Minister of North Sea helps monitor nitrogen emissions from ships at sea

On Wednesday 13 January 2021, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of North Sea Vincent Van Quickenborne checked to what extent ships in the Belgian part of the North Sea comply with the applicable air pollution standards. To this end, he flew along in the Belgian Coast Guard plane. Through the application of a ‘sniffer’ sensor in this aircraft, our country is known as a pioneer in the international fight against air pollution above the sea. The sensor allows polluting components in ship emissions to be measured in the field. Sulphur measurements have been on the programme since 2016, and since 2020 nitrogen compounds can also be detected. With this, Belgium was the first to be ready to monitor above the sea the restrictions on nitrogen emissions from ships that will apply in the North Sea from 1 January 2021.

Pilots Dries Noppe and Pieter Janssens, minister of the North Sea Vincent Van Quickenborne and operator Ward Van Roy (from left to right) after the successful sniffer mission with the Coastguard aircraft OO-MMM. © RBINS/MUMM

Emissions of sulphur dioxides (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) from ships contribute significantly to various health and environmental problems, such as the formation of fine dust, the eutrophication (enrichment by excessive fertilisation) of the living environment (on land and at sea) and the acidification of busy coastal regions. They also give rise to the formation of the greenhouse gas ozone, which not only contributes to climate warming but can also cause significant respiratory problems. Enough reasons to take the fight against the emission of these substances seriously!

Federal attention to the fight against air pollution

The Belgian Coast Guard has already been using a so-called ‘sniffer’ sensor on board MUMM’s aircraft (Britten-Norman Islander, registration number OO-MMM) that is deployed over the sea to check for environmental and nautical violations since 2016. This sensor is an important tool in the fight against air pollution. Belgium was already in the international spotlight with regard to the enforcement of sulphur legislation, and in 2020 expanded its unique expertise to include the measurement of nitrogen compounds in emissions from ships at sea.

“For the purchase of the nitrogen sensor, my predecessor Philippe De Backer made a budget of € 70,000 available in 2019 to the Scientific Service Management Unit of the Mathematical Model of the North Sea (MUMM) of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS), which both owns and manages the Coast Guard aircraft. Also in my policy, we make the fight against air pollution above the sea a priority and we follow up this dossier closely”, says Minister Van Quickenborne.

Minister of the North Sea Vincent Van Quickenborne and operator Ward Van Roy during the sniffer mission above the North Sea. © RBINS/MUMM

When ships with suspicious sulphur or nitrogen levels in their emissions are detected, a report is drawn up and submitted to the port inspection services of the FPS Mobility. They then go on board and subject the ship to an extensive inspection. If irregularities are found, an administrative fine is imposed. By identifying suspect ships on the basis of air monitoring, port inspections and sampling can be carried out in a more targeted way, making them more efficient.

Nitrogen emission control area

On 1 January 2021, an Emission Control Area for nitrogen oxides (NOx) came into force in the North Sea and Baltic Sea. This so-called Nitrogen Emission Control Area (NECA) is part of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), a convention of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). Regulation 13 of MARPOL Annex VI defines the NOx emission limits for marine diesel engines as the amount of NOx per unit of engine power (expressed in g NOx per kWh).

The maximum NOx emissions allowed from ships of the three Tier categories in the NECA areas, as a function of engine power.

Three emission levels are defined based on the date of construction (keel laying) of the ship, the so-called Tiers. Ships built between 2000 and 2011 have to comply with the Tier I standard (maximum 17g NOx/kWh), ships built after 2011 will have to comply with the Tier II standard (maximum 14.4g NOx/kWh). Ships built from 2021 onwards will have to comply with the strictest NOx standards of Tier III (maximum 3.4g NOx/kWh) in the NECA area. Ships built between 1990 and 2000 with a large engine capacity (>5000kW) or a cylinder size larger than 90l are also subject to the Tier I standard. No standard has been set for older ships. The aim is to achieve a gradual reduction of up to 80% in NOx emissions from ships sailing in these and other NECA areas by 2040.

For sulphur, too, there are control areas with strict standards, and Belgian marine waters have been part of the North Sea and Baltic Sea SECA zone (Sulphur Emission Control Area) since 2015. Since the NECA and SECA areas for the North Sea and Baltic Sea correspond geographically, from 2021 onwards we will simply refer to the North Sea and Baltic Sea ECA area (see map).

The North Sea and Baltic Sea Emission Control Area.

The NOx sensor

When a restrictive legal framework is not accompanied by adequate control mechanisms, the rules obviously risk remaining a dead letter. Until recently, the NOx regulations could only be enforced by checking the possession of a valid international air pollution prevention certificate, which had to be regarded as prima facie evidence of compliance. Also, the extent to which ships using emission reduction techniques (e.g. a catalytic converter) had activated their equipment in time before entering the ECA, and thus whether they were actually complying with the nitrogen regulations, could recently not be determined with certainty.

The new technology of the nitrogen sensor changes this situation. For the first time, accurate NOx monitoring can be carried out over the sea, and non-compliant ships can be identified with real measurements as proof.

The Coastguard aircraft with immatriculation OO-MMM. © RBINS/MUMM

Test results and future perspectives

The NOx sensor was extensively tested during the second half of 2020. “During 25 flights, we were able to successfully determine the nitrogen emissions of no fewer than 394 ships in Belgian waters!” clarifies Ward Van Roy, one of the operators of the Coast Guard aircraft. Of the ships monitored, about half were built between 2000 and 2011, and a third were more recent than 2011. The remaining ships dated from before 2000. “We found that the vast majority of ships monitored that must meet Tier I and Tier II standards from 2021 were already in compliance, but also documented some ships with nitrogen concentrations in their emissions that were more than double the limit. We are curious to see whether this will continue to be the case after the NECA is activated on 1 January 2021.” Van Roy adds.

Minister Van Quickenborne concludes: “Belgium was ready to carry out its enforcement role in nitrogen emissions from 1 January 2021. The first results can be considered a great success and give us confidence that we will be able to collect an enormous amount of information on nitrogen emissions from ships at sea. In the meantime, I have also released funds for the purchase of a sensor that can measure ‘black carbon’ emissions. This will be added to the aircraft’s equipment later in 2021 and will provide results that will help develop the necessary regulations within the IMO. We aim for 55% reduction by 2030 and climate neutrality by 2050. In this way, we are further expanding Belgium’s pioneering role in the fight against air pollution from ship emissions at sea.”

Report of the first Belgian Flat Oyster Day

On Tuesday 24 November 2020, the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS), Ghent University and the Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (ILVO) jointly organised the first Belgian Flat Oyster Day, as an online event.

A lot of information on several aspects of flat oyster restoration and aquaculture was presented during the event. The event demonstrated that an interest in flat oyster is emerging in Belgium, which was also illustrated by large audience (60+) that attended the event.

A report of the event has been compiled, containing the biographies of the speakers and the abstract of the presentations. Also the Q&A and poll results are included. Consult the report : Report_Belgian_Flat_Oyster_Day2020_Final.



The presentations are also available under the following links (the links are also provided in the report).

Restoration of flat oyster reefs in Europe – Bernadette Pogoda (AWINORA)

Flat oyster aquaculture in Europe. An overview – Bérenger Colsoul (AWI)

Legal (environmental) requirements for flat oyster introduction in Belgium – Jan Haelters (RBINS)

Animal health requirements for flat oysters’ movements – Chantal Rettigner (FASFC)

Restoration of flat oyster reefs. Vision on nature restoration – Yana Deschutter (FPS Environment)

Past projects – Value@Sea (EMFF) – Daan Delbare (ILVO)

Ongoing projects – SYMAPA (Blue Cluster) – Bert Groenendaal (Brevisco)

Ongoing projects – UNITED (H2020) – Nancy Nevejan (Ghent University)

Ongoing projects – BlueMarine³.Com (Blue Cluster) – Mathieu Wille (Ghent University)

Potential of flat oyster aquaculture – Patrick Sorgeloos (Vlaams Aquacultuurplatform)

European Flat Oyster in the North Sea, The Dutch Approach – Wouter Lengkeek (Bureau Waardenburg)


The interaction with the audience through the polls showed that there is a keen interest in the continuation of the Belgian Flat Oyster Day. In what format this will be, e.g. as a yearly event or as the creation of a Belgian Flat Oyster Consortium, in line with the Dutch initiative, is under consideration. To be continued.

We sincerely want to thank all speakers for their excellent presentations, and the audience for their attendance and enthusiastic participation in this online event!


Minke whale washed ashore on the beach of Bredene

A young minke whale that was washed ashore on Bredene beach on 11 December turned out to have a very unfortunate history: an empty stomach, intestines full of parasites and an abnormal spine. To make matters worse, two broken mandibles added to the problems. It is only the eighth minke whale that has been documented in Belgium during the past 20 years, and only the third stranding.

In the morning of Thursday 11 December 2020, the fresh carcass of a young minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) washed ashore on the beach of Bredene, near the border with Ostend. The animal, 3.89 m long (an adult minke whale can grow up to almost 10 m long) and weighing 489 kg, looked very skinny, and had a broken right lower jaw of which the bones protruded through the wound. A healthy specimen of the length of the Bredene minke whale should weigh about twice as much, so it was immediately suspected that it was in poor health even without fractures.

© RBINS/MUMM_J. Haelters

Autopsy reveals cause(s) of death

The carcass was immediately transferred to the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at UGent, where a team from UGent and the ULiège performed an autopsy on 12 December. This post-mortem examination confirmed the poor condition of the unfortunate minke whale: no remains of a recent meal were found in the stomach, the digestive system was full of parasites and the spine showed abnormalities. The open fracture in the lower right jaw turned out to be less old than first suspected, and the lower left jaw also turned out to be broken. Eventually, the emaciation was not related to the fractures: the animal must have contracted them only very recently, and they were the result of a collision with an obstacle such as a vessel or a breakwater, or with the seabed.

© RBINS/MUMM_J. Haelters

Minke whales in Belgium

Although the minke whale is part of the North Sea fauna, its range is mainly limited to the northern and central parts of the North Sea. In recent years, however, they were more commonly observed in the south, probably due to changes in the marine ecosystem. “In Belgian waters, only seven proven cases are known to us from the last 20 years, three of which concerned carcasses while the other four referred to observations of live specimens.” explains Jan Haelters, expert on marine mammals at the RBINS. “The carcasses date from 2004 (found dead at sea and landed; died by bycatch), 2013 (stranded; died by swallowing a large amount of plastic) and 2017 (carcass in a far state of decomposition at sea). The live minke whales were observed in 2013, 2017, 2019 and 2020.” It is not known with certainty whether a number of reports from October 2020 actually concerned minke whales.

© RBINS/MUMM_J. Haelters

The skeleton of the Bredene minke whale will be preserved for science.

Wind farms as suppliers of energy and mussels

The cultivation of mussels in Belgian offshore wind farms is both biologically and technically feasible, according to research carried out by our scientists and their partners within the Edulis project. The economic feasibility depends on solving technical challenges.

After two years of experimentation and research, scientists and private companies present the results of the research project ‘Edulis: offshore mussel culture in wind farms‘, which looked at the possibilities for mussel farming in offshore wind farms 30 to 50 km off the Belgian coast. Edulis is a collaboration between Ghent University, the Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (ILVO), RBINS/OD Nature and 5 private partners (Belwind, Brevisco, C-Power, Colruyt Group and DEME Group). The ambitious pilot project is largely financed by private funding and facilitated by Flemish and European funding.

Quality Mussels

The project has demonstrated that it is both biologically and technically possible to cultivate mussels in the Belgian offshore wind farms, which means that these can serve more than one purpose at a time. The experiments resulted in a tasty quality mussel that is well stocked and meets all food safety requirements. The yield is equivalent to that of hanging mussels from the Netherlands and Ireland, and the mussels grow faster than mussels from bottom cultivation (mussels ready for market in 15 months instead of 24 months).

Technical Challenges

The big challenge is designing installations that can withstand the sometimes extreme North Sea environment. Investing in robust, easy to maintain and safe systems, including vessels, is a must, according to the researchers, although this will push up overall production costs. In addition, it turned out that the sizing and organisation of the wind farms is not optimal for food production, which is logical as they were not designed for that purpose. The distance from the coast also poses a challenge to technical, practical and economic feasibility. When designing future wind farms, this should be taken into account in order to be able to combine both activities.

Economic Feasibility

“Edulis has given us a clear picture of the costs and benefits of mussel farming in the North Sea” says Margriet Drouillon, Senior Business Developer Aquaculture and Blue Life Sciences at Ghent University. “If we really want mussel farming on a commercial scale, we will have to put a lot of effort into developing knowledge about the economic feasibility of mussel farming in the wind farms. We will also explore other paths for multiple use of space at sea, with due attention to sustainable production”.

Three Additional Challenges for Aquaculture in the North Sea

Ghent University and the Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (ILVO) launched the ‘North Sea Aquaculture’ project in 2017, with Edulis and Value@Sea as subsidiary projects. They joined forces with their partners RBINS/OD Nature, Belwind, Brevisco, C-Power, Colruyt Group, DEME Group, Lobster Fish, and Sioen Industries. North Sea Aquaculture tackled three challenges:

  • Innovative shellfish and seaweed farming techniques;
  • Efficient use of space in the Belgian North Sea;
  • The development of a market for new regional marine products.


More info on Edulis:
Margriet Drouillon, UGent, 0484 13 95 39,

Public consultation ‘Marina Nieuwpoort’

Jachthaven Nieuwpoort

Consortium Baggerwerken Decloedt en Zoon – DC Industrial has submitted an application for an environmental permit for the removal of material, dredged and released during the construction of a dock for the new marina of Nieuwpoort, in the Belgian part of the North Sea. This application is subject to an environmental impact assessment procedure.

Jachthaven Nieuwpoort

The application, the environmental impact statement and a concept of the appropriate assessment can be consulted from 2 December to 31 December 2020 at the offices of MUMM at Brussels (Vautierstraat 29, 1000 Brussels;; tel 02/627 43 52) or at Ostend (3de en 23ste Linieregimentsplein, 8400 Ostend;; tel. 059/24 20 55), by appointment only and during office hours between 9:00 am and 5:00 pm. The application can also be consulted at every coastal community, during office hours. The list of locations and contact persons of coastal communities can be found here. The consultation in the offices depends on the prevailing measures imposed by the government with regard to Covid-19.

The application is also available electronically:

Any interested party may submit its views, comments and objections to Ms Brigitte Lauwaert by letter or email until 15 January 2021 :

MUMM Attn. Ms. Brigitte Lauwaert
Vautierstraat 29
1000 Brussels

New monitoring programme for Belgian marine waters

Following the assessment of the ecological state of Belgian marine waters in 2018, monitoring has now been adapted for the second six-year cycle of the European Marine Strategy Framework Directive. The extension of the monitoring with a number of new partners and parameters will lead to a more complete understanding of the state of the Belgian marine area, and will help underpin a policy aimed at achieving and maintaining good environmental status.


The European Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) establishes a framework within which Member States document the state of their marine waters and take the necessary measures to achieve or maintain good environmental status. In this way, marine ecosystems throughout Europe are to be protected and, where necessary, restored.

DG Environment coordinates the implementation of the MSFD for Belgium. The Scientific Service Management Unit of the Mathematical Model of the North Sea MUMM (part of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences) is responsible for the coordination of the monitoring and the assessment of the state, and cooperates with 7 other institutes (ILVO, INBO, FASFC, AFCN-FANC, VLIZ, Continental Shelf Service- FPS Economy and Ghent University; see partners).

A total of 29 monitoring programmes describe measurements in the various compartments of the marine environment using a wide range of techniques (from sampling by divers, analyses in the laboratory to aerial censuses and satellite observations). They contribute to the 11 themes (the so-called “descriptive elements”) defined in the MSFD. Eutrophication, fisheries, chemical pollution, waste and biodiversity of species groups and habitats are only some of the aspects addressed.

The newly included programmes include observations of plankton by VLIZ, seabed waste by ILVO, macrobenthos (organisms living on the seabed and visible to the naked eye) in the wind farms by Ghent University and radionuclides by AFCN-FANC.

Together, the measurements will make it possible to evaluate the state of the marine environment in Belgium and, where necessary, to define action points for a favourable future evolution.

For more details, consult the monitoring programmes (NLFR) and/or the 2018 assessment (NLFR).

Leatherback turtle caught and released

On the 28th of October, the crew of the fishing vessel O190 Renilde experienced a shocking moment. Around 19:30 they encountered nothing less than a Leatherback turtle in their nets along the coast of Middelkerke/Ostend! The crew reacted quickly and was able to let the living animal return to the sea (see video © Kevin Van Thomme/crew O190).

Seventh Record

The Leatherback turtle typically inhabits open and warm seas, where they mainly feed on jellyfish. They don’t easily show up In coastal areas (unless to lay eggs, but that is excluded on our beaches). Jan Haelters of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences provides interpretation: “Leatherback turtles are very rare in the Belgian part of the North Sea: until now, only three strandings (1988, 1998 and 2000) and three sightings (2018 and 2 in 2019) were recorded. Although the list only counts seven specimens, an increase is noticeable in recent years.”

© Kevin Van Thomme/bemanning O190

Also in the Netherlands

Remarkably, some Leatherback turtles were also seen in the Netherlands recently: one roamed the Eastern Scheldt from 22 to 24 September, while one swam along the North Sea coast of Scheveningen on 7 and 11 October. Comparison of the shape and size of the scars on the heads of the two animals, and of the ‘ribs’ on their back shields, shows that in Belgium and the Eastern Scheldt different individuals were involved. The Eastern Scheldt animal was washed ashore dead on 3 November near the Danish Ballum (article tvs).

Comparison of the Leatherback turtle heads from Belgium (right, © Kevin Van Thomme) and the Eastern Scheldt (left, © Wageningen Marine Research)

A Reservoir Model for the Continental Shelf, it’s been done in Belgium

Spatial planning is a discipline mostly associated with onshore built-up areas, but if there is one region in the North Sea that requires a rigorous mapping of activities it is the Belgian offshore area. Nature conservation, shipping, fishing, sand extraction, energy production, cables and pipelines, military exercises, … are all competing for space in this little patch of sea.

Different stakeholders active on the Belgian Continental Shelf. The maps are based on information from (2014-2020) and the location of the sand banks has been sourced from the TILES Report. Please note that one stakeholder has not been mapped here; the fishing industry, because of its presence throughout the entire Belgian offshore. (animation by Henk Kombrink, Editor Expronews)

The Norwegian Expronews linked the Belgian marine spatial planning nicely with some of the RBINS work in relation to the assessment of reserves of certain abiotic resources and their potential for exploitation in a summarizing article.

Special attention is attributed to

  • the state-of-the-art 3D resource model that describes the distribution and availability of all non-hydrocarbon geological resources in the Belgian and adjacent Dutch marine waters, and can also serve as a resource decision support system and to underpin long-term adaptive management strategies (TILES, Van Lacker et al. 2019, Hademenos et al. 2019)
Output example of the TILES model.
Geological map of the Brabant Massif onshore, extrapolated to offshore.

First Belgian Flat Oyster Day, 24 November 2020

On Tuesday 24 November 2020, the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS), Ghent University and the Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (ILVO) jointly organise the first Belgian Flat Oyster Day.

The European flat oyster (Ostrea edulis) is an iconic species that was once abundant throughout European seas. It formed extensive reefs harbouring diverse communities of marine organisms and was the target of a considerable fishery. Already by the end of the 19th century, flat oyster populations in Europe have been drastically reduced due to overfishing, and disease outbreaks in the 20th century gave the species a final blow. In Belgian waters, the species is now regarded as functionally extinct.

Recently, there has been an increasing interest to restore flat oyster populations in Europe, both from conservation and aquaculture points of view. In Belgium also, some initiatives on restoration and aquaculture of this important species are being started.

The Belgian Flat Oyster Day wants to address this increased attention and aims to bring together all relevant actors and interested parties in the Belgian flat oyster scene. By means of two keynote presentations, setting the scene of flat oyster restoration and aquaculture in Europe, and additional presentations on biosecurity and visions for flat oyster restoration and aquaculture in Belgium, the event starts with a broad perspective. Thereafter, a clear overview is presented of the ongoing initiatives concerning the flat oyster in Belgium, with regards to both restoration and aquaculture. The event will be concluded with an example of the Dutch Flat Oyster Consortium and a reflection on how the flat oyster scene can proceed in Belgium. You are kindly invited to have a closer look at the tentative programme, and register through the link below.



Due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, the first Belgian Flat Oyster Day will be an online-only event (WebEx) on the morning of Tuesday 24 November 2020. The event will be conducted in English. Registration will be closed on Thursday 19 November at 17h.

We are looking forward to welcome you!


Belgian Flat Oyster Day organising committee

Annelies Declercq (Ghent University), Steven Degraer (RBINS), Daan Delbare (ILVO), Thomas Kerkhove (RBINS), Brigitte Lauwaert (RBINS) and Nancy Nevejan (Ghent University)

Number of dead porpoises on North Sea coasts on the rise

A new study published in the leading scientific journal Biological Conservation reveals a striking increase in the number of stranded porpoises along the North Sea coast. Scientists from the various North Sea countries compiled their data for this purpose. This also provided insights into the distribution and mortality of the different age groups, but does not yet allow definitive statements to be made about the effects of different human activities.

Stranded harbour porpoise @Multimedia, Faculteit Diergeneeskunde, Universiteit Utrecht

An international study led by Utrecht University, in which RBINS participated, revealed that more than sixteen thousand dead porpoises have been registered on the North Sea coast since 1990. More than 1500 of these were washed ashore in Belgium. In the Netherlands, with its much longer coastline, the highest numbers washed ashore. The researchers discovered that since 2005 porpoise strandings have become remarkably more frequent in the southern North Sea, while the number of strandings in the more northerly parts of the North Sea hardly changed.

Valuable information through strandings

It is not easy to study porpoises at sea. Researcher and marine ecologist Mariel ten Doeschate, connected to the Scottish stranding network, says: “Research is being done into the numbers and distribution of live animals, but this can only be done in limited periods of time. Strandings, on the other hand, are recorded throughout the year, and have been for decades. We can also determine the sex and age of stranded animals”.

Although the increase in the number of strandings coincides with an increase in the number of sightings of live animals in this region, it cannot simply be concluded that the continuing sharp increase in the number of strandings is only due to the presence of a larger number of animals (where the mortality rate could have remained the same). Indeed, the number of animals at sea is much more difficult to determine accurately than the number of strandings, which means that the two sets of data are not directly comparable and that the strandings are therefore supposed to better reflect what is happening in the population.

Impact of human activity

There is uncertainty about the possible effects of human activities on the numbers and distribution of porpoises. A potentially important factor is a changing climate, with changes in the food situation. Research programmes are also being carried out into the impact of the construction of offshore wind farms. It is important that data collected in countries around the North Sea is pooled: this has never happened before. Researcher Lonneke IJsseldijk (Utrecht University): “Our study has provided new and valuable insights and is a first step in improving our knowledge about the distribution of different age groups, seasonal and age-specific mortality among porpoises in the North Sea. Among other things, the study showed that more newborn animals stranded on German and Danish coasts, while in the Netherlands, Belgium and southern England it was mostly young males.

Research following this study will analyse additional information, including on health and disease.


This research is a collaboration between the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of Utrecht University, the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme, the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme, the Department of Bioscience of Aarhus University, the Institute for Terrestrial and Aquatic Wildlife Research of the University of Veterinary Medicine Hannover, the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, Naturalis Biodiversity Center, the Cetacean Atlas of Denmark, the Globe Institute, the Natural History Museum of Denmark en the Fisheries and Maritime Museum Denmark.