Oil spill excercise in offshore wind farms

On Tuesday 28 June 2022, an exercise took place at sea to clean up a simulated oil slick within the offshore wind farms. The purpose of this exercise was to test and optimise procedures, resources and inter-service cooperation in case of an oil spill at sea. The Marine Environment Service of the FPS Public Health coordinated the exercise with all the services involved. Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the North Sea Vincent Van Quickenborne visited the ships. The Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences contributed by providing aerial and modeling support.

Mechanical recovery using a sweeping arm system on the Zeetijger (DAB Vloot) (© RBINS/MUMM)

Fast response

The number of oil spills in the North Sea requiring clean-up has fallen sharply in recent years, and in 2021 not a single oil spill was detected in the North Sea. Regular aerial surveillance, vessel inspections and the monitoring of satellite images ensure a deterrent effect on illegal discharges. However, an accident is still possible and a quick response with anti-pollution agents is necessary to limit damage to the environment. The increasing transport of oil by water due to the war in Ukraine increases the risk of this type of incident.

Spraying system with dispersants on board the P902 Pollux (Belgian Navy) (© RBINS/MUMM)

On land, at sea and in the air

For this exercise, a large oil slick was simulated with straw, which drifted into the Seastar and Nobelwind wind parks. The coastguard centre notified the Marine Environment Service, which started a clean-up operation. With the assistance of Rescue Zone 1 (Bruges-Ostend region), the material was transported to a vessel of the Navy and a vessel of DAB Fleet. Once installed, the vessels could set sail and start combating the incident on site. In the air, the aircraft of the scientific service Management Unit of the Mathematical Model of the North Sea (MUMM, part of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences) kept an overview of the entire combat operation. In the meantime, this service created models to determine the origin of the oil and to predict where the slick was drifting to. These models made it possible to use targeted equipment, should it have been necessary to upscale.

Mechanical recovery using a sweeping arm system on the Zeetijger (DAB Vloot) (© FPS Public Health)

Control techniques

The technique that is initially used in the Belgian part of the North Sea is mechanical recovery. This means that the oil is collected and brought ashore for processing. If this tactic is not possible, a chemical agent can be sprayed on the oil to break it up into smaller droplets. These can be better cleaned up by nature with its self-cleaning ability. Putting a chemical dispersant into nature and leaving the oil in the water is not the first choice but can be used in emergencies, subject to a scientific consideration of pros and cons and approval by MUMM. Both techniques were tested in this exercise.

Spraying system with dispersants on board the P902 Pollux (Belgian Navy) (© RBINS/MUMM)

Smooth cooperation

This type of exercises are possible thanks to a solid cooperation between different partners. Agreements such as the one signed on 13 July 2021 between the Marine Environment Service, Civil Protection and Rescue Zone 1 and good relations between the coast guard partners contribute to the success of exercises and real combat operations.

Vincent Van Quickenborne, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the North Sea: “The North Sea is our largest nature reserve. We must protect it well. We do this by fighting air pollution and removing litter from the sea. But an accident happens quickly. Especially in one of the busiest marine areas in the world. Action must be taken quickly. Since last year, the Marine Environment Service, Civil Protection and Rescue Zone 1 (Bruges-Ostend region) have joined forces. This way, any pollution in the event of an incident can be dealt with quickly and efficiently.”

Spraying system with dispersants on board the P902 Pollux (Belgian Navy) (© FPS Public Health)

Participation of the Belgian airborne surveillance in the monitoring of chemicals during French MANIFESTS Sea Trials and monitoring of ship emissions at the ECA border

From 30 May to 2 June, the Belgian aerial surveillance aircraft carried out an international mission to Brittany in France. The aircraft is owned and operated by the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) and is frequently used in Belgium in the framework of the Coast Guard. International missions are also on the agenda. The purpose of this mission was twofold: the aircraft took part in an international sea trial for the detection and monitoring of chemical pollution and checked with the sniffer sensor the air emissions from ships at the border of the Emission Control Area (ECA) for compliance with the international emission regulations laid down in the so-called MARPOL Annex VI.

Slick of a chemical product behind the SAPEUR, as observed by the Belgian coastguard aircraft.


In contrast to the increasingly less frequent occurrence of oil pollution, pollution by other chemical substances at sea is steadily increasing. As a result of the increasing transport of chemical products by tankers, and the complex international legislation (MARPOL Annex II) allowing the discharge of certain substances under specific conditions, the impact of chemical pollution on the marine environment is also showing an upward trend.

The variety of transported chemicals is large, which creates many challenges for the authorities responsible for monitoring and enforcement. Among other things, the detection and identification of chemicals on the sea surface by airborne units is very complex. In addition, there is still insufficient knowledge about the behaviour of different chemicals at sea, which complicates the modelling of the drift of these pollutants in time and space.

The project MANIFESTS (MANaging risks and Impacts From Evaporating and gaseous Substances To population Safety) tries to meet these challenges. For this project, the main categories of transported chemicals were identified. Different sensors were tested for their ability to identify different substances.  This was first done in a laboratory environment, but the ultimate test was a sea trial where sensors were tested on ships and on flying units. The focus here was on highly evaporating substances.

From the ship ‘SAPEUR’, various chemicals (in limited quantities) were discharged in a controlled manner over two days at the test site near Brest.

During the exercise at sea, different substances were discharged into the sea (in limited quantities), after which they were observed by different flying units. The Belgian coastguard aircraft was one of four aircraft used in the exercise, alongside the Spanish and French coastguard aircraft and a research aircraft of the French Office National d’Etudes et de Recherches Aérospatiales (ONERA). The coastguard aircraft were mainly used for slick mapping (for the purpose of modelling), and for detection by radar and infrared. The ONERA aircraft was equipped with 2 hyperspectral sensors specially developed for the detection of chemicals both on the water surface and in the atmosphere (gas clouds).

The exercise at sea went well and the Belgian coastguard aircraft was able to make a constructive contribution to the collection of field data. It is now up to the scientists to fine-tune the models and to optimize the sensors so that chemical discharges can be better monitored in the future.

Slick of a chemical product behind the SAPEUR, as observed by the Belgian coastguard aircraft.

The RBINS (Marine Forecasting Centre/MFC) is involved as partner in the MANIFESTS project. It is mainly responsible for the further development of mathematical models that can simulate the drift, behaviour and fate of harmful substances other than oil (so-called HNS – Hazardous and Noxious Substances). The aim is to reduce the knowledge gaps of in-house models by implementing the newly acquired knowledge on evaporation, fire and explosion processes of gases and evaporators, and by carrying out a thorough inter-comparison and validation exercise of models to better understand their strengths and weaknesses. The RBINS also contributes, among others, to the development of a decision-support system (DSS; proof of concept) that will integrate useful information such as model simulations, an HNS database, vulnerability maps, etc. with the aim to facilitate the crisis management of HNS incidents by competent maritime services.

Infrared camera picture of a chemical slick.

Monitoring of ship emissions at the ECA border

The MANIFESTS Sea Trials took place just west of Brest, in French waters. Since this is also the zone where the ECA border is located, where ships have to switch to low-sulphur fuels when entering the area, it was decided to combine the participation of the Belgian Coast Guard aircraft in the MANIFESTS exercise with a check for violations of the international regulations on ship emissions. A total of 62 ships were checked during the mission. 18 of these were in the immediate vicinity of the ECA border, the other vessels were observed on the way to and from Brittany. Of the 18 vessels at the border, six showed suspicious sulphur levels, while two had high NOx emissions. One vessel was found with both high NOx emissions and high sulphur content in its fuel. Not all of these observations concern violations as some vessels were observed just outside the ECA, although most likely their emissions were already above the limit during the last part of their passage in the ECA.  A more detailed analysis has yet to be carried out, but these preliminary results clearly indicate that increased monitoring at the ECA border could be very useful for improving MARPOL Annex VI enforcement. Belgium has been a leading international player in this area for years and is trying to create support for this with other North Sea coastal states, within the framework of the Bonn Agreement. One of the Belgian proposals is to jointly organize intensive control campaigns at the ECA border. This mission can already serve as an interesting case study to demonstrate the importance of such type of campaigns.

Air emissions of a container vessel.

Open Ship Weekend RV BELGICA, 25-26 June 2022, Ghent

On Saturday, June 25 (morning) and Sunday, June 26 (full day), the public will have the opportunity to visit the new Belgian oceanographic research vessel RV Belgica in her godfather city, Ghent. For this occasion, the RV Belgica will travel to the Rigakaai (North Sea Port, Ghent) where she will be officially christened in the afternoon of Saturday, June 25.

For a visit to the RV Belgica, a registration is required (see further). On board, one can discover life on board a research vessel and attend demonstrations by various scientific users of the vessel (science fair).

The event area – with the exception of the RV Belgica – is freely accessible to the general public during the open door moments, without registration. In a technology fair, you can discover the activities of DEME, NH Marine, Expo Marine, Hulpbetoon in de Marine/Entraide de la Marine, Information Centre Defence, ABC Engines, North Sea Drones, Statamat and Thales without having to register. On the quay you will also find food trucks and opportunities for a drink, as well as some additional activities.

The christening ceremony on Saturday afternoon is a closed event for which the public cannot register.

Practical information


On Saturday 25 June, visitors can board the RV Belgica from 9h30 to 11h30. By 12h30, the last visitors should have left the ship. The event site closes at 14h.

On Sunday 26 June, boarding is possible from 9h30 to 11h30 and from 13h30 to 17h30. Visitors have to disembark at 12h30 pm and 18h30 pm respectively. The event site closes at 18h30.


You can reserve your places for a visit to the RV Belgica here.

Additional Information

As parts of the RV Belgica offer limited mobility, carrying backpacks etc. is discouraged. Prams, buggies, wheelchairs etc. are unfortunately not allowed on board due to the access via a gangway and the many stairs that have to be climbed in the ship. Please bear the many stairs in mind if you are planning to visit the ship with small children.

Use of public transport is encouraged. For those who come by car, there are parking facilities in the area between the Sint-Theresiastraat and the Dukkeldamstraat (Stukwerkers wasteland, NW of the event site on the other side of the Grootdok where the RV Belgica will be moored), on the grounds ‘Park & Ride Stad Gent’ (SE of the event site along the Vliegtuiglaan) and on the grounds ‘Park & Ride Muide’ (SW of the event site, S of the roundabout).

Follow RV BELGICA online !

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/HowBigIsBelgica.be/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/HowBigIsBelgica

Website @ RBINS: https://odnature.naturalsciences.be/belgica/en/

Website @ BELSPO: https://www.belspo.be/belspo/NewRV/index_en.stm


The ‘Open Ship Weekend’ of the RV Belgica is an organisation of the Belgian Science Policy Office (BELSPO), the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS), the operator Genavir, the Belgian Navy, North Sea Port, the City of Ghent and the University of Ghent, with the support of the Local Police Ghent, the Maritime Police and the Fire Brigade Zone Centre.

Symposium ‘RV BELGICA – A ship for the future’, 24 June 2022, Ghent

On Friday 24 June 2022, the symposium ‘RV Belgica – A ship for the future‘ will take place in the Aula of Ghent University (Campus Aula, Voldersstraat 9, 9000 Ghent; 14h-18h30).

Registration is open to all interested parties until Monday, June 20th, at 17h (as long as there are seats). You can register via this link.

The symposium will be held in English.

Directions: EnglishDutch


  • 13h00 – 14h00 Registration
  • 14h00 – 14h15 Welcome – Prof. dr. Mieke Van Herreweghe, Vice-Rector of Ghent University
  • 14h15 – 15h30: Session 1
    • 14u15 – 14u30 Prof. dr. Ann Vanreusel (UGent) “Future opportunities and challenges for marine life science research”
    • 14h30 – 14h45 Prof. dr. David Van Rooij (UGent) “To boldly go where no one has gone before: geoscientific challenges for RV Belgica
    • 14h45 – 15h00 Dr. Patrick Roose (RBINS) “Science-based Marine Management: Practice and Future
    • 15h00 – 15h15: CPV Guy Schotte (RMA) “RV Belgica: A burden or an added value for Belgian Defence?
  • 15h15 – 15h45 Coffee break
  • 15h45 – 16h40 Session 2
    • 15h45 – 16h00 Dr. Lieven Naudts (RBINS) “RV Belgica: A ship for the future
    • 16h00 – 16h15 Dhr. Tom Nees (DEME) “Importance of RV Belgica for the Belgian offshore industry
    • 16h15 – 16h30 Panel discussion
  • 16h30 – 16h40 Closing – Patricia Supply (General Director RBINS), representing Thomas Dermine, State Secretary for Science Policy, Recovery Program and Strategic Investments
  • 16h40 – 18h30: Reception
Image: Freire Shipyard



Public consultation: Applications for an environmental permit for sand- and gravel extraction

Nieuwpoortse Handelsmaatschappij nv and DEME Building Materials NV have applied on March 29th, 2022, for the prolongation and 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.

© RBINS/K. Moreau

The applications and the environmental impact assessment report, including a design of appropriate assessment, can be downloaded below (in Dutch).


Environmental impact assessment report

Results of the consultations (added when available)

The public consultation runs from 31 May 2022 until 30 June 2022.

Any interested party can submit its views, comments and objections to Ms. Brigitte Lauwaert by letter or email until 15 July 2022.

MUMM Attn. Ms. Brigitte Lauwaert
Vautierstraat 29
1000 Brussels


Combining oyster and sugar kelp farming with oyster reef restoration in Belgian offshore wind farms : promising results of the UNITED project

Multi-use of marine space is an instrument for the optimal use of scarce space without exceeding the carrying capacity of the ecosystem. In the relatively small Belgian part of the North Sea, research into such possibilities for multi-use of marine space is becoming increasingly necessary.

UNITED, an international research and innovation project co-financed through the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme (running from 2020 to 2023), does just that. UNITED stands for Multi-Use offshore platforms demoNstrators for boostIng cost-effecTive and Eco-friendly proDuction in sustainable marine activities, and aims to demonstrate the viability of multi-use of marine space through the development of five demonstration pilots in the European marine environment.

Figure 1: Example of an oyster restoration structure, filled with scour protection material, shell material and adult European flat oysters Ostrea edulis (©Annelies Declercq, Ghent University-ARC).

Within UNITED, the Belgian pilot project, coordinated by Ghent University, and partnered by Jan De Nul Group, Brevisco, Colruyt Group, Parkwind and the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS), combines aquaculture and ecological restoration of European flat oyster (Ostrea edulis) reefs with cultivation of sugar kelp (Saccharina latissima) in an offshore wind farm. Before going offshore, several materials and methods are evaluated in a nearshore test site at the Westdiep area (5 km off the coast of Nieuwpoort, Belgium). The most promising techniques are further optimised nearshore and subsequently applied offshore.

Figure 2 : Scientific diving inside the Belwind offshore wind farm. Divers disembark the new RV Belgica with a RHIB to sample oyster restoration structures in order to evaluate flat oyster settlement success and reef formation on the different materials (©Thomas Kerkhove, RBINS).

Ideal monitoring conditions

Spring 2022 kicked off with some bright and sunny days. This allowed the project partners to monitor the 2nd generation of seaweed nets at the nearshore test site (a first generation of nets was tested in 2020-2021) and also provided them the opportunity to organise the first offshore scientific diving campaign to inspect the oyster restoration structures. The structures used are gabions, filled with scour protection material, shell material and partly also with living adult flat oysters (Figure 1), and aim to identify best suitable substrates and conditions for flat oyster settlement and reef restoration. The restoration structures are installed on the scour protection of several monopiles within the Belwind offshore wind farm.

Figure 3 : Yellow lift bag near a Belwind monopile. Scientific divers connect such lift bags to oyster restoration structures that were installed on the scour protection of the monopile, after which they are inflated to rise up and transport the samples to the surface (©Annelies Declercq, Ghent University-ARC).

Under the scientific diving lead of Alain Norro (RBINS), and through the coordination by Parkwind, the oyster restoration structures were successfully sampled and brought on board for further inspection (Figures 2 and 3). Sampling was partly conducted from the new research vessel RV Belgica, with spacious laboratories that allowed for immediate processing of part of the samples.

Figure 4 : Scour protection material with settlement of juvenile European flat oyster Ostrea edulis (circle) (©Francis Kerckhof, RBINS).

Promising results

The RBINS and Ghent University (Artemia Reference Center, ARC) teams discovered successful settlement of juvenile flat oysters on the added materials (Figure 4), in numbers that have never before been observed in the Belgian offshore wind farm zone. An additional interesting observation was the presence of tube-building polychaete worms (Sabellaria spinulosa, figure 5), which are, under certain conditions, capable of forming reefs, as was also apparent here. Although these are only small-scale results, they are promising for future restoration efforts of biogenic reefs in the Belgian part of the North Sea.

Figure 5 : One of the oyster restoration structures filled with scour protection material. The scour protection stone on the right clearly shows the tubes of the polychaete worm Sabellaria spinulosa, which forms embryonic reef (indicated by arrows) (©Annelies Declercq, Ghent University-ARC).

At the same time, the Ghent University (Phycology) and Brevisco teams sailed with the “Stream” to the Westdiep test site to check up on the seaweed cultivation trials. One of the aims of these trials is to determine the best feasible way to cultivate sugar kelp in the Belgian part of the North Sea. Following the first successful seaweed harvest in May 2021, the researchers are now fine-tuning the best practices to optimise sugar kelp growth for the upcoming cultivation trials in the offshore wind farm in the next growing season (2022-2023). To do so, juvenile sugar kelp was seeded on different substrates using several techniques. These seeded substrates were installed at Westdiep in November 2021. Over winter, the small juvenile sugar kelps of around 1 cm in length have grown substantially. They now cover a considerable surface of the substrates (Figure 6), setting the scene for another promising harvest in May 2022.

Figure 6 : Healthy looking sugar kelp Saccharina latissima during the spring inspection in April 2022 at the nearshore test site (Westdiep, 5 km off the coast of Nieuwpoort) (©Jessica Knoop, Ghent University-Phycology).


Text by Thomas Kerkhove (RBINS), Jessica Knoop (Ghent University-Phycology) & Annelies M Declercq (Ghent University-ARC).

What lies beneath the busiest shipping lane of the world? Discovery of a biodiversity hotspot in Belgium’s farthest offshore waters

Scientists of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences discovered a hotspot for underwater life in the Belgian part of the North Sea. In the farthest offshore Belgian waters, beneath one of the busiest shipping lanes of the world, full-fledged colonies of long-living fauna, linked to a seafloor composed of considerable amounts of rocks and stones, were found. Ecologically important species have been observed, including numerous colonies of the soft coral ‘dead man’s fingers’. The gravel bed also housed the first living specimen of the European flat oyster on the Belgian seabed in decades. In Belgium, this species has recently only been found on artificial structures such as wind turbines and quay walls.

Example of a relatively dense gravel bed displaying stones colonised by tubeworms and mature colonies of the soft coral dead man’s fingers (Alcyonium digitatum). Image acquired using an underwater video frame. ©RBINS

The Belgian part of the North Sea represents a small portion of the Greater North Sea, covering only about 0.6 % of its surface area. Despite its size, the diversity and extent of human commercial activities, ranging from intense routed navigation, commercial fisheries, to infrastructural development for the production of renewable energy, and the extraction of marine sands, result in amongst the most intricate marine spatial plans of Europe. Belgian waters are known as a predominantly sandy seafloor environment, renowned for the widespread presence of large sandbanks, historically known as a major hazard to navigation.

It’s not just Sand in the Belgian North Sea

Nonetheless, the existence of natural hard substrates, generally referred to as gravel beds and composed of lag deposits (leftover coarse sediments from which the finer material was washed out by wind, currents, tides), pebble, cobble, and boulder stones, has been known for long, and is relatively well documented both historically and recently. Regional sediment distribution maps show that approximately 15% of the Belgian seafloor consists of potential gravel beds, the majority of which are to date, geologically and biologically unexplored. Globally, the ecological relevance of this substrate type is an undisputed fact as, under the right conditions, stones can become home to a diverse fauna and flora, creating biological reefs, and representing ecologically unique areas within the otherwise vast and predominantly sandy and muddy seafloor.

The earliest available documentation linking the Belgian ‘stony’ grounds with a highly distinctive fauna originates from the 20th century explorations (1898 – 1939) of Professor Gustave Gilson, a Belgian pioneer oceanographer and former director of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS). However, our gravel areas have greatly diminished due to intensive and pervasive fishing activities, ploughing the sediment, and overturning the stones, and in places, even removing them from their natural location by direct harvesting along with the fish catch, resulting in loss of this unique habitat. After all, stones from the North Sea can be very decorative (a.o., because of the calcareous overgrowth of tube worms, making these stones, to some, an embellishment of the garden) and removing them from a fishing ground eliminates the risk of damage to the nets when they are recaptured. The resulting process of habitat degradation is such that the gravel bed habitat, and several of its typical species, have been brought to the brink of local extinction. A characteristic example of species loss from these offshore grounds, mainly due to overexploitation, is that of the once proliferating European flat oyster (Ostrea edulis), a species of high ecological importance, but also of great commercial interest.

Stones and typical associated underwater fauna, sampled with a Gilson dredge. ©RBINS

Favourable Ecological Conditions

Despite the overall degraded state of the Hinder Banks gravel beds, recent research by scientists of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences has documented the existence of various small refuge areas with fragile and resilient typical fauna. Therefore, a large area of the Hinder Banks gravel beds was designated as a ‘Special Area of Conservation’ (Vlaamse Banken) in 2012 and became part of the Belgian Natura 2000 network.

Over the past four years, extended research on the distribution of the gravel bed areas in the farthest offshore Belgian waters beyond the Hinder Banks region led to the discovery of a natural gravel bed habitat in seemingly favourable ecological conditions, right beneath the main shipping lane. Using state-of-the-art oceanographic instruments on board the former Research Vessel A962 Belgica, 5 km2 of this “underwater biodiversity hotspot” was mapped and observed with unprecedented detail.

The Belgian part of the North Sea, indicating zones with gravel bed potential (green), the study area (yellow) and the discovered gravel beds in good ecological condition (red). ©RBINS

The seemingly favourable ecological conditions are inferred from the widespread presence of typical gravel bed species colonising the stones, including numerous colonies of the soft coral dead man’s fingers (Alcyonium digitatum; approximately 200 colonies / 80 m2). Additionally, it was the first time in decades that a live specimen of the European flat oyster was recorded from the Belgian seafloor. This species has recently only been found in Belgium on artificial structures such as wind turbines and quay walls.

Other ecologically important species include a range of bivalve and gastropod shells, crustaceans, fish, sea chervil (Alcyonidium diaphanum), hornwrack (Flustra foliacea) and sea beards (Nemertesia antennina).

Such an area is highly ecologically relevant: hard-substrate habitats provide unique ecosystem services. The structural complexity of stony seafloors provides microhabitat for a range of animals which live either attached on the stones or amongst the created cracks and crevices. Organisms that live attached to the stones can have quite complex morphology, often resembling plant structures, which can serve as a secondary substrate for other organisms to attach. Such biogenic substrates can be soft or hard and are created by various animals, from reef and tube-building worms to erect and arborescent hydrozoans and bryozoans. This increased structural complexity not only promotes the occupancy by a diverse fauna, but also acts as ideal spawning and nursery ground, shelter and/or feeding areas for several other species in their various life stages. Since many of these animals feed by filtering the water mass, they contribute to waste remediation and water clarity. Indeed, where foundation species such as kelp forests, seagrasses and macroalgae canopies are scarce, as for the predominantly sedimentary seafloor of the Southern North Sea, the ecological importance of hard substrate-habitats increases substantially.

Living individual of the European flat oyster (Ostrea edulis) attached to a stone. The specimen was captured during the first visit to the newly discovered gravel bed area in 2018. The stone also houses the tube-building worm Spirobranchus triqueter, the soft coral Alcyonium digitatum, as well as small colonies of polyps and bryozoans. ©RBINS

Sheltered by a Shipping Lane

Given the turmoil of human activities, of which commercial fishing in particular, the discovery was surprising. Indeed, inspection of regional commercial fishing intensity maps in this study area, accounting for the activity of Belgian, French, Danish, German, Dutch, and British fleets, showed that a fishing hotspot exists here, as the area is fished more than five days every year. However, a more detailed investigation of the local fishing patterns revealed that activities are mostly limited to the use of passive and mid-water gears, with only a minor use of bottom destructing gears. This suggests that the busy shipping lane perhaps acts as a prevention against bottom disturbing fishing activities, allowing for the typical fauna to develop. The discovery was made in one of three search zones for seabed protection that have been laid down in the Marine Spatial Plan 2020-2026 of the FPS Health, Food Chain Safety and Environment. In these search zones, it is possible to install protection zones for bottom integrity, which is currently being worked on. The aim is to protect valuable natural elements by only allowing fishing techniques that do not disturb the seabed.

The scientific findings on the detailed mapping of the natural gravel bed and ecological analysis are summarised in a 2021 paper published in the Journal of Remote Sensing. In this study, underwater acoustics and videography were combined to map the habitat’s distribution and to study the effect of stone size with respect to their colonisation by the typical fauna.

“We are currently continuing to monitor this new area and the Hinder Banks region, now using the new RV Belgica Giacomo Montereale Gavazzi, first author of the publication, says, “but the discovery already suggests that biological communities that are associated with gravel beds can persist and recover in Belgian waters”. In the framework of future marine spatial planning and nature conservation and restoration, “this area may serve as an example for this habitat elsewhere in Belgian waters and generally, in the wider Southern North Sea region”. Moreover, “The fact that such animals exist in this area raises the expectation that shipping lanes throughout the North Sea could represent corridors of natural hard substrate biodiversity hotspots”.

Vincent Van Quickenborne, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the North Sea: “For the first time in decades, a living specimen of the European flat oyster has been found on the Belgian seabed. This find is all the more special because it was made in a gravel bed in ecologically good condition under one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. This is a zone where anchoring is prohibited but fishing is allowed. This does not happen very often as there is a mandatory sailing direction here, so fishermen cannot sail back and forth here. The discovery of the gravel bed was done in one of the three search zones for bottom protection that have been laid down in the Marine Spatial Plan 2020-2026. We are now going to give this gravel bed extra protection. As Blue Leader, we not only have to protect the ocean far away, but also the special nature in our own North Sea.”

Example of a dense gravel bed with stones colonised by tubeworms. Several common starfish (Asterias rubens), common whelks (Buccinum undatum) and a soldier (Chelidonichthys cuculus) can also be seen. Image obtained using an underwater video frame. The green laser pointers are 10 cm apart. ©RBINS

The RBINS seafloor mapping efforts are realised by the research groups MARECO (Marine Ecology and Management) and SUMO (Suspended Sediment and Seabed Monitoring), in the framework of research on gravel bed ecology, seafloor integrity and national environmental monitoring studying the effects of human activities. Bathymetric data from Flemish Hydrography, as well as fisheries data from the Flanders Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, further provided the necessary context to the study.

King Philippe visits research vessel Belgica

On Thursday 21 April 2022, His Majesty King Philippe visited the new research vessel RV Belgica. On this occasion, the Belgian Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Belgian Army (the naval component provides the bridge personnel and the homeport of Zeebrugge) was received and accompanied by Mr. Thomas Dermine, Secretary of State in charge of Science Policy, Mr. Arnaud Vajda, President of the Board of Directors of the Belgian Science Policy Office (BELSPO), Mrs. Patricia Supply, General Director a.i. of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS), Mr. Léandre Brehier, Administrative and Financial Director of Genavir, and of course by RV Belgica Captain Gaëtan Motmans and RBINS coordinator of the RV Belgica Mr. Lieven Naudts.

©Belgian Navy/Jorn Urbain

During a short trip at sea, the importance and functioning of the RV Belgica were extensively explained. This attracted great interest from King Philippe, which translated into many questions to those involved.

The programme started with an expert explanation of the ship and its scientific programme by Captain Gaëtan Motmans and Belgica coordinator Lieven Naudts. Their words formed the perfect stepping stone to some demonstrations of the various scientific activities that Belgian and international scientists can carry out thanks to the RV Belgica, and which put our country at the forefront of marine scientific research internationally. Attention was paid to biological, chemical, physical, geological and hydrodynamic research, and the demonstrations included both sampling (water and seabed samples) and laboratory activities (with thanks to the crew of the RV Belgica, and to Laura Lemey and Coenraad Deputter – ILVO, David Van Rooij – Ugent, and Kyra Gesquiere and Tom Scholdis – KBIN). Subsequently, King Philippe took the time for more extensive converstion with Belgica regulars. In addition to the persons mentioned above, 2nd Commander Anthony Willaert, Chief Engineer Antoine Samzun and Chief Electrician Andrejs Jankins of the RV Belgica were given the honour to talk with the King, as well as Mr Patrick Roose, Operational Director Natural Environment of the RBINS, Mrs Alice Matossian (Ugent), Mr Kris Hostens (ILVO) and Mr Michael Fettweis (RBINS).

On the occasion of his visit, King Philippe also signed the Golden Book of the new RV Belgica.

After the event, the RV Belgica got ready for her first international campaign, the same afternoon she set sail for the Mediterranean Sea.

©Belgian Navy/Jorn Urbain
©Belgian Navy/Jorn Urbain
©Belgian Navy/Jorn Urbain
©Belgian Navy/Jorn Urbain
©Belgian Navy/Jorn Urbain
©RBINS/Kelle Moreau
©RBINS/Kelle Moreau
©RBINS/Kelle Moreau
©RBINS/Kelle Moreau
©Belgian Navy/Jorn Urbain
©Belgian Navy/Jorn Urbain

North Sea aerial surveys in 2021

In 2021, the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) performed a total of 248 flight hours over the North Sea in the framework of the national programme of aerial surveys. Thirteen cases of operational discharges by ships have been observed. Additionally, suspected sulphur values have been measured in the smoke plumes of 16 vessels, while 23 vessels had suspected nitrogen values in their exhaust plumes. In 2021, a black carbon sensor was added to the sniffer setup to measure the amount of black carbon in ship emissions as well. With this capacity expansion, Belgium keeps on playing an international pioneering role in 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 and an international pollution control mission in the Skagerrak Strait. Two seasonal marine mammal counts were carried out successfully. Additionally, the aircraft executed 2 on call flights in response to emergencies at sea: a collision between 2 vessels without pollution and a small power boat with transmigrants drifting at the windmill parcs.

The Belgian Coast Guard Aircraft in action over the oceanographic research vessel ‘Belgica’. ©Belgian Navy/Jorn Urbain

Overview of surveillance flights

A total of 248 flight hours have been performed in the framework of the national North Sea aerial survey programme in 2021. 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 elaboration and application of an extensive Covid-19 switching plan, the initially foreseen target of flight hours was reached, despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

Most of the flight hours were for national flights (177 hours):

  • 168 hours in the context of the Belgian Coastguard:
    • 119 hours for pollution control: 54 hours for the detection of discharges of oil and other harmful substances (MARPOL Annex I, II and V) and 65 hours for the monitoring of sulphur and nitrogen emissions from ships (MARPOL Annex VI/ SO2 and NOx ECA – Emission Control Area enforcement, see further);
    • 45 hours for fishery control, on behalf of and in cooperation with the Flemish Fishery Inspection Services;
    • 2 “on call” hours in response to specific alerts: a collision without pollution and a search for a small power boat with transmigrants drifting in the wind farms.
    • 2 hours in the framework of a pollution combating exercise.
  • 9 hours for marine mammal monitoring.

Additionally, 71 hours have been spent on international flights, of which 34 hours for the monitoring of sulphur and nitrogen emissions in Dutch waters on behalf of the Dutch Government (Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate) and, in the framework of the BONN Agreement, 19 hours for the Tour d’horizon-mission for aerial surveillance of offshore oil and gas installations in the North Sea and 18 hours for the Super-CEPCO mission, a mission to monitor discharges from ships in the Skagerrak Strait.

Operational discharges from ships

Since no accidental pollution took place in the Belgian sea areas in 2021, only operational ship discharges were observed. No operational oil pollutions were observed. These are deliberate discharges, which can be either legal or illegal, as stipulated in the various annexes to the MARPOL Convention.

None of these cases involved proven operational oil contamination. This is a confirmation of the decreasing trend in the figures showing that the number of oil pollutions has been greatly reduced in the last decade (see graph below).

Additionally, no violations with regard to Annex V of the MARPOL legislation related to the discharge of garbage and solid bulk materials were observed.

Thirteen cases of operational pollution from ships were observed:

  • Eleven contaminations by hazardous liquids other than oil (MARPOL Annex II), one of which could be linked to a ship. An inspection was requested in the next port of call, which showed that it concerned an authorized discharge of FAME (fatty acid methyl ester). Three of these contaminants were verifications by the aircraft of a satellite detection alert. This Clean Sea Net (CSN) satellite surveillance service is offered by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) and regularly sends alerts from satellite detections of possible marine contaminants in the Belgian surveillance area.
  • 2 pollution detections on radar of an unknown (not visually verified) liquid, at night time. Both detections were also a verification of a CSN satellite detection alert. Feedback was provided to EMSA for each verification.

Contamination by harmful liquid substances other than oil is still a common problem, which, as reported in previous years, even appears to be on the rise (see next graph). It should be noted here that this often concerns legal discharges that are in accordance with international discharge standards, as contained in Annex II of the MARPOL Convention. Since 2021, the MARPOL Annex II discharge standards have also been tightened for so-called ‘persistent floaters’ such as paraffin-like substances, for which no violations were observed.

Oil pollution in Belgian ports and the Western Scheldt

During the transit flights from Antwerp airport (the aircraft’s home base) to the North Sea, two oil slicks were observed in the port of Antwerp, which could not be linked to a ship. In the port of Ostend 2 oil slicks were observed as well but again it was not possible to identify the polluter from the aircraft with certainty. All findings were immediately reported to the competent authorities to ensure follow-up.

Oil pollution in the port of Ostend seen from the Coast Guard aircraft © RBINS/MUMM

Monitoring of sulphur and nitrogen 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 multiple 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 Emission Control Area, 57 sniffer fights (89 hours) were conducted in 2021, both above the Belgian surveillance area and the Dutch waters on behalf of the Dutch Government (Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate). Of the 1015 vessels of which the sulphur exhaust was measured at sea, 16 showed a suspiciously high sulphur value. These cases were systematically reported to the competent maritime inspection services for a further follow-up in port.

Calibration of the sniffer sensor is carried out before each flight © RBINS/MUMM

Due to the successful integration of a NOx sensor in 2020, the aircraft can also measure the concentration of nitrogen compounds (NOx) in the smoke plumes of ships to monitor and enforce the restrictions that apply in the North Sea from 1 January 2021 with regard to nitrogen emissions from ships. Belgium was the first country operationally ready to monitor and enforce these restrictions. In 2021 the nitrogen emissions of 1004 ships were inspected and 23 suspicious values were reported.

Since 2021, a new sensor has been added to the sniffer set-up: a black-carbon sensor. This sensor measures the amount of black carbon in the exhaust plumes of ships, which is a measure for the soot concentration. When exceptionally high soot concentrations are measured, the competent maritime port authorities are asked to take a fuel sample. These samples are analysed in the labs of MUMM in Ostend. With this black carbon sensor and oil sample analysis, new insights will be obtained about the role of the global shipping industry in the emissions of black carbon, which possibly might lead to international regulations to limit black carbon emissions in the future.

Approaching a ship to check sulphur, nitrogen and black carbon emissions. © RBINS/MUMM

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 July 2021. The Belgian surveillance aircraft detected 20 pollutions, of which 18 consisted of oil and 2 of an unknown liquid substance which could not be visually verified due to low clouds.

Nineteen spills could be directly linked to offshore installations. One oil spill could not be linked to a platform or ship. All detections were systematically reported for further follow-up to the competent Coastal State, in accordance with agreed international procedures.

Oil spill connected to an offshore oil installation, as observed from the surveillance aircraft during the international TdH mission in 2021. © RBINS/MUMM

International “Super-CEPCO” mission

In 2021 the Belgian Coastguard aircraft also participated in an international Super-CEPCO (Coordinated Extended Pollution Control Operations) mission. During such a mission, surveillance aircrafts from different North Sea countries jointly carry out continuous surveillance over a certain (high-traffic) zone for several days. During the 2021 mission, hosted by Norway, planes from 6 North Sea countries gathered in Oslo to perform pollution control flights over the Skagerrak Strait for 3 days. On the flight to Oslo, the Belgian Coast Guard aircraft observed 1 operational MARPOL Annex II discharge in German waters and 1 small oil spill without polluter in the Oslofjord.

Monitoring of Marine Mammals

In 2021, 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 seasonal population dynamics of harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) and other marine mammals in the North Sea.

As in 2020, the surveys in 2021 were conducted in June and September. An equal number of harbour porpoises were observed during both surveys: 52, including 4 and 9 calves respectively. The average estimated density in Belgian waters was higher during both surveys than in 2020: an average of 0.81 (0.52-1.28) and 0.78 (0.44-1.35) respectively for harbour porpoises per km² sea area, or in a total an estimation of 2700 animals.

Maybe more striking than the number of harbour porpoises was the number of seals: in June there were nine animals, including (based on size) at least one grey seal. In September, 20 seals were seen, of which (at least) seven were identified as grey seals, the highest number of seals ever recorded during an aerial survey.

A group of resting seals on a sandbank in the Western Scheldt (outside the Belgian survey area). © RBINS/MUMM

Emergency interventions: collision at sea and transmigration issues

On 13 March 2021, there was a minor collision between two ships in the Westhinder anchorage area. The ships involved were the XING ZHI HAI (bulk carrier) and the ASTREA (tanker). The later was at anchor. The Coast Guard aircraft was activated that day and confirmed that there was only minor damage to both ships and that there was no contamination.

The aircraft also regularly flies in support of the Coast Guard, also in areas for which the MUMM is not specifically authorized or the aircraft is not specifically equipped for. For example, the crew regularly documents various observations (other than environmental) that are systematically reported to the Coast Guard centers and authorized partner organisations. The surveillance aircraft was unfortunately confronted several times in 2021 with the increased transmigration problem in and around our waters.

On 27 October 2021, while the aircraft was in operations on the coast, it was called by Coast Guard Central Services to report that a small boat carrying transmigrants was in distress near the wind farms. The aircraft was able to take off quickly and was the first coastguard platform on site. It was able to inform the competent authorities about the situation.

It concerned a rubber boat with 24 people on board that was adrift towards the wind farms. The rescue helicopters from Koksijde and a Navy vessel then arrived on the scene and managed to bring all those on board to safety. Throughout the year, other observations linked to transmigration also took place, but without people on board, these usually concerned abandoned boats or life jackets.

Rubber boat with 24 people on board adrift in the wind farms © RBINS/MUMM

Ten strategic recommendations for sustainable sand extraction

Sand is vital for building the foundations of our society. Currently, around 50 billion tonnes of this raw material are extracted worldwide each year, and the growing world population is only increasing demand. The environmental and social impacts are forcing us to rethink our dealings with sand. In a new report launched today by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), experts from around the world make recommendations to switch to better practices for the extraction and management of sand. Experts from Belgium were also involved. New developments in Belgian policy proactively anticipate an increasing demand for marine sand.

50 billion tonnes, this is the amount of sand (and gravel) that we as a world population consume every year, making it the second most used resource in the world after water. Enough to build a wall 27 metres wide and 27 metres high around planet Earth. Despite the strategic importance of sand, its extraction, use and management are largely unregulated in many parts of the world, with numerous environmental and social consequences that are largely overlooked. Where sand plays an active role in the ecosystem, such as in rivers, coasts and shallow seas, extraction can lead to erosion, salinisation of aquifers, loss of storm protection and impacts on biodiversity, which in turn threaten our water supply, food production, fisheries or the tourism industry, among others.

Increasing demand

Sand is vital for building the foundations of our society: our houses, roads, bridges, hospitals, schools, dams, but also, for example, photovoltaic panels to produce renewable energy, … these are just some of the many applications of sand that we have developed. Sand can justifiably be called the unrecognised hero of our development.

We have become accustomed to easily accessible sand supplies, with the result that sand is often used faster than it can be replenished by natural geological processes. As the world population is growing rapidly, and the proportion of the urban population is expected to increase to over 68% by 2050, the demand for sand will only increase.

10 recommendations to avert a crisis

It is therefore high time to reassess our dealings with sand, and to recognise sand as a strategic resource. This is stated in the new report Sand and Sustainability: 10 strategic recommendations to avert a crisis‘ launched today by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). In this report, experts from around the world and from various sectors bring together recommendations to move towards better practices for the extraction and management of sand.

The recommendations include establishing integrated policy and legislative frameworks, mapping sand resources, promoting resource efficiency and circularity, responsible procurement and restoring degraded ecosystems. The major objective of this report is to encourage policy makers at all levels of government to adopt relevant policies and standards and promote best practices in line with local sand dependencies and development needs.

The 10 recommendations

  1. Recognise sand as a strategic resource that provides critical ecosystem services and is the basis for building vital infrastructure in developing cities around the world.
  2. Consult with all stakeholders (involved and impacted) on decision-making and implementation of sand extraction.
  3. Enable the transition to a regenerative and circular economy.
  4. Implement strategic and integrated policy and legislative frameworks, in line with local, national and regional realities.
  5. Property rights and regulated access to sand resources through mineral rights and permits contribute to sustainable sand mining.
  6. Map, monitor, and report on sand resources for transparent, science-based and data-driven decision-making.
  7. Promote the development of best practice guidelines and national standards, as well as a coherent international framework.
  8. Reduce the use of sand and replace it with alternatives and recycled sand products where possible.
  9. Buy sand in an ethical, sustainable and socially conscious way.
  10. Restore ecosystems and compensate for losses by increasing the knowledge base, integrating mitigation measures in mining operations, and promoting nature-based solutions.

Pro-active management of marine sand resources in Belgium

The demand for sand, and in particular marine sand, is steadily increasing in Belgium. The Continental Shelf Service of the Federal Public Service Economy manages Belgium’s sea sand resources and does so in a proactive manner, relying on the best available knowledge and monitoring methodology. Building on research results, an innovative policy is in force that imposes a lower limit on extraction based on the geological reserve, as well as criteria to minimise the impact on the seabed environment. This new benchmark has been in place since 2020, is being closely monitored, and represents a real paradigm shift in favour of sustainable management of the resource.

An evaluation of the marine sand exploitation in the Belgian part of the North Sea leads to the conclusion that the management of our marine sand stock is already in line with recommendations 1, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 9 of the new UNEP report. Recommendations 2, 3 and 8, which focus on the transition to a circular sand economy, are obviously also very important to implement, and fit into a larger transition framework which in the meantime should not prevent us from continuing the current marine sand exploitation within the established sustainable environmental and socio-economic boundaries. Based on the monitoring results (bathygeomorphology, sediment and benthic biota) obtained before, during and after the sand extraction in various Belgian sand extraction zones, recommendation 10 on ecosystem restoration is not critical for the Belgian part of the North Sea.

Belgian contribution to the UNEP report

Vera Van Lancker of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences and professor at Ghent University was responsible for the recommendation on sand mapping and use, environmental monitoring and reporting with emphasis on the need for decision support systems (Recommendation 6). Globally, but also regionally, the quality and quantity of available sand is hardly known. However, the demand for sand is unprecedentedly high and increasing, with large-scale mining possibly becoming the new norm. However, the knowledge base to support such extraction is minimal. The joint consideration of geological, environmental and socio-economic parameters is therefore of paramount importance for informed decisions. With increasing extraction, and possible scarcity, the dependencies between man and nature, but also between sandy and poor regions, are put to the test. For a more systematic understanding of these dependencies, and to support (cross-border) decision-making, the need for data, knowledge and information, as well as predictive science, is greater than ever.

Vera: “The challenges of increasing sand use are great, whereby contemporary practices and associated impacts may not be appropriate. An accelerated mapping of sand resources is needed for which structural cooperation offers the most perspective. This requires more standardisation in the classification of raw materials, which also takes into account the environmental and socio-economic dimension. Predictive modelling of extraction scenarios and man-nature dependencies is becoming more important.”

Transnational subsurface resource model of the Quaternary sediments of the territorial sea and exclusive economic zone of Belgium and the Netherlands (south of Rotterdam). (Source: Van Lancker et al. 2019 p.32)

Aurora Torres, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at the Université Catholique de Louvain, led the recommendation on restoring degraded ecosystems (Recommendation 10), together with other experts. Sand is fundamental to maintaining biodiversity and the variety of ecosystem services that meet societal needs. Policy makers, industry and other stakeholders are therefore encouraged to take measures to avoid and minimise risks to biodiversity and ecosystem services, restore ecosystems and compensate for remaining losses. Also in the perspective of the UN targets for ecosystem restoration (2021-2030), further efforts are needed to better document the impacts of mining on biodiversity and ecosystem services, to improve the effectiveness of mitigation and restoration efforts, and to ensure the use of science-based assessment and monitoring as a basis for impact assessment, mitigation planning and compensation. Finally, sand also contributes to the restoration and protection of land, freshwater systems or coastal areas against erosion or flooding. Nature-based solutions and ‘building with nature’ approaches are strongly recommended here.

Aurora: ” Transitioning to a circular economy requires that we become less dependent on natural systems as material suppliers. When extraction is deemed necessary, sand resources must be obtained in a responsible manner that prevents or minimises damage to ecosystems and people.”

©Unplash/Marcin Jozwiak

Astrid Smeets and colleagues of Bureau Brussels contributed to recommendations on how to include sustainability in the entire supply chain from the origin of sand to its user, and how to achieve a broader societal change (Recommendations 3 and 9). These range from (re)educating architects to use alternative materials, to a fiscal policy directing financial flows towards alternatives to sand or more sustainable extraction and use. In order to create a stimulating policy, it is important that governments and companies come together to share and apply best practices. By tackling a more sustainable sand policy at an international level, one can learn from local solutions that already exist and which, with minor adjustments, can easily be applied on the other side of the world. This is both time and cost efficient.

Astrid: “The transition to a more sustainable raw materials policy will also be felt here in Belgium. We see Europe tackling the sustainability of supply chains at an unseen pace with, among others, the EU Taxonomy and supply chain liability. Companies and governments will have to account for the impact of their activities on people and the environment. In addition, they will have to demonstrate how sustainable they and their suppliers are. Sand will undoubtedly also be on the agenda in the near future. With the ten recommendations from the report, governments, knowledge institutions, the business community and consumers can get started to avert a major crisis. The sooner we start looking for solutions, the better for people, planet and our economy.”

Millingerwaard rewilding project, The Netherlands (© Rijkswaterstaat – for non-commercial use only)


ANNEX 1: More information on marine sand extraction in Belgium

Numbers and more information on the management of marine sand resources in the Belgian part of the North Sea, the scientific basis, and the ecological impact:


ANNEX 2: Belgian partners and contacts

The FPS Economy, SMEs, Self-employed and Energy, Continental Shelf Service, is the competent government agency for sand extraction at sea. Together with the Royal Belgian Institute for Natural Sciences (RBINS) and the Flanders Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (ILVO), the physical and biological changes in sand extraction areas are monitored, and recommendations are formulated to minimise the impact. During three-yearly study days, the results are presented in an integrated way, and attention is also paid to the broader sustainability framework.

Royal Belgian Institute for Natural Sciences (RBINS). Federal Scientific Institute that combines fundamental and applied research, among others for estimating the effects of human activities in marine waters. With regard to sand extraction, efforts are being made to better understand the variability of sediment characteristics and processes, to model the activity-pressure chain effects on the marine environment, and to formulate recommendations for a more sustainable use of marine resources. To this end, the RBINS coordinated the Belspo TILES project that mapped the quality and quantity of sand stocks. Further valorisation and new initiatives are being developed within the framework of the European ‘Geological Service of Europe’ action, in which the European Geological Services are joining forces in support of societal challenges.

Université Catholique de Louvain, Earth and Life Institute, has as a major goal the design of sustainable solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing our societies (e.g. transitions to sustainable land use, the influence of globalisation on decisions, and the interactions between public and private governance). UCLouvain is collaborating with Michigan State University to investigate important links between sand use, economic activity, environmental pressures and social impacts (SANDLINKS: https://cordis.europa.eu/project/id/846474).

Bureau Brussels is a public affairs consultancy supporting businesses, public authorities and non-profit organisations in the European policy-making process. Bureau Brussels supports for clients in various fields such as women’s health care, circular economy, sustainability, digital and financial sectors. From a circular point of view and a chain approach, the topic of ‘sand’ has also been on the agenda for a number of years.