Marine mammals in Belgium in 2021

In the new report ‘Strandings and sightings of marine mammals in Belgium in 2021’, the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, SeaLife Blankenberge and the University of Liège compile the results of monitoring and scientific research on marine mammals in Belgium in 2021. The doubling of the number of seals washed ashore dead, often perished in fishing nets, was the most remarkable finding.

Which dead or dying marine mammals washed up on our beaches? Which causes of death could be indicated? What are the trends of marine mammals in Belgium? How many seals has Sealife taken in? These are the questions to which one can find the answers in the latest marine mammal report, which focuses on the results from 2021.

Some of the seals with typical circular neck/head trauma (left: Ostend, 6 April; middle: Oostduinkerke, 20 March; right: Lombardsijde, 12 April). © NorthSealTeam – Fire Brigade

Many dead seals

In 2021, only harbour porpoises and seals stranded in Belgium. A dull year for marine mammal researchers after a spectacular 2020, when two Sowerby’s beaked whales and a Minke whale washed ashore? Certainly not. Indeed, the number of dead seals doubled to more than 100, compared to an almost constant number in the 2018-2020 period (44 on average). Determining the cause of death proved to be a real challenge. As many of the dead seals appeared to be ‘decapitated’, much commotion and speculation arose. In the end it turned out that many of the animals concerned had died in fishing nets. The proportion of Grey seals, which have claimed their place in the southern North Sea only more recently than the Harbour seals, has fluctuated between half and about 70% during the last 10 years.

The number of seals stranded dead or dying (blue bars) has been increasing since the beginning of the time series in 2005, and is related to the increase in the population of Harbour seals and Grey seals in neighbouring countries. However, this cannot explain the doubling in 2021. The percentage of grey seals (orange line) has been fluctuating within the same range of 50-70% in recent years. ©RBINS

Harbour porpoises

With 74 stranded Harbour porpoises, 2021 was a rather moderate year. In 10 of the years since 2005 there were more (in four years even more than 100), in the six other years less. The cause of death could be determined for 30 porpoises: 15 fell prey to Grey seals (which is a remarkable number), 12 died of infectious diseases or starvation and ‘only’ 3 drowned in fishing nets.

The time series of registered strandings of Harbour porpoises (blue bars) shows 2021 as a moderate year compared to the years since 2005. Usually slightly more than half of the dead porpoises were males (orange line), but the proportion has increased on average in recent years. ©RBINS

Four live Harbour porpoises also stranded, all of which unfortunately died soon after stranding. Aerial surveys showed almost 3,000 Harbour porpoises in our waters during June and September.

A live stranded harbour porpoise on the beach of Mariakerke (30 August 2021). ©RBINS/Jan Haelters

Rehabilitation of seals

Sealife Blankenberge took in eight Grey and 10 Common seals in 2021. Bite wounds (of unknown origin), injuries caused by the nylon rope of a fishing net, and other waste at sea (rubber ring), were at the basis of the need for rehabilitation. Six Grey seals and seven Harbour seals could be released in 2021. In contrast to the past, young Grey seals are now more often left lying on the beach: they become more numerous and they do not need our help most of the time.

The release of Grey seals Lucas and Duvel on the beach of Blankenberge (28 April 2021). Duvel (right) had a severe injury around the neck when he was taken in three weeks earlier, caused by the nylon rope of a fishing net. The traces of this injury are still visible. ©Luc David

Additional contributions

The annual report also devotes attention to the death of Grey seal Oscar. This very old seal spent his last years on our coast and in 2021 became the mascot of the voluntary seal guard and received a lot of press attention. The solitary Bottlenose dolphin, which has been turning up regularly in our waters for many years and often seeks out the company of divers, also makes an appearance in the report.

2021 marked the 75th anniversary of the International Whaling Commission. Whether there is a reason to bring out the champagne, you can read in an opinion piece.

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

For information on recent sightings of marine mammals in Belgium and instructions on what to do when stranded, please visit the website The full report for 2021 (available in Dutch and French), as well as the older annual reports, can be consulted here.

Symposium ‘Carbon Cycling in Coastal Environments’, 31 August 2022, Brussels

Coastal environments are under strong pressure from human activity but could also help us battle climate change. A promising method to remove CO2 from the atmosphere is to distribute silicate minerals in coastal areas since the chemical reaction that occurs when silicate minerals weather allows the ocean to take up more CO2. The new project DEHEAT will investigate the feasibility of using silicate weathering in coastal areas to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. This will be done by field studies of sites where silicate weathering rates are naturally high, and by modelling.

To kick off the project, the DEHEAT consortium organises a one-day symposium about carbon cycling in coastal environments on the 31st of August 2022. Covering a broad range of topics, the symposium will be a platform for networking and discussions about questions at the forefront of science. The symposium will be held in the Grand Auditoire at the Museum of Natural Sciences (Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences), Rue Vautier 29, 1000 Brussels. Attendance is free, but registration here before the 1st of August is required.

DEHEAT is a Belspo-funded project under the RV Belgica call, runs from 2022 to 2026 and is coordinated by the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences with partners at Universiteit Antwerpen and Université Libre de Bruxelles.


9.00 – 10.00 Registration and coffee
10.00 – 10.45 Sophie Opfergelt, UCLouvain, Belgium.
Influence of permafrost thaw on weathering and organic carbon fluxes
10.45 – 11.30
 Christophe Rabouille, LSCE, France.
RiOMars: a hotspot of carbon cycling at the river-sea interface

11.30 – 11.45
11.45 – 12.30
 Rebecca James, ULB, Belgium/SDU, Denmark
Promoters or temporary reservoirs: the carbon sequestration role of coastal vegetated ecosystems

12.30 – 14.00
 Break (coffee 13.30 – 14.00)
14.00 – 14.45
 Christian März, Uni Bonn, Germany.
ChAOS in the Barents Sea: Links between carbon, nutrients and metals

14.45 – 15.30
 Ulrike Braeckman, UGent, Belgium.
Title tba.
15.30 – 15.45
15.45 – 16.30
 Goulven Laruelle, ULB, Belgium.
Quantifying the CO2 exchange between the atmosphere and the global coastal ocean
16.30 – 18.00
Network reception

Experts predict top emerging impacts on ocean biodiversity over next decade

Co-location of marine activities, lithium extraction from the deep sea, overfishing of deeper-water species, and the unexpected ocean impacts of wildfires and of new biodegradable materials are among fifteen issues experts warn we ought to be addressing now.

An international team of experts has produced a list of 15 issues that are not currently receiving widespread attention but are likely to have a significant impact on marine and coastal biodiversity over the next decade (see below for full list).

The horizon scan involved 30 experts in marine and coastal systems from 11 countries in the global north and south, from a variety of backgrounds including scientists and policy-makers. The study was led by Dr James Herbert-Read and Dr Ann Thornton in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, and included Prof Dr Steven Degraer of the Marine Ecology and Management (MARECO) team of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS). The resulting paper ‘A global horizon scan of issues impacting marine and coastal biodiversity conservation’ was published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution on 7 July 2022.

This horizon scanning process has previously been used to identify issues that have later come to prominence. For example, a scan in 2009 gave an early warning that microplastics could become a major problem in marine environments, which is indeed the case now.

Tropical marine ecosystem (© Emma Johnston)

Seemingly Unexpected Issues

While there are many well-known issues impacting ocean biodiversity, including climate change, ocean acidification and pollution, this study focuses on lesser-known emerging issues that could soon have significant impacts on marine and coastal ecosystems. These issues include the effects of new biodegradable materials on the marine environment, the impacts of wildfires on coastal ecosystems, and an ‘empty’ zone at the equator as species move away from this warming region of the ocean.

“Marine and coastal ecosystems face a wide range of emerging issues that are poorly recognised or understood, each having the potential to impact biodiversity,” said Dr James Herbert-Read. He added: “By highlighting future issues, we’re pointing to where changes must be made today – both in monitoring and policy – to protect our marine and coastal environments”.

For example, the report highlights the potential impact of new biodegradable materials on the ocean. Although such materials are promoted as a solution to the waste problem, some of these materials are more toxic to marine species than traditional plastics. Herbert-Read said: “Governments are making a push for the use of biodegradable materials, but in many cases we don’t know what impacts these materials may have on ocean life”.

At first glance, the potential impact of wildfires on coastal and marine environments may also seem unexpected, but in addition to habitat destruction, wildfires can cause water pollution from ash and other debris, sediment and nutrient slugs that move many kilometres downstream and impact aquatic life along the way, and the emergence of harmful algal blooms.

Apart from fish moving away from the equator, the authors also warn that the nutritional content of fish is declining as a consequence of climate change. Essential fatty acids tend to be produced by cold-water fish species, so as climate change raises ocean temperatures, the production of these nutritious molecules is reduced. Such changes may have impacts on both marine life and human health.

Bushfires in Australia with ash cloud (south-east) over the ocean, 2020 (© Japan Meteorological Agency_ Himawari 8; CC BY 4.0)

Exploitation Issues

Several of the issues identified are linked to exploitation of ocean resources. For example, deep sea ‘brine pools’ are unique marine environments home to a diversity of life and have high concentrations of salts containing lithium. The authors warn that rising demand for lithium for electric vehicle batteries may put these environments at risk. They call for rules to ensure biodiversity is assessed before deep sea brine pools are exploited.

While overfishing is an immediate problem, the horizon scan looked beyond this to what might happen next. The authors think there may soon be a move to fishing in the deeper waters of the mesopelagic zone (a depth of 200m – 1000m), where fish are not fit for human consumption but can be sold as food to fish farms. “There are areas where we believe immediate changes could prevent huge problems arising over the next decade, such as overfishing in the ocean’s mesopelagic zone,” said Dr Ann Thornton. She added: “Curbing this would not only stop overexploitation of these fish stocks but reduce the disruption of carbon cycling in the ocean because these species are an ocean pump that removes carbon from our atmosphere”.

Deep-sea trawling in South Africa, 2015 (© Kelle Moreau)

Far Away Issues?

Although some of the problems listed may seem far away, the study is also relevant in the Belgian part of the North Sea. Steven Degraer of RBINS clarifies: “Issues like how to properly manage the co-location of human activities at sea or the possible alteration of the nutritional content of fish due to climate change are of direct relevance also to well-studied areas like the southern North Sea”.

Because our waters are positioned on a busy shipping route, near a number of large ports, and count many different users (shipping, fisheries, renewable energy, sand extraction, dredging, tourism, …), it remains a continuous challenge to reconcile all activities on a limited surface so that the cumulative effects remain acceptable and mitigable. And, of course, the effects of climate change are not exclusive to tropical regions.

Tropical marine ecosystem (© Emma Johnston)

Driving Policy Change and Practices

Not all of the predicted impacts are negative. The authors think the development of new technologies, such as soft robotics and better underwater tracking systems, will enable scientists to learn more about marine species and their distribution. This, in turn, will guide the development of more effective marine protected areas. But they also warn that the impacts of these technologies on biodiversity must be assessed before they are deployed at scale.

“Our early identification of these issues, and their potential impacts on marine and coastal biodiversity, will support scientists, conservationists, resource managers, policy-makers and the wider community in addressing the challenges facing marine ecosystems,” said Herbert-Read.

The main aim of the study is therefore to raise awareness and encourage investment into full assessment of the predicted issues now, and potentially drive policy change, before the issues have a major impact on biodiversity.

By providing an early warning for the listed issues, the authors work in synergy with other ongoing processes. The United Nations has designated 2021-2030 as the ‘UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.’ In addition, the fifteenth Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity will conclude negotiations on a global biodiversity framework in late 2022. The aim is to slow and reverse the loss of biodiversity and establish goals for positive outcomes by 2050.

This research was funded by Oceankind.


The full list of issues identified by the report

Ecosystem impacts

  1. Wildfire impacts on coastal and marine ecosystems
  2. Coastal darkening
  3. Increased toxicity of metal pollution due to ocean acidification
  4. Equatorial marine communities becoming depauperate (lacking variety) due to climate migration
  5. Altered nutritional content of fish due to climate change

Resource exploitation

  1. Untapped potential of marine collagens and their impacts on marine ecosystems
  2. Impacts of expanding trade for fish swim bladders on target and non-target species
  3. Impacts of fishing for mesopelagic (middle-depth) species on the biological ocean pump
  4. Extraction of lithium from deep-sea brine pools

Novel technologies

  1. Co-location of marine activities
  2. Floating marine cities
  3. Trace element contamination compounded by the global transition to green technologies
  4. New underwater tracking systems to study non-surfacing marine animals
  5. Soft robotics for marine research
  6. Effects of new biodegradable materials in the marine environment

EOS Special North Sea

RBINS contributed to the ‘Special Noordzee‘ of the popular science monthly ‘EOS Wetenschap’ (only available in Dutch). Together with the Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ) and the Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (ILVO), we were part of the editorial board, and several RBINS scientists are featured in various articles. The result is available since 23 June 2022.

No less than 130 pages, about the RV Belgica, CSI marine mammals, non-indigenous shellfish, … and much more !

Hurry to the nearest point of sale! Hard copies can be ordered here.

RV Belgica baptised by HRH Princess Elisabeth in Ghent

On Saturday 25 June 2022, the new Belgian oceanographic research vessel RV Belgica was baptised. The official ceremony took place at the Rigakaai (North Sea Port) in the godfather city of Ghent, where the RV Belgica was moored for a few days for this occasion. None other than HRH Princess Elisabeth honoured the ship by accepting to act as godmother. After pronouncing the baptismal formula « I baptise you BELGICA and wish you and your crew a safe journey. » she successfully broke a bottle of champagne on the hull.

©RBINS/Thierry Hubin
©RBINS/Thierry Hubin

The baptism of a ship is a remnant of an ancient tradition. In ancient times, the aim was to obtain the grace of the gods by offering a sacrifice, in which the blood of a sacrificed person was used. Later, wine replaced the sacrificial blood. Among seafarers, the saying spread: ” A ship that has not tasted wine will taste blood “. The idea is that a ship that has not been baptised will encounter difficulties: storms, damage or accidents … Later still, wine was replaced by champagne, the very symbol of celebration, success and happiness! Today, of course, this is regarded as superstition, but a baptism ceremony is still the occasion to bring together all those involved in the building, exploitation and operation of a ship, to officially welcome it and to wish it a successful future. The RV Belgica, which arrived in Belgium on 13 December 2021 and started her scientific activities on 27 January 2022, can now set sail without fear of disaster (wink wink).

©RBINS/Thierry Hubin

Prominent Attendees

The baptism ceremony of the RV Belgica was attended by Mr. Vincent Van Quickenborne, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice and the North Sea, Mr. Thomas Dermine, State Secretary for Relance, Strategic Investments and Science Policy, Admiral Michel Hofman, Rear Admiral of the King and Chief of Defence, Mrs. Carina Van Cauter, Governor of the Province of East-Flanders, Mr. Mathias De Clercq, Mayor of the city of Ghent, Mr. Arnaud Vajda, Chairman of the Belgian Science Policy Office, Divisional Admiral Jan De Beurme, Wing Adjutant of the King, Commander of the Navy and Deputy Admiral BENELUX, Mrs. Patricia Supply, General Director of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences and Mr. Frank Monteny, General Director Research and Space of the Belgian Science Policy Office.

Numerous representatives from the scientific world, the various components of Defence, the local, provincial, regional and federal authorities, and the business community descended on the Rigakaai for the occasion. Mr Marcos Freire, General Director of Freire Shipyard, the Spanish shipyard that built the RV Belgica, Mrs Beatriz Larrotcha Palma, Ambassador of Spain to the Kingdom of Belgium, and Mr Eric Derriën, General Director of the operator Genavir, also attended the baptism ceremony.

Secretary of State Dermine: “The fact that Princess Elisabeth accepted to act as godmother of the RV Belgica is a great honour and a powerful signal that underlines our shared belief in an ambitious future for Belgian science policy. With no less than four times as much laboratory space as the previous Belgica, this 71-meter-long flagship will be able to make a strong contribution to marine research in Belgium and Europe. Ghent is a logical choice as a godfather: in the Artevelde city, the thirst for knowledge and the relationship with water determine the history, the identity and the future of the city.”

©RBINS/Thierry Hubin

Lots of Protocol

After the presentation of the invitees and a word of welcome by Secretary of State Dermine, who presided over the ceremony, the actual baptism was the first ceremonial element of the event, which lasted just under an hour in total. However, those present were then presented with a great deal of additional protocol.

The following attributes were donated to the RV Belgica: the Geus (a square flag with the national tricolour which is waved by way of salute) was presented by Secretary of State Dermine, the flag of auxiliary ship of the Navy by Division Admiral De Beurme, and the ship’s bell (a bronze bell in which the ship’s name is engraved) by Mayor De Clercq.

This was followed, with the consent of HRH Princess Elisabeth, by the recognition of the Commander of the RV Belgica, Corvette Captain Gaëtan Motmans, by Division Admiral De Beurme. He then addressed Mrs Supply for the secondment of the Commander, the Second Officer and the Chief Mate to the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences.

The certificates about the sponsorship of the RV Belgica were exchanged by Commander Motmans and Mayor De Clercq, whereupon the Mayor addressed the public.

Finally, the Commander and crew of the RV Belgica embarked, and Secretary of State Dermine invited HRH Princess Elisabeth for a visit on board, where she signed the golden book and received some technical and scientific demonstrations.

©RBINS/Thierry Hubin
©Defence/Michel Cauffmann
©Defence/Michel Cauffmann

Additional Activities

Adding to the stay of the RV Belgica in Ghent, some activities accessible to the public were organised. On Friday 24 June, the scientific symposium ‘RV Belgica – A ship for the future’ took place in the Aula of Ghent University, and on Saturday 25 June (morning) and Sunday 26 June (entire day), the public was given the opportunity to visit the ship. A science fair was also held on board, where various scientific users presented and demonstrated their activities. The fact that seats had to be reserved for a visit to the RV Belgica and the science fair was not a superfluous measure: the RV Belgica was continuously filled to capacity.

On the Rigakaai there was also a technology fair where visitors could discover the activities of DEME/NH Marine, Expo Marine, Hulpbetoon van de Marine/Entraide de la Marine, IC Defence, ABC Engines, North Sea Drones, Statamat and Thales. There were also several food trucks and opportunities for a drink, while young and less young children could enjoy themselves on a bouncy castle, climbing wall and death ride.


The baptism ceremony of the RV Belgica and the welcome activities were jointly organised by the Belgian Science Policy Office (BELSPO), the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS), the Belgian Navy, the Cabinet of the Secretary of State in charge of Science Policy, the Military Household of the King, the operator Genavir, 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.

The Belgian Science Policy Office (BELSPO) represents the Belgian State as the owner of the RV Belgica, the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) manages the calendar, budget and scientific instrumentation, the Belgian Navy provides the bridge personnel and the home port of Zeebruges, and the operator Genavir is responsible for the integrated management and operation of the ship.

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 !



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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