Of the 902 smoke plumes inspected by the Coast Guard aircraft in 2023, one in twenty did not meet environmental standards. Additionally, the discharge of non-oil waste is increasing, and dozens of ships are operating without AIS beacons or in incorrect locations.

As part of the national air surveillance program, the Coast Guard’s ‘sniffer plane’ conducted 244 hours of monitoring last year. This program is organized by the Scientific Service Management Mathematical Model of the North Sea (BMM) of the Institute for Nature Sciences, in collaboration with Defense. Most flight hours were dedicated to pollution control.

The sniffer sensor monitored the smoke plumes of 902 ships. In 42 cases – nearly one in twenty – suspicious levels of nitrogen compounds (NOx) were detected. Additionally, 24 inspected ships showed suspiciously high sulfur levels. The strict sulfur limits for marine fuel in the North Sea emission control area have been monitored since 2016, and for nitrogen compounds since 2020. Last year, soot concentrations were measured in 377 smoke plumes, and exceptionally high concentrations prompted requests for harbor authorities to take fuel samples. These samples will be analyzed this year.

Chemical Substances

Remarkably, thirteen cases of operational pollution by harmful substances other than oil were detected, six of which could be linked to specific ships. These included three cases of fatty acid methyl ester (FAME), and one case each of aniline (a chemical industry raw material), sunflower oil, and palm oil derivatives. One report was filed by BMM agents because it occurred in a shallow area, while other cases were handed over to port state control services for further follow-up and investigation.

“The discharge of other harmful liquids has slightly increased in recent years, not only in Belgium but also in other North Sea countries,” notes the Institute for Nature Sciences. “Although these are often permitted discharges, they can still negatively impact the marine environment. It is important to map problems at sea to adjust legislation if necessary.”

Oil Spills Near Drilling Platforms

Four operational oil spills were found in the Belgian North Sea, the highest number in five years despite a declining trend over the past thirty years. The good news was that no oil spills resulted from collisions or other incidents. Additionally, on December 14, an oil spill was detected in the port of Antwerp. This spill originated from historical pollution in the subsoil, released by dredging or agitation. The oil was cleaned up by a response vessel.

Oil pollution was more problematic during European offshore controls. In July, the Belgian surveillance aircraft monitored the vicinity of drilling platforms in Dutch, Danish, British, and Norwegian waters, identifying thirty oil spills, the second-highest number since the annual mission began in 1991. Twenty-eight of these could be directly linked to a drilling platform.

Ghost Shipping

Worryingly, the Coast Guard aircraft detected an increasing number of navigation violations, notably 53 in offshore shipping routes in and near Belgian waters. These primarily involved ships sailing against traffic or anchoring in a shipping route.

Additionally, fifteen ships were found without the automatic identification system (AIS), which helps prevent collisions, a trend mainly seen among fishermen. Finally, three intruders in prohibited areas were reported, a significant decrease compared to previous years.