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The various missions
Methods and instrumentation
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Battle against pollution
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Missions of the observation aircraft

A total of 250 flying hours over the sea are scheduled every year. To date, admittedly, most of the flying hours have been devoted to pollution surveillance - on average, almost 80% of the flying time. It is important to remember that, whatever the mission, the detection and identification of pollution remain the top priority.

Since June 2006, a new programme for the aerial observation of the sea has been launched, in the context of which the use of the aircraft is fully integrated into the structure of the Coast Guard, which now links all the competent federal and regional services to one another. The new programme is characterised by the more systematic account taken of the various areas of interest.

The various missions

1. Environmental monitoring of discharges and pollution

Environmental monitoring of discharges and pollution, mainly including oil, that can be identified from the aircraft using specific instruments in the context of missions scheduled on a random but regular basis throughout the year - and not just during office hours. Some flights are carried out at night or in the weekend. The flight schedules are kept secret in order to take full advantage of the dissuasive effect.

Owing to its effect as a deterrent, the presence of the observation aircraft is an important element in the fight against illegal discharges but also, more generally, in the collection of data on the quality of the surface of the water: slicks of mineral hydrocarbons or films of natural hydrocarbons, chemical waste, containers of dangerous substances that are adrift, etc.

The routes are chosen with a view to scanning the surface of the waters under Belgian jurisdiction, but also those of our immediate neighbours both during routine flights and on flights scheduled as part of larger operations. One typical example of this is the “Tour d’Horizon” for which, by international agreement, North Sea states in turn scan a wide area of the North Sea once a year to monitor the oil and gas research and extraction operations offshore.

An oil rig in the middle of the North Sea

Pollution from a working oil rig

2. Support and guidance of response units and intervention in the event of an accident at sea

The aircraft has already received important assignments during major accidents at sea, including the Tricolor collision.

The Tricolor incident

If this type of incident occurs, the aircraft is in a position to make a rapid assessment of the scale of the pollution, the threat it represents for the marine environment and the coastal area and the possibilities for dealing with it.

In the event of pollution that constitutes a threat to the coast, the aircraft immediately alerts the Coast Guard centre which, in turn, contacts the governor of Western Flanders and the federal Environmental Services.

During a second phase, the aircraft provides useful assistance to the counter pollution and fire-fighting vessels. Without aerial support, these vessels have virtually no possibility of demarcating the extent of the pollution and are usually unable to detect the treatable areas (the thickest parts) of an oil spill quickly. This service is particularly appreciated by the various authorities that are responsible for managing shipping accidents particularly when the North Sea Disaster Plan is activated.

Pollution fighting vessel

3. Monitoring fishery activities in Belgian waters

Identified Fishery vessel

The Fishery Service of the Flemish Region uses the aircraft and the resources supplied by MUMM (spotting and communication resources, operators, photography, etc.) to carry out systematic monitoring of professional fishing vessels. Approximately forty hours are carried out every year with a view to control compliance with the legislation applicable to professional and sports fishing in the zones for which Belgium is responsible.

4. Observation of sand and gravel extraction and the dumping of dredging sludge

Diving view on a sand and gravel extraction vessel

Concessions for sea bed sand and gravel extraction are attributed to private companies and are strictly regulated and monitored by the Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs. As part of the proper management of marine resources, the aircraft carries out complementary observation of movements in the exploitation areas.

Sand extraction vessel sailing

5. Observation of the maritime traffic, in co-operation with the maritime services of the Federal Police

There is a cooperation agreement between the administrations under the terms of which the Police can accompany surveillance flights and hence keep an eye on maritime traffic and on all illegal commercial activities. In exchange, MUMM has the possibility of boarding fast Police boat in order to take samples which may prove necessary if there is a need to determine the nature of the pollution discharged at sea by a vessel.

Vessel carrying large harbour cranes

Anchored vessels in the sunset

If cargoes are lost at sea in severe weather, the aircraft can take part in search operations in cooperation with the ships intervening as being part of Coast Guard structure (Belgian Navy, Navigation Police and services of the Flemish Region).

6. Follow-up of the licences and authorisations granted by the minister in the context of activities such as the installation of wind farms, the launch of mussel farm units, etc. In short, all tasks subject to authorisation which could have an impact on the marine ecosystem

The aircraft checks that the structures put in place at sea comply with the provisions of the licence.

Windmills off the coast

7. Observation of marine phenomena

Visible sandbank when tide is very low

Water masses of different colours

For the scientists studying oceanographic processes and the impact of man on the marine environment, the aircraft is available to record the basic pattern of human activities in the coastal area and observe remarkable phenomena such as water masses of different colours or accumulations of macrophytes, waves and sea spray, turbulence and turbidity, the coast and the backwash zone, the proliferation of algae, emerging sand banks, etc.

8. Observation of the fauna and the flora, such as large whales, dolphins and porpoises, birds in flight or at rest, or the proliferation of algae and the production of foam

Seals visible on a sandbank from the estuary of the Scheldt

If large whales are detected that could strand on the shore, the aircraft reports this to the relevant department of the RBINS and, if appropriate, it keeps of these animals under observation.

If large concentrations of sea birds are observed in protected areas in winter, the aircraft informs the Federal Department of the Environment of this to enable them to set in motion the strategic plans devised and if necessary restrict certain human activities that could disrupt the birds.

If algae bloom, causing a risk that large quantities of foam may reach the shore, MUMM assesses the situation and informs the Coast Guard centre.

Algae bloom

9. Observation of recreational and sports activities along the coast: sailing, boating and individual diving, sports fishing, the beach and the related sports

Tall ship near the coast

The beach

10. Observation and monitoring of compliance with the rules in force in protected areas where other activities are limited

- special protection areas for birds
- special areas of conservation of the natural habitat
- marine reserves

The accumulation of all this data contributes towards maintaining an inventory of the pressure exerted on the ecosystem of the North Sea and confirms the role played by the aircraft as regards marine management and the conservation of nature.

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