The Belgian part of the North Sea has a large and often unprecedented biodiversity. The spectrum of human activities that takes place is also extremely diverse. Place and time are important factors here. Close to or far from the coast, on the sea or on the seabed, in autumn or in summer, etc. A range of activities can also take place within the same zone. Sand extraction and shipping, for example. Other sectors, such as fishing and tourism, are largely seasonal.
The most important activities taking place in our North Sea are:
- Nature protection and recovery
- Fishing and aquaculture
- Shipping and ports
- Renewable energy production
- Sand and gravel extraction
- Military activities
- Commercial and industrial activities
- Tourism and recreation
Nature protection and recovery
Our North Sea is a place full of life, with a range of animal species that all deserve their own place. This is why some protected areas have been designated in the Belgian part of the North Sea. In the west lie the Flemish Banks, designated for the protection of sandbanks, gravel beds and sand mason worm banks, which are a habitat for the harbour porpoise, the common seal and the grey seal. Along the coast, there are three bird protection areas, where birds can nest and rest.
In the new marine spatial plan (2020-2026), a new nature reserve has been added: the Vlakte van de Raan, which is adjacent to the Dutch border. In addition, the Bay of Heist nature reserve is included in the bird protection area near Zeebrugge. This enables more efficient management, through the optimisation of monitoring, scientific research and enforcement. The purpose of these areas is not to exclude all activities, but to protect marine life.
A range of ecosystem services
Taking care of our nature is crucial. Thanks to its rich diversity and diverse ecosystems, nature takes care of us too. This results in ecosystem services, or benefits that we as humans obtain from the natural environment. In this case, the marine environment of the North Sea.
There are four different types of ecosystem services:
-Supply services: all the products we take from the ecosystem to eat (fish, shellfish, etc.). But this also covers seaweeds and micro-organisms for cosmetics or shells as souvenirs.
-Regulatory services: The North Sea is part of the ocean. This ocean regulates the Earth's CO₂ balance, moderates our climate via gulf currents (otherwise Belgium might have had the same climate as Canada!) and balances the Earth's water cycle. This way, it helps to regulate the climate and is a good buffer against global warming. In addition, algae keep the water clean by purifying it and dunes are our first protection barrier against flooding.
-Cultural services: all non-material services that we derive from the ecosystem. The sea is an infinite source of inspiration, knowledge, research and entertainment for everyone.
-Support services: ecosystem services that support other ecosystem services so they can function properly. Some examples are the production of oxygen by algae through photosynthesis and the North Sea, with its numerous sandbanks, as a breeding ground for many species. The high production of biomass from the nutrient-rich sea water, which benefits fish stocks, is also an ecosystem support service.
An ecosystem does not necessarily offer all four types of services at the same time, but usually a combination of some. Which combination depends on the type of ecosystem. In order to continue to use the diversity of services, it is important to maintain a range of ecosystem types.
What is the government doing?
One of the main tools for protecting ecosystems is the Environment Fund. Through this fund, the Department for the Marine Environment aims to preserve the general environmental quality in the event of harm to (valuable) nature, for example through economic or industrial activities, extraction or construction work.
Currently, environmental compensation exists, for the Belgian part of the North Sea, solely for the wind farms. It is not a tax, but part of the balance between the positive and negative impact of an activity on the marine environment. One might call it a sharing of the benefits and burdens between the licensee and society.
Some examples of projects and proposals already carried out under the fund are studies into multiple use of space, the possibility of aquaculture within wind farms and the removal of waste on and around a shipwreck.
The Department for the Marine Environment is also responsible for the protection of the Natura 2000 areas in our North Sea (the Flemish Banks, the Vlakte van de Raan and the three bird protection areas).The protection and eventual restoration of the identified species and habitats covered by these may maintain or enhance the functions of critical ecosystems
Fishing and aquaculture
Fishing is a small economic player in Belgium. Nevertheless, it remains an important sector on the coast. Fishermen in the North Sea mainly use beam trawls. This is very efficient at catching benthic fish such as sole and dab. It is a heavy metal crossbeam – the tree – towed across the seabed with nets and chain mat. Shrimp catching is still done with a seine net, pulled by a horse. Since 2013, our Belgian shrimp fishermen have also been recognised as intangible cultural heritage of mankind by UNESCO.
In addition to commercial fishing, recreational fishing is also an activity carried out by more than 800 vessels in the North Sea. Recreational fishing does not require a licence, as the catch may not be sold. However, a number of laws and regulations do apply.
Legislation relating to fisheries is a Flemish policy matter. At a European level, the European Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) sets the course. The objective of the CFP is to maintain fish populations in the long term. It also focuses on important problems such as overfishing, bycatch and fleet overcapacity. Fisheries measures can form the basis for a fair and sustainable fishing industry, with no negative impact on other marine resources.
Beam trawling, catch of the day, shrimp fishermen on horseback © Vilda and ILVO
The European Commission consults its Member States as regards the CFP. This way, they too can play an active role in the fisheries policy for their own waters. Since the management of the Belgian part of the North Sea is a federal competence, the Department for the Marine Environment assumes this responsibility. When taking fisheries measures, the Department must enter into dialogue with other Member States that have fishermen in our North Sea. For example, a study is currently being conducted to identify the most biologically valuable areas within the Habitats Directive area ‘Flemish Banks’. This information will be combined with data on fishing pressure within the area. Ultimately, this should result in a range of scientifically substantiated scenarios for the fisheries measures to be taken. These will form the basis of a consultation process with the countries concerned, in order to arrive at effective fisheries measures together.
Aquaculture is the breeding of aquatic organisms such as fish, shellfish and seaweed for commercial purposes. It is the world's fastest-growing food production sector. This type of industry can take place on land as well as in fresh, brackish or salt water.
Mussel rafts © Vilda
Aquaculture taking place at sea is an industrial activity and therefore also a federal competence, which requires a licence and an environmental impact assessment. The technical and economic feasibility of mariculture projects has already been tested in several pilot projects in our North Sea. There have been experiments with the flat oyster, the scallop, with mussels and with sugar kelp. Cultivation takes place via suspension structures and mats in the sea. For sugar kelp and mussels, the results were cautiously positive. In 2018, the first 67kg of mussels, grown in wind farms, were brought to the surface. The next challenge is to enable mariculture on a commercial scale without losing sight of sustainability.
What is the government doing?
- The federal government can take measures to better control the environmental impact of fishing. For example, limiting seabed fishing in certain zones. It also invests in projects to combat marine litter within this sector. For example, through the Fishing for Litter project, research into the tagging of fishing nets and the training of young fishermen on marine litter.
- The federal government advises the Minister for the North Sea when granting licences for commercial aquaculture in our North Sea. An environmental licence and use permit for a commercial zone are crucial for getting started. There is a separate procedure for research activities.
- The federal government encourages multiple use of space in the Belgian part of the North Sea. The study on aquaculture in wind farms is an example of this.
Shipping and ports
Our North Sea is one of the busiest seas in the world and is the gateway to all the Belgian seaports. Every year, there are more than 300,000 shipping journeys, ranging from commercial ships, fishing boats, patrol ships and passenger ships to pleasure craft.
Currently, with more than 200 years of seafaring tradition, the merchant shipping fleet under the Belgian flag still ranks in the International Maritime Organisation (IMO)'s top 25 in terms of carrying capacity, and is able to hold its own among countries such as the Netherlands and France. This is partly due to the important ports along our Belgian coast and rivers.
The port of Zeebrugge © TBN -John Urbain
Seven seaports: Antwerp, Blankenberge, Bruges-Zeebrugge, Ghent, Ostend, Nieuwpoort and Brussels.
- Antwerp = container transport
- Ghent = transshipment of trade goods - steel industry
- Zeebrugge = transshipment of cars, gas supply
- Ostend = transport of goods and alternative energies. It loads and unloads almost 283 million tonnes of goods per year.
Three fishing ports: Nieuwpoort, Ostend and Zeebrugge:
- Nieuwpoort is the home base for inshore fishing and hunting = 1% of the total Belgian fish supply.
- Ostend welcomes fishing vessels = 34% of the total Belgian fish supply.
- Zeebrugge welcomes vessels from the large fleet = 65% of the total Belgian fish supply.
- Four marinas: Nieuwpoort, Ostend, Blankenberge and Zeebrugge
They represent 3,553 moorings, of which 1,813 are for Nieuwpoort, one of the largest marinas in Northwest Europe.
A sea of wrecks
In our North Sea, in addition to all the boats at the marinas, there are also more than 300 shipwrecks scattered across the seabed. The wrecks are mainly the result of the two world wars. They have great cultural value and are very popular with wreck divers and anglers. Moreover, they also have great ecological value, as they are important shelters and nurseries for various species of fauna. There is a law that makes it possible to protect underwater wrecks as cultural heritage if they are over 100 years old. So far, nine wrecks have been recognised.
What is the government doing?
Maritime shipping, maritime access and the management of ports are important competences that are supported by various authorities, including the FPS Mobility, the Maritime Security Centre Belgium (MIK) and the port authorities. At an international level, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) is responsible for the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which is somewhat of a constitution for ships at sea. They are also concerned with safety and the prevention of pollution at sea. The FPS Mobility represents Belgium within this organisation. The following matters are important for our environment:
- Ships' emissions are subject to both IMO (for sulphur emissions) and EU (CO2 emissions) regulations. In Belgium, the FPS Mobility monitors this.
- Ballast water is essential for ships to be able to sail at sea. However, it poses a risk to the environment. After all, unwanted species can hitch a ride from a foreign port to our region via this water. The Ballast Water Convention, drawn up by the IMO, set out rules on this. For example, it requires ships to keep a log of the water entering and leaving the ballast tanks and ports must provide facilities for cleaning or repairing the tanks. The FPS Mobility takes care of this for Belgium.
- Sources of underwater noise can disrupt communication between species, cause stress and change the natural behaviour of species. This is why the Department for the Marine Environment is investigating possibilities for reducing underwater noise.
- Sometimes sand or silt has to be moved in order to allow through shipping traffic to run smoothly in channels and near ports. This results in a large quantity of dredge spoil, which must be returned to the sea at designated dredge dumps. This activity also requires a licence and an environmental impact assessment.
Renewable energy production
The sea offers numerous opportunities for generating sustainable ‘blue’ energy. For example, besides wind, energy can also be generated from the movements of tides or waves. For the time being, however, wind turbines remain the most important source in our North Sea. In terms of renewable energy, this even makes us the fourth largest player in offshore energy supply (i.e. at sea) within Europe. The offshore wind energy sector supplies 10% of Belgium's total electricity demand.
In addition to the ecological benefits, wind energy is increasingly becoming a technically and economically interesting alternative to fossil fuels. Offshore wind farms also have important advantages over onshore wind farms. They do not require a built-up area, making larger wind farms possible. The higher wind speeds at sea also provide more efficiency. About half of the renewable energy targets we achieve are thanks to our North Sea.
Wind turbines at sea © DG Environment
Nine wind farms will be operational by 2021. The initiator needs a concession and an environmental permit in order to be allowed to build wind turbines. In order to obtain this permit, there must be an environmental impact assessment that identifies the potential impact on fauna and flora. Concessions have currently been granted for nine wind farms in specifically designated areas in the Belgian part of the North Sea.
There is certainly still room for growth in offshore wind energy. The new marine spatial plan includes three additional zones for renewable energy. Two zones are situated in or near the Natura 2000 area of the Flemish Banks. Several studies are underway to estimate and limit the impact on the environment as far as possible. Subsequently, private companies can submit their best bid for building and managing wind farms in these zones. This procedure is called tendering. Fewer subsidies are needed, which is good for the consumer.
Bringing energy ashore
Energy from wind farms comes ashore via cables. The marine spatial plan provides corridors for these cables (as well as telecommunications cables and pipelines). By clustering the cables in these corridors together, there is less impact on other activities. Several wind farms also operate via Elia's “Offshore Modular Grid”. This so-called socket at sea reduces the number of cables at sea, and is good for both the consumer's wallet and the environment.
MOG at sunset © Elia
What is the government doing?
Renewable energy is a topic worthy of our advocacy, but we must not forget the environmental interests as well. The government has a role to play in both the planning of new wind farms and the operation of existing wind farms. The location of windmills should be carefully considered. For example, commercial shipping and fishing will no longer be possible in those zones. But the migratory routes of birds are also important in order to avoid accidents. The construction of wind farms also involves a lot of environmental issues. For example, knocking in or ‘pile driving’ the piles is a process that causes an enormous amount of noise and seabed disturbance. Therefore, a representative from the Department for the Marine Environment always sits on the wind farms' supervisory committees in order to safeguard environmental interests.
Sand and gravel extraction
Sand extraction is an important economic activity within the Belgian part of the North Sea. Sites for sand extraction are scarce on land. This is why sea sand is an interesting alternative.
In our North Sea, two to three million m3 of sand is extracted every year. The extracted sea sand is an important basic raw material for the concrete industry and road construction. A lot of sand is also needed for additional coastal protection.
The marine spatial plan for the period 2020-2026 defines specific zones for sand extraction. In addition, a zone has been demarcated for research into the potential for sand extraction. The latter compensates for extraction zones that may disappear in favour of new wind farms.
The Department for the Marine Environment sits on the advisory committee responsible for co-ordinating policy on sand extraction at sea.
An environmental impact assessment is required in order to be able to extract sand. A licence may or may not be issued for sand extraction on the basis of this assessment. The sand extractors pay a fee per m³ of sand extracted. These fees are used, among other things, for research into the effects of sand extraction on the seabed and on the environment.
The procedure for this can be found on the website of the FPS Economy.
Since 2014, gravel extraction has been prohibited in the Natura 2000 area and the Flemish Banks (as a measure from the Marine Strategy Framework Directive). In addition, the gravel not yet extracted is of low quality, as the grains are too small.
How does sand extraction take place?
Sand extraction requires specific vessels. The trailing suction hopper dredger operates with one or two adjustable suction tubes with a trailing head at the end, which sucks up sand and gravel. This sand ends up in the ship's hopper or cargo hold and sinks to the bottom. This causes the remaining water to flow overboard. Once the hopper is fully loaded, the ship sails to the unloading bay. There are various ways for this unloading to take place.
Trailing suction hopper dredger
Dumping: by opening the doors or valves at the bottom of the ship, the cargo will fall out of it.
Pressure: with the aid of jet pumps, water is pumped into the hopper at high pressure. As a result, the material in the hopper becomes liquid again. Subsequently, the dredging pumps suck up the resulting mixture and the ship can squeeze the cargo out by connecting a pipeline.
Rainbowing: this method works in the same way as pressure, only here the cargo is not pressed through a pipe, but sprayed in an arc over the bow at the desired location (the rainbow).
Unloading by crane or conveyor belt: the extracted sand is removed from the hopper using unloading cranes or a conveyor belt.
What is the government doing?
Some areas of our North Sea are marked out for military exercises. These could be shooting exercises from land to sea (in Lombardsijde) or from sea to floating targets. The size of the area depends on the weapons used. Shooting exercises from land may only take place during the day and not during weekends, public holidays or school holidays. During military exercises, sailing, fishing, dredging and extraction are prohibited in these areas. Other users of the sea must be notified in good time by means of a ‘message to seafarers’ by the Coast department of the Flemish Department of Mobility.
There are also special areas, further out to sea, for training in laying, sweeping and detonating mines. Not only are ‘practice mines’ being detonated, mines from earlier wars are being defused by the Ministry of Defence, with the necessary safety measures. Certain areas may also be used for NATO exercises with several Member States, which are carried out under strict secrecy.
What is the government doing?
Military activities need to be well planned, because an unsuspecting pleasure boat would rather not end up in the middle of a large-scale naval exercise. For this reason, clear agreements have been made between sea users about when and where which military activities will take place.
Explosion at sea © Ministry of Defence
Military activities often also have an environmental impact, certainly in terms of noise. For example, sonar can be very confusing for marine mammals that communicate on the same frequency. Planned explosions of old explosives also have an impact. A balance is therefore always sought so that, on the one hand, the military can carry out their activities and, on the other hand, the marine environment is not significantly affected.
Would you like to know more about military activities at sea and when exactly they take place? Then take a look at this website .
Blue economy – commercial and industrial activities
The blue economy is a collective term for all activities that take place at sea. The European Commission roughly defines this as “all economic activities related to the oceans, seas and the coast. These include both direct exploitation of marine resources and indirect support to ensure sustainable operations.”
In concrete terms, this includes ports, coastal tourism, wind farms or fishing, for example. Desalination of seawater and aquaculture are examples of emerging activities, including in this country. When drawing up a new marine spatial plan, several zones were also designated, specifically with these emerging activities in mind. These zones are intended to provide space for companies to launch innovative activities on a commercial scale – with respect for the environment, of course.
Interested companies can apply to the Department for the Marine Environment for a use permit. Their projects are scored on the basis of the impact on nature, safety at sea, social added value, the impact on sea views, etc. After evaluating the applications, the Department for the Marine Environment formulates advice to the Minister, who then assesses the use permit. Should it turn out that an activity is not as rosy in reality as was proposed in the application, the government can always decide to cancel the permit unilaterally.
Tourism and recreation
Walking, sunbathing, swimming, surfing, sailing or water-skiing, etc. The list of leisure activities on the coast is endless. With 6.8 million day-trippers, 7.9 million overnight stays and 103,947 second homes (no less than 44% of coastal housing), tourism is one of the most important economic activities on the coast.
Kitesurfer, relaxing on the beach and oysters © Misjel Decleer, VLIZ (Delva), 123RF.com
Relaxing and enjoying the healthy sea air are the main reasons to go to the seaside. In addition, tourists often go for a stroll on the waterfront and support the local hospitality industry.
For nature lovers, there is of course much more to experience. There are several nature reserves and educational centres where you can learn more about the extraordinary nature. Anyone who wants to help preserve this unique environment can also make a proactive start by taking part in voluntary beach clean-up activities, for example along with Eneco Clean Beach Cup or Clean Beach Runners.
What is the government doing?
The most obvious action is monitoring the overall water quality in order to make paddling as pleasant as possible. The actions around marine litter also make the beach a pleasant place to be.