25 June 2023, 17h00 – It would be untrue to claim that preparations for an expedition at sea begin on the day participants embark. In reality, the preparations have been going on for a very long time, from thinking out the concept, writing the project proposal, preparing and submitting the application to use the chosen ship, to the concrete practical preparation of the expedition.
That last step is a titanic task, especially for an expedition with a large international character like the DEHEAT expedition. After all, materials had to be sent from various European locations to Zeebrugge and Reykjavik, everything had to be given a logical place on board, and a whole range of sampling equipment and laboratories also had to be prepared and set up so that they could be fired up into action immediately after the start of the actual expedition. In fact, a number of scientists already came on board in Galway for this purpose, to make the necessary preparations during transit from Ireland to Iceland.
But today the big day has finally arrived: all the scientists who will take part in the DEHEAT Iceland expedition are now casting their first glance at the RV Belgica, discovering the ship on which they will spend 17 nights and spend the intervening days giving their best.
There are 22 of them, coming from universities and institutes from Belgium, the UK, Germany, Denmark and Sweden, but representing many more different nationalities. Some have worked together before during previous collaborations, but there are also many new faces.
No superfluous luxury to compile a photo overview with names, which immediately also makes it clear to the RV Belgica’s regular crew who is who. The overview is hung in the mess, just about the only place on board where everyone passes a few times every day. That way, everyone should see it regularly and be able to quickly connect names to the many faces!
Setting sail is not scheduled until tomorrow morning, but the first evening on board is immediately filled with great meaning. First of all, there is the necessary safety briefing by chiefmate Sam, during which everyone is informed on the various safety procedures and the expected conduct on board. We also all had to squeeze ourselves into a rescue suit, which at times produced hilarious scenes.
Next: the scientific order of the day. Chief scientist Sebastiaan summarises the set-up of the DEHEAT project, focusing of course on the crucial role of the RV Belgica expedition. Also the course and activities of the first sampling day are reviewed in detail.
Not only the deck, but also the RV Belgica’s labs will be fully staffed during this expedition. Proper organisation is indispensable to ensure everyone can work efficiently. Laboratory manager Astrid therefore takes the floor to explain the procedures and make proper arrangements.
Enough for the first evening now! Let’s all take advantage of the last night which we can be sure is set in a stable environment.
A new European Marine Board (EMB) report outlines the main gaps in our knowledge that could prevent the offshore renewable energy sector from developing in a sustainable, equitable and responsible manner.
The new EMB Future Science Brief No. 9 ‘European offshore renewable energy: Towards a sustainable future’ has been launched on April 4th, 2023. The need to decrease carbon emissions urgently and dramatically is high on scientific, political, and societal agendas. Extraction of energy from offshore renewable energy sources is seen as a key measure to achieving this decrease in carbon emission.
To achieve the EU Green Deal vision, the installed offshore renewable energy generating capability in European must increase 30-fold compared to current installed capacity. However, in the rush to develop and install new offshore renewable energy devices across the European sea basins, their potential environmental and societal impacts cannot be ignored. The EMB Future Science Brief highlights which steps need to be taken to ensure that the expansion of this sector is managed sustainably, responsibly and equitably.
The document presents the technical, environmental, and socioeconomic state of the art of the offshore renewable sector, with a focus on European development. It presents the key knowledge, research, and capacity gaps that must be addressed to ensure sustainable delivery of the EU Green Deal and closes with key policy, research, capacity, and data recommendations to take the sector forward.
If you would like to receive hard copies of this publication, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org and confirm the number of copies and your postal address.
The European Marine Board (EMB) is a leading European think tank in marine science policy. EMB is a network with a membership comprising over 10,000 marine scientists from the major national marine/oceanographic institutes, research funding agencies and national networks of universities from countries across Europe. The Board provides a platform for its member organizations to develop common priorities, to advance marine research, and to bridge the gap between science and policy to meet future marine science challenges and opportunities. The Belgian Federal State is represented in the EMB by the Belgian Science Policy Office (BELSPO) and in the EMB Communications Panel by the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS).
The RBINS expertise on monitoring the environmental impact of offshore wind farms is frequently cited in the new EMB Future Science Brief ‘European offshore renewable energy: Towards a sustainable future’.
10:00 – 10:30 “Towards autonomous monitoring of fish diversity in the North Sea” – Prof. Sofie Derycke (ILVO Marine, Marine Genomics Unit, Flanders Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food & Dpt. Of Biology, Ghent University, Belgium)
10:30 – 11:10 Coffee break
11:10 – 11:40 “Invertebrate-derived DNA (iDNA) for biomonitoring and pathogen surveillance” – Dr. Jan Gogarten (Applied Zoology and Nature Conservation, University of Greifswald and the Helmholtz Institute for One Health, Germany)
11:40 – 12:10 “Monitoring terrestrial mammals via aquatic eDNA in savannah systems” – Dr. Tamara Schenekar (University of Graz, Austria)
12:10 – 14:00 Lunch break
14:00 – 14:30 “The power of eDNA-based methods for fish and amphibian communities in freshwater environments” – Prof. Rein Brys (Research Institute for Nature and Forest & Terrestrial Ecology Unit, University of Ghent, Belgium)
14:30 – 15:00 “Improving whole biodiversity monitoring with eDNA metagenomics” – Prof. Hugo Gante (Royal Museum for Central Africa & KULeuven, Belgium)
More than three quarters of all waste in the Belgian North Sea consists of macroplastics (larger particles of plastic waste), and this is a major source of pollution, especially in the coastal zone. Plastic fibers, mostly from dolly rope (plastic fibers attached to trawling nets), can be found everywhere, even at a distance from the coast. Smaller plastic particles or microplastics of >50 µm (one-twentieth of a mm) also appear to turn up much more frequently along the coastal strip and in ports than further out to sea. This has all been shown by a systematic monitoring study in the Belgian North Sea. Through the MarinePlastics research project, scientists now have the necessary input to set up a macro- and microplastics monitoring plan for the Belgian part of the North Sea, a European obligation.
In the fishing grounds where Belgian fishermen are active, the researchers have also examined commercial fish species and crustaceans for microplastics. There, the numbers are very low to absent. On the basis of this study, the researchers are already calling the fish and crustaceans from Belgian fisheries a safe food source as far as microplastic pollution is concerned.
The Flanders Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (ILVO) and the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS), within the research project MarinePlastics, have mapped out how much and what types of plastic occur in Belgian fishing grounds. This involved both larger pieces of waste (macroplastics larger than 5 mm) and small to minuscule plastic particles (microplastics smaller than 5 mm). This research was not optional, but rather an obligation from Europe, which has been demanding since 2012 that every member state collect figures on macroplastics on the seabed. As of 2020, data must also be collected on microplastics in the sediment and in the water. The MarinePlastics project also examined the extent to which microplastics are present in the commercial fish and crustaceans from our fishing areas (North Sea, English Channel, Celtic Sea, Irish Sea). The researchers made a distinction between the plastic particles in the fish stomach (which people do not consume) and the fish fillet (which we do eat).
Belgian Fish Safe to Eat
The results of this research are reassuring: it was found that microplastics >50 µm (this is one-twentieth of a mm; contamination with nanoplastics, i.e. even smaller particles, was not investigated in this project) do not accumulate in commercial fish and crustaceans sampled in fishing areas where Belgian fishermen are active. In almost all fish and crustacean samples (both edible and non-edible parts), the numbers of microplastics were so low that the concentration could not be precisely determined. In only 5 out of 42 fish fillets, 2-6 microplastic particles per 100 g of fish fillet were found, which is not alarming. Thus, the public may be informed that fish and crustaceans from Belgian fisheries are currently a safe food source in terms of microplastic contamination.
More Microplastics Close to Ports and the Coast
Still, concentrations of microplastics in the seabed and in seawater can sometimes be quite high, albeit variable. In this study, the concentration of microplastics in coastal sediments (near Zeebrugge) was about nine times higher than further out to sea. In seawater, the difference was even more spectacular: water from the port of Zeebrugge and near the coast contained 48 and 10 times more microplastics, respectively, compared to more seaward locations. Currently, there is no monitoring program that follows the evolution of this type of pollution in Belgium. In order to meet the European obligations, a national monitoring program for microplastics must therefore be set up. To this end, the researchers also recommend that the transport of microplastics in the marine environment, possible hotspots and the link with the spread of macro-waste be further investigated (or commissioned).
Karien De Cauwer, KBIN researcher: “This study gives us a good picture of the degree of microplastic pollution near the coast and further out to sea. Based on a good detection methodology, the evolution can be followed up according to European standards. This will allow to evaluate if measures and actions taken are effective. With more knowledge about locations where microplastics might accumulate, more targeted measurements can be taken.”
Plastic Fibers from the Fisheries
Large pieces of waste – macroplastics – make up 77 to 88% of all marine waste in terms of numbers. One item is apparently present everywhere: plastic fibers. The very light monofilaments of dolly rope – the mat of loose threads that are supposed to protect the belly of a trawling net from damage – is the main plastic item that is spread evenly across our part of the North Sea, even further offshore. Heavier plastics (such as crates, bottles and containers) are mainly found near the coast. Important detail: in the Dutch part of the North Sea, there is more pollution from plastic fibers than in the Belgian part. The researchers ask the policy and sector to make it a top priority to find and implement a good biodegradable alternative to plastic dolly rope. Obviously, this not only concerns the Belgian fishing industry, but initiatives should be taken at the scale of the entire North Sea or even Europe.
Route for Plastic Pollution?
While there may be a link between plastic pollution and fishing, there is no unequivocal causal relationship with fishing intensity. In other words, most litter is not necessarily found in places with most intensive fishing. Nor was a direct link found with sand mining or offshore wind farms. A hotspot of waste was identified at one dredging site, near the port of Zeebrugge. However, it remains unclear whether this is due to the dumping itself, or due to currents or other driving forces. A detailed study of marine litter hotspots is therefore needed, examining the impact of different sources and modeling the transport processes of litter.
Bavo De Witte, ILVO researcher: “In our turbulent North Sea, it is not surprising that sea currents can exert a strong influence on plastic pollution. Through modeling, it should be possible to learn even more about the origin of different waste types.”
The full reports can be downloaded via the following links:
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.
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).
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.
“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.
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.”
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).
On 15 August, striking orange spots and strings were observed in the Belgian part of the North Sea near the Buitenratel sandbank, that were reported to the Coast Guard as a possible pollution. After inspection by various services, it became clear that this was an unseen bloom of the single-celled plankton species ‘Sea Sparkle’. The warm and calm weather of the past few days is probably an important explanatory factor. The rotting mass could possibly lead to oxygen deficiency and fish mortality. It is also possible that the remains will be washed ashore on Belgian beaches during the next week.
In the morning of Saturday 15 August, the Belgian Coastguard Centre (MRCC – Maritime Rescue and Coordination Centre) received a report of a striking orange patch at sea, containing some dead birds. A sailor had noticed this at the ‘Buitenratel’ sandbank, one of the sandbanks in the ‘Vlaamse Banken’ complex. This sandbank is situated about 16 to 20 km from the shore of the Belgian West Coast, near the border with the French waters. The striking report raised eyebrows at the Coast Guard, because the reported colour did not match the typical colours of mineral oil, and because the dead birds may have hinted to a chemical product. However, an extensive natural algal bloom was also a possibility.
Control on Land, at Sea and in the Air
Following the report, the Shipping Police sent a patrol vessel to the Buitenratel. They found the reported patch and took some samples. Dead birds were no longer spotted. A rescue helicopter from the Coxyde air base also flew over the area, and the surveillance aircraft of the RBINS (MUMM, Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences) was called upon to scan the wider sea areas off the Belgian coast for any further pollution. Both aircraft made images of the orangeish, kilometre-long patches and streaks.
All the sailing and flying units involved came to the same conclusion: the patch probably indicated a large natural bloom, albeit on a very large scale. The sample taken by the Shipping Police was taken to the RBINS biological laboratories in Ostend where it could soon be confirmed that it was indeed a Noctiluca bloom.
The dinoflagellate Noctiluca scintillans or Sea Sparkle is a relatively large single-celled micro-algae (0.5 – 1 mm, so visible to the naked eye) that occurs in most seas of the world and belongs to the plankton. It looks like a gelatinous pellet with a tail (flagel), which catches food. In high concentrations – called blooms – Noctiluca forms highly visible orange-red spots that can occur in spring and summer. In case of turbulence, Sea Sparkle produces a bluish light that creates fairytale effects in the dark (‘lighting up’ of the sea). This bioluminescence is caused by luciferin, a pigment, and luciferase, an enzyme, when they come into contact with oxygen.
The high concentrations of Sea Sparkle that have now been observed are probably due to the very warm and calm weather of the past few days. The sampled Noctiluca was also already partly rotting, a process that consumes oxygen. Although it is essentially a harmless organism, mass extinction and rotting can locally lead to oxygen deficiency. At higher temperatures, less oxygen dissolves in water anyway, and the absence of strong winds and waves means that there was also little mixing that brought extra oxygen into the water. The resulting low oxygen tension due to the various phenomena can lead to the death of fish and other aquatic organisms, although under normal circumstances this is very unlikely in open sea conditions.
Modelling simulations by the RBINS, taking into account currents, meteorological conditions and the physical properties of the floating Noctiluca spots, illustrate that the remains of these spots could potentially wash ashore on Belgian beaches in the course of the next week.
In recent decades there has been a relative increase in the dinoflagellate community in the Belgian part of the North Sea. This increase could be related to the warming of the sea water (+ 1.6 ° C over the last thirty years). Noctiluca scintillans may also show an upward trend. In addition, blooms from other single-celled plankton organisms can also be expected, including some potentially dangerous species.
Marine science is rapidly entering the digital age. Expansions in the scope and scale of ocean observations, as well as automated sampling and ‘smart sensors’, are leading to a continuous flood of data. This leads marine science to enter the world of big data, where we are faced with large volumes of high variety data collected at high velocity. Big data offer the potential to transform the way we study and understand the ocean through more complex and transdisciplinary analyses and offers novel approaches for the management of human use of marine resources. However, more data do not necessarily mean we have the right data to answer many critical scientific questions and to make well-informed, data-driven management decisions. To increase the value of marine big data, it must be openly shared, interoperable, and available for complex analyses that can be based on artificial intelligence.
Future Science Brief on ‘Big Data in Marine Science’
The European Marine Board’s (EMB) 6th Future Science Brief on ‘Big Data in Marine Science’ presents recent advances, challenges and opportunities for big data to support marine science and covers topics including climate and marine biogeochemistry, habitat mapping for marine conservation, marine biological observations, and food provision from seas and the ocean. The document was launched on 28 April 2020 during a dedicated webinar, with over 400 participants, and is the outcome of the work of the EMB Working Group on Big Data, which kicked-off in May 2019. The Future Science Brief and infographic summaries are available on the EMB website and video recordings of the presentations are available on the EMB YouTube channel.
During the webinar Sheila Heymans, EMB Executive Director, presented an overview of the document and the key recommendations needed to fully bring marine science into the world of big data. These include open data sharing; data interoperability; availability of cloud computing infrastructures; continued development of ‘smart’ sensors to enhance data collection; specialized training programmes for marine scientists to adopt artificial intelligence in their work; and increased collaborations between marine scientists, computer scientists, data scientists and data managers.
The webinar included four TED-style talks from selected co-authors of the document. Jerry Tjiputra (NORCE Norwegian Research Centre) illustrated how big data can improve climate modelling and forecasting that feeds into global climate negotiations and helps to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement. Federica Foglini (Institute of Marine Science – Italian National Research Council) presented how big data can be used to create high resolution, multidisciplinary habitat maps for planning a new marine protected area in the Bari Canyon in Italy. Matthias Obst (University of Gothenburg) demonstrated how machines are drastically changing the way we observe biological processes in the ocean, and Ketil Malde (University of Bergen and Institute of Marine Research) presented on advances in machine learning and the data driven future of marine science.
EMB Forum on Big Data in Marine Science
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 7th Forum has been postponed to Friday 23 October 2020. The focus of the Forum will be Big Data in Marine Science, given its essential role during the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainability. You are invited to engage in the conversation and contribute ideas to feed into the Forum via the EMB LinkedIn page and Twitter (using #EMBForum). The registration for the 7th Forum will open soon on the EMB website.
For more information please contact: Dr. Britt Alexander, Science Officer, European Marine Board Email: email@example.com
The European Marine Board (EMB) is a leading European think tank in marine science policy. EMB is a network with a membership comprising over 10,000 marine scientists and technical staff from the major national marine/oceanographic institutes, research funding agencies and national networks of universities from countries across Europe. The Board provides a platform for its member organizations to develop common priorities, to advance marine research, and to bridge the gap between science and policy to meet future marine science challenges and opportunities. The Belgian Federal State is represented in the EMB by the Belgian Federal Science Policy Office (BELSPO) and in the EMB Communications Panel by the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS). The long-term storage, scientific processing and publication of Belgian marine big datasets at RBINS is taken care of by the Belgian Marine Data Centre (BMDC). Both RBINS datasets and datasets of partners and projects are eligible.
Update 9 September 2020: Unfortunately, corona forced the organisation to postpone this study day to the autumn of 2021. We will inform you as soon as possible about the new date.
This year, the Continental Shelf Service of the FPS Economy is again organizing a study day on sand extraction in the Belgian part of the North Sea.
We look forward to welcome you on Friday 20 November 2020 at our study day “A 360° perspective on sea sand” in the Zwin Nature Park in Knokke-Heist.
In the morning, we will discuss the results of the monitoring and some innovations, as well as the new reference level for sand extraction and the impact of the Marine Spatial Plan 2020-2026. In the afternoon, recycling of sea sand and possible alternatives are considered. We conclude with the applications of sea sand in the industry and in the context of coastal safety.
A new report has been published (only available in Dutchand French) with information on strandings and sightings of marine mammals in Belgium in 2019. Also some remarkable fish and the observations of sea turtles in our waters are discussed. Furthermore, the report contains information about marine mammals in exhibitions and the excavation of Sperm Whale Valentine in Koksijde.
The Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) has been responsible for coordinating research into the strandings and cause of death of marine mammals in Belgium since the early 1990s. Information on observations at sea is also collected. With the collaboration of SEALIFE Blankenberge and the Universities of Liège and Ghent, RBINS has, as it does every year, brought together the available data in a report.
Relatively Few Strandings of Harbour Porpoises
In 2019 51 harbour porpoises washed ashore: a low number compared to previous years. More than half of these animals were in a far state of decomposition, and often the cause of death could no longer be determined. Four porpoises had ended their lives as bycatch, four others as a result of predation by a grey seal. The estimated density of harbour porpoises at sea in June and August was about the average of previous years. The only other cetacean found stranded was a highly decomposed common dolphin.
Like last year, a solitary, social bottlenose dolphin was present for months in the area bordering French waters. In addition, a group of bottlenose dolphins was observed twice. More exceptional were the sightings of a humpback and a minke whale.
More Seals and Strange Guests
The presence of seals on our coast is still on the rise; in the port of Nieuwpoort there is now a permanent resting place which is often used by more than 10 harbour seals. Grey seals also seem to be becoming more common. This translates into increasing numbers of dead and dying seals on the beach: 47, the highest number ever recorded. SeaLife took care of 11 Grey and 15 Common Seals.
In 2019, two leatherback turtles and some sunfish were observed. Their presence was possibly related to an unusual influx of Atlantic water. The exact species to which a stranded sunfish belonged is still under investigation.
Marine Mammals in Expositions
Marine mammals are very popular: some temporary or permanent exhibitions were opened in 2019, and the skeleton of a sperm whale that was washed ashore in 1989 was excavated with the aim of preparing and exhibiting it.
Finally, the report also contains editorials on underwater noise and porpoises, the international dimension of marine mammal research, some well-known seals in Nieuwpoort, and extreme fluctuations in the weight of seals.
For information about recent sightings of marine mammals in Belgium and instructions on what to do when stranded, please visit the website marinemammals.be. The complete report for 2019, as well as the older marine mammal reports, can be consulted here.