on the ocean floor, but seabed carbon fluxes are very complex. The use of exaggerated figures is worrying as many governments and other actors propose to ban bottom trawling and use “carbon credits” to offset other activities. But when the carbon emissions from disturbing the seabed are overestimated by several orders of magnitude, we risk being unduly reassured by any ban on bottom trawling. In reality, this could divert efforts away from more efficient methods, while in the meantime increasing overall carbon emissions while decreasing global food supply.

“Refuting results of previous studies is part of the classical scientific process: one study presents a hypothesis, others challenge it with their own experiments, and that’s how we get closer to the truth,” van de Velde concludes.

The coast guard and monitoring and inspection of fisheries

What technologies are used and can potentially be used in the future for the monitoring and inspection of fisheries? What are the current and future developments in fisheries control? How does Belgium do it? What does the European Fisheries Control Agency (EFCA) do and how do other European Union coastguard partners conduct fisheries control? How does this work in practice? 

The use of evidence based upon innovative technologies in fisheries monitoring and inspection constituted the theme of this third workshop under the Belgian chairmanship of the ECGFF, the European Coast Guard Functions Forum which brings together coastguard authorities of several European countries to work on collaborative issues. The aim of the workshop was to share experiences and good practices within the European Union.

From Tuesday the 2nd of May till Thursday the 4th of May, delegations gathered in Bruges, and went on an excursion to the port of Ostend. In total, there were 119 participants, the majority of whom were physically present, while only a few attended online. Almost all member states of the ECGFF that have a coastline participated, comprising 22 member states.

Piet Pieters, attending chair of the ECGFF opened the workshop in Bruges with a bit of history: “During the Golden Age, Bruges was a thriving seaside trading hub, home to nations from several European countries. It is symbolic that we, as maritime nations, are forging new, forward-looking partnerships with the European Commission and with the specialised European Agencies precisely at this location. Furthermore, what is discussed here is relevant not only to fisheries control, but also to all other coast guard functions.”

During a first session, the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries explained the current and future possibilities on fisheries control and the use of evidence in Belgium. A video was also shown on Flemish fisheries control and on how the EFCA operates in European waters using their own vessel. The EFCA then gave an overview of existing technologies and their potential for evidence collection to support fisheries control. Other agencies (EMSA and Frontex) and participants also shared best practices.

In the afternoon, a visit was planned to some coastguard platforms in the port of Ostend. As such, the participants visited, among others, the Sirius, one of the vessels of the Agency Maritime Services and Coast (MDK), Flemish government organization VLOOT and the Ocean Protector, a vessel of the EFCA,  which all play a role in offshore surveillance and control of fisheries. Finally, they visited the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC), where they were given a presentation on incidents involving fishing vessels at sea.

On Thursday May 4th , the practical issues were discussed further. A panel discussion was organized on the use of evidence provided by new technologies. This last day was concluded with a debriefing of the exercise of the Ministry of Defense.


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.

Research vessel Belgica meets white-beaked dolphins twice in 2022

After White-beaked dolphins were observed more frequently in Belgian waters in the early 21st century, the species recently became rarer again locally. Indeed, sightings of groups on 23 June and 14 December 2022 represent the first sightings of living White-beaked dolphins in Belgian waters since April 2018. On both dates, the animals were seen from the new research vessel RV Belgica.

White-beaked dolphins (© Diederik D’Hert)

On Thursday 23 June 2022, a group of around ten White-beaked dolphins was spotted from the research vessel RV Belgica in the Belgian part of the North Sea. The dolphins were seen about 5 km off the coast of Knokke, while the ship was en route to her baptizing ceremony in the god city of Ghent. The animals swam in a westerly direction, regularly emerging above the water. Present ILVO researchers identified the dolphins as White-beaked dolphins, which was confirmed by a video that Belgian Navy Lieutenant-Commander Ilja Van Hespen was able to record showing the distinctive white snout and light flank markings with dark saddle.

On Wednesday 14 December 2022, researchers from INBO and RBINS were the privileged witnesses. Initially, some ten dolphins were spotted about 42 km from the Belgian coastline (measured perpendicular to the coast, this was at the level of Ostend), and they were already suspected to be White-beaked dolphins. Only when two individuals approached the ship closer a while later could this be substantiated, and also photographically documented by Hilbran Verstraete (INBO).


The White-beaked dolphin (Lagenorhynchus albirostris) occurs in cold temperate and subarctic waters of the North Atlantic, mostly confined to zones less than 1,000 m deep. Its range extends from the east coast of North America (northwards from Cape Cod), through southern Greenland and the waters around Iceland, to the European west coast from northern France to Svalbard. In the North Sea, they are found almost exclusively in the central and northern parts, where the population was estimated at 20,000 animals in 2016 (Hammond et al.; 2017). In the southern North Sea, the species leans towards the limit of its range and White-beaked dolphins are a more irregular occurrence. The White-beaked dolphin is rare in the English Channel.

More numerous and rare again

In the early 21st century, particularly between 2003 and 2011, the species seems to have been less rare in the southern North Sea for a while (Haelters et al.; 2018). In the period 2009-2018, 62 sightings of White-beaked dolphins were recorded in the Belgian part of the North Sea (Haelters et al.; 2019), with undoubtedly some double-counting, but in the last years of this time interval, the number of sightings experienced a sharp decrease to only 1-3 cases per year, with also some sightings just outside the Belgian North Sea area (Haelters et al.; 2016a, 2016b, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021). Within the Belgian dataset, a clear peak can be observed in the first half of the year (January – May), but observations from almost all other months are also known. For the years 2019, 2020 and 2021, however, no more certain Belgian sightings of live White-beaked dolphins are known (Haelters et al.; 2020, 2021, 2022), two specimens on 19 April 2018 concerned the last sighting. Until the groups of 23 June and 14 December 2022. The White-beaked dolphin thus seems to have retreated more northwards again, possibly a consequence of climate change and its associated effects on the distribution of their prey (IJsseldijk et al.; 2018).


Dead White-beaked dolphins washed ashore (or floating at sea) have also recently become rarer in the southern North Sea. While between 2000 and 2013 an average of one White-beaked dolphin washed ashore annually in Belgium, only three cases have been known since then (29 November 2017 Oostduinkerke, 17 May 2018 De Panne and 4 March 2020 at sea off Middelkerke) (Haelters et al.; 2018, 2019, 2021). A decrease in strandings was also observed in the Netherlands (Keijl, 2016), after it was previously noted that the Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) disappeared from stranding lists at the beginning of the 21st century, coinciding with the increasing frequency of the White-beaked dolphin (Camphuysen & Peet; 2006). Whether in the southern North Sea there is actually a link between the opposite trends of the Bottlenose dolphin (which has recently also been noted more regularly in Belgium) and the White-beaked dolphin, however, we do not wish to infer from this.


Camphuysen, C.J. & Peet, G.H., 2006. Whales and dolphins of the North Sea. Fontaine Uitgevers BV, ’s Graveland, The Netherlands.

Haelters, J., Kerckhof, F., Jauniaux, T., Potin, M., Rumes, B. & Degraer, S., 2016a. Zeezoogdieren in België in 2014 [Marine mammals in Belgium in 2014]. MARECO rapport 16/01. 29 pp.

Haelters, J., T. Jauniaux, F. Kerckhof, M. Potin & T. Vandenberghe, 2016b. Zeezoogdieren in België in 2015 [Marine mammals in Belgium in 2015]. Rapport BMM 16/01 – MARECO 16/03. 26 pp.

Haelters, J., F. Kerckhof, B. Rumes, M. Potin & T. Jauniaux, 2017. Strandingen en waarnemingen van zeezoogdieren en opmerkelijke vissen in België in 2016 [Strandings and sightings of marine mammals and some remarkable fish species in Belgium in 2016]. Koninklijk Belgisch Instituut voor Natuurwetenschappen (KBIN), Brussel. 30 pp.

Haelters, J., F. Kerckhof, K. Moreau, M. Potin, M. Doom & T. Jauniaux, 2018. Strandingen en waarnemingen van zeezoogdieren en opmerkelijke vissen in België in 2017 [Strandings and sightings of marine mammals and some remarkable fish species in Belgium in 2017]. Koninklijk Belgisch Instituut voor Natuurwetenschappen (KBIN), Brussel. 30 pp.

Haelters, J., F. Kerckhof, K. Moreau, B. Rumes, M. Potin, T. Jauniaux & D. Vercayie, 2019. Strandingen en waarnemingen van zeezoogdieren en opmerkelijke andere soorten in België in 2018 [Strandings and sightings of marine mammals and remarkable other species in Belgium in 2018]. Koninklijk Belgisch Instituut voor Natuurwetenschappen (KBIN), Brussel. 34 pp.

Haelters, J., F. Kerckhof, K. Moreau, B. Rumes, Team SeaLife, T. Jauniaux & P. Cornillie, 2020. Strandingen en waarnemingen van zeezoogdieren en opmerkelijke andere soorten in België in 2019 [Strandings and sightings of marine mammals and remarkable other species in Belgium in 2019]. Koninklijk Belgisch Instituut voor Natuurwetenschappen (KBIN), Brussel. 34 pp.

Haelters, J., F. Kerckhof, K. Moreau, Team SeaLife, E. Lambert & T. Jauniaux, 2021. Strandingen en waarnemingen van zeezoogdieren en opmerkelijke andere soorten in België in 2020 [Strandings and sightings of marine mammals and remarkable other species in Belgium in 2020]. Koninklijk Belgisch Instituut voor Natuurwetenschappen (KBIN), Brussel. 34 pp.

Haelters, J., Moreau, K., Team SeaLife, Jauniaux, T. & Kerckhof, F., 2022. Strandingen en waarnemingen van zeezoogdieren in België in 2021 [Strandings and sightings of marine mammals in Belgium in 2021]. Koninklijk Belgisch Instituut voor Natuurwetenschappen (KBIN), Brussel.

Hammond, P.S., Lacey, C., Gilles, A., Viquerat, S., Börjesson, P., Herr, H., Macleod, K., Ridoux, V. & Santos, M.B., 2017. Estimates of cetacean abundance in European Atlantic waters in summer 2016 from the SCANS-III aerial and shipboard surveys. Sea Mammal Research Unit, University of St Andrews, Scotland, UK.

IJsseldijk, L.L., Brownlow, A., Davison, N.J., Deaville, R., Haelters, J., Keijl, G., Siebert, U. & ten Doeschate, M.T.I., 2018. Spatio-temporal trends in white-beaked dolphin strandings along the North Sea coast from 1991-2017. Lutra 61(1): 153-163.

Keijl, 2016. Jaaroverzicht walvisstrandingen 2016. Gedownload van, 28 maart 2017. Naturalis, Nederland.