Our seas and oceans are faced with a dramatic increase of human activities; shipping, fisheries, oil exploitation, military activities and recreation…. All these activities have an impact on the marine environment and can threaten the survival of marine species like whales and dolphins. To better understand these threats in particular for whales and dolphins and to determine what measures need to be taken, the Belgian Federal Public Service for Health, Food Chain Safety and Environment, together with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), today organised an event “All on Board: exchanges on noise, ship strikes and pollution for the improvement of cetaceans’ survival”.

Over the last decade activities at and in the sea like international maritime traffic have intensified greatly. The ships travelling our seas have become ever more faster, larger and noisier. Cetaceans who are very sensitive to noise and rely on hearing to communicate, navigate, feeding and to measure distances are now hindered in the identification of threats.

This is the reason why Belgium has already taken a number of important measures to promote the protection of these species at national level. The environmental permits issued for the construction of wind farms at sea, for instance, include a special provision to restrain all activities that cause noise disturbances, such as piling, during critical periods (January-April). In other periods limitations for noise disturbances are also regulated.

During the event, international experts, NGOs, Belgian and European authorities have exchanged knowledge and ideas on possible measures to be taken to reduce these threats. For the maritime transport sector these measures could include;

  • Speed reductions, permanent or temporary in critical zones;
  • Rerouting of shipping lanes to avoid whale habitats or high density zones;
  • Training and awareness raising of shipping industry and navigation schools;

Adjusting ship design and developing ship quieting technologies.

Some of these options have already been implemented successfully in some areas. In 2009 the International Maritime Organisation, published a guidance document to reduce ship strikes. This resulted in the adoption of the first mitigation measures. Why not broaden the application of such measures more widely and have them recognized in international fora in order to aim for a much wider adoption?  In this context, bringing together all relevant stakeholders could facilitate the identification and promotion of the most effective measures.

Background information about this topic.

Ms Marie Christine Marghem, Minister for the Environment and of Sustainable Development announced that during the meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) at the end of October, Stephanie Langerock, the new IWC Commissioner will ask for the continuation of the moratorium on commercial whaling. Belgium will also support proposals to create and maintain whale sanctuaries. Ms Marghem also highlighted the activities Belgium will be undertaking in the upcoming months; during the  CITES meeting in Johannesburg later this week and in December during the meeting on the Convention on Biological Diversity at UN-level in Cancun. She concluded : “We need to make all efforts to obtain concrete commitments to safeguard biodiversity. Biodiversity is a key challenge that is closely linked to climate change. The future of our planet is at stake.”

Welcome speech Ms Marghem

M. De Backer, Secretary of State for the North Sea in charge of maritime transport, issuing concessions and permits for renewable energy in the North Sea and management and protection of the marine environment,  welcomed the launch of the “Belgian Cetaceans Network” which brings together scientists, NGOs, and business representatives. This forum will provide input to the Belgian negotiators in preparation of international meetings. In the implementation of his “Blue Growth” policy, M. De Backer is seeking to identify the most appropriate intervention level in order to harmonise actions like measures for sustainable fisheries in Belgium, European marine and maritime strategies, the creation of protected zones in the North Sea, the negotiations of measures and the creation of Marine Protected Areas at the level of the United Nations. Mr De Backer stressed that “If we want economic growth in the North Sea it needs to be sustainable with respect for the marine environment. The environmental permits play a crucial role in this process.”

Speech M. de Backer