State Secretary Catches Polluting Ships From the Sky




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State Secretary for the North Sea Philippe De Backer in front of our observation airplane. (photo: Thierry Hubin - RBINS)
State Secretary Catches Polluting Ships From the Sky
post by
Jonas Van Boxel

Our Institute’s observation plane monitors the North Sea for illegal oil dumping, fishery activities and since this year, sulphur emissions from ships. Philippe De Backer, State Secretary for the North Sea, flew along to see for himself how this monitoring actually works.

The wet and windy weather almost spoiled the fun. On Wednesday the 15th of November, State Secretary De Backer took off from the airport of Ostend in OO-MMM, the observation plane of our Institute. During the short flight, he could learn firsthand how sulphur emissions on the North Sea are being monitored.

In 2015, the International Maritime Organisation introduced stricter legislation on the amount of sulphur in marine vessel fuel. As the total emission of sulphur on sea was likely to become bigger than on land by 2020, the maximal amount of sulphur in marine fuel in the North Sea was lowered from 1 to 0,1%.

OO-MMM, a Britten Norman Islander that was owned by Belgian Army until 2004, was equipped with a “sniffer sensor” this year. The small airplane flies through the exhaust plume of the ship, to measure the amount of sulphur with the sensor. If the result is higher than 0,1%, the pilot does a second test to confirm the results.


The report of offenders is sent to the harbour of arrival, where they are further investigated. Fines for repeat offenders can be as high as five million euro. During the flight with State Secretary De Backer, five ships were checked. Of those five, the sniffer sensor registered one ship with a sulphur emission slightly higher than permitted.

“It is great to experience how these controls are being executed”, Philippe De Backer said afterwards. “Belgium is really doing pioneer work. It is of great importance that we can keep doing this to keep our North Sea clean.”

The technology that makes it possible to monitor fuel emissions from planes, is a big improvement. It enables us to check around 25% of the passing ships; before the technique, it was only 4%. “So far in 2016, we checked more than 1.000 ships. Around 10% of those emit to much sulphur”, says operator Ward Van Roy. Each year, the airplane flies about 250 hours above the North Sea.

Surveillance of the Belgian part of the North Sea is a task of the Scientific Service “Management Unit of the North Sea Mathematical Models and the Scheldt estuary (MUMM)” of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS). It is responsible for the follow-up of different legal obligations (and rights) for the management of the marine environment. 

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