Offshore sand and gravel extraction began in Belgium in 1976 (29,000m³). Over the years the extraction has increased and currently lies at around 1,600,000m³. There is a growing interest in sea sand, mainly because the existing sand quarries on land are nearing exhaustion.
As the gravel in the Belgian waters is not of perfect quality (grain size is too small), it is mainly sand that is extracted. This sand is used in the construction industry. For major infrastructure works, such as laying gas pipelines, large quantities of sand were needed in the 1990s. The Flemish Region is currently engaged in sand extraction for coastal protection and the relaying of the beach. Sand prospecting and extraction are carried out in specific areas on the Belgian Continental Shelf.
Under the new legislation, to obtain a licence for sand and gravel extraction a concession application and environmental impact report must be submitted. The environmental impact report is subject to an environmental impact assessment: OD Nature (MUMM) appraises the acceptability of the activity for the marine environment. This appraisal is submitted to the minister responsible for the marine environment, who in turn submits an opinion to the Federal Minister of the Economy. The opinion of the minister responsible for the marine environment is binding: if the opinion is negative, no concession can be granted.
The concessions are coupled with a remuneration that is used by the government for continuous research into the effects of extraction on the marine environment. OD Natural Environment uses mathematical models to study the transport of sediment that is disturbed by extraction. The study seeks to determine the conditions for sustainable development and to differentiate between human impact and natural variability as a result of storms, for example. All extraction vessels must be equipped with an automatic recording system, the so-called black box. The black boxes record a number of parameters, such as vessel identification, route, date, time, position, speed, status of pumps, etc. Management of the recording device and data processing is the responsibility of OD Nature on behalf of the Federal Ministry for the Economy. This makes it possible to ensure that the conditions laid down in the concession decision are respected.
At international level, the impact of sand and gravel extraction at sea is being studied by the WGEXT working group within ICES, of which OD Natural Environment is an active member. The OSPAR Convention also states that member states must take into account the ICES guidelines, given that sand and gravel extraction is a human activity with a possible impact on marine ecosystems and habitats.