The coast guard keeps an eye on the sea

Coast guard

10 years Coast Guard

Partners with principles

The Coast Guard is responsible for the coordination and consultation between the administrations authorized for the North Sea. Belgium is responsible for a marine area with a surface area of approximately 3600 km². This might seem a relatively small area in comparison to the mainland. However, the North Sea boasts a number of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. No less than 17 governmental institutions (both regional and federal) plus the governor of the province of West-Flanders are authorized for all these activities. The main responsibility of the Coast Guard is to ensure a good cooperation between all these partners so as increase the efficiency of operations at sea.

Following principles are fundamental within the coast guard structure :

- equality of all coast guard partners
- respect for each other’s authority
- optimum use of means so as to avoid additional costs

Single point of contact

The secretariat operates as the Coast Guard’s engine. It coordinates all activities, both administrative and operational. This is not limited to organizing meetings; the secretariat also assists with outlining policy and is the designated point of contact for coast guard – related organizations abroad.

In addition, the public can consult the secretariat for all queries regarding the North Sea. The motto is: one question, one solution. So far the secretariat has answered as many as 1666 questions. The secretariat attempts to answer as soon as possible, or to refer to the coast guard partner most likely to be able to provide a suitable solution. 

Coast guard centre

One of the most important goals within the Coast Guard is the creation of one integrated coast guard centre consisting out of the Maritime Rescue  and Coordination Centre (MRCC) and the Maritime Security Centre Belgium (MIK).

The MRCC, which has been operational since quite some time,  is in charge of safety at sea  and coordinates rescue operations. The MIK, which was inaugurated September 12th 2007, takes charge of security at sea. The MIK has operators of the Navy, the Maritime and River police and Customs working closely together to ensure that legislation is respected at sea and to track down illegal activities.

The coast guard centre, assisted by the vessels, the helicopters and the surveillance aircraft of the coast guard partners, operates as the eyes and the ears watching over the North Sea. A challenge for the near future is the further advancement towards a 24/7 coast guard centre with joint competences and seconded staff members. A centre that is able to coordinate the deployment of flying and sailing units, with agreements between coast guard partners providing a legal basis. 

Cross-border cooperation

This past decade, the Coast Guard had its hands full, both on the national and international scene. Since 2007 the Coast Guard secretariat and a number of coast guard partners take part in the North Atlantic Coast Guard Forum. Each year one of the member states organizes an 'expert meeting' in the spring. In the fall there is always a meeting of all heads of delegation, the so-called 'summit', which is traditionally combined with a full-scale exercise. In 2018 Belgium will have the honour of hosting this international conference.

A number of years ago the Coast Guard committed to participating in the European Coast Guard Forum. The main goal of this forum is to make activities related to coast guard more coherent within the different member states, to stimulate mutual cooperation, to set up networks and to exchange information on best practices and experiences. 

Furthermore, the Coast Guard secretariat is the first point of contact for coast guard organizations abroad. 

Windmill parks

In 2008 a working group for windmill parks was put in place under the coast guard structure's patronage. The working group unites all coast guard partners that are involved in the construction of offshore windmill parks and is a central contact point for wind mill operators. It is also an efficient means for the coast guard partners to keep each other informed of new developments and to balance their advice and/or directives.

A crucial feat is the Royal Decree Safety Distance. Around the windmill parks in Belgium’s marine areas a safety distance of 500 meters has been established. No vessel can approach a windmill park closer than 500 meters. The only exceptions are vessels which have been granted entry by the coast guard, such as workboats of the windmill operator, supervising vessels, rescue vessels, etc., which are allowed to sail into the windmill park. Should a vessel without permission sail closer to the windmills and not respect the safety distance, this vessel is liable to punishment and can be penalized.

Less crucial, but nevertheless nice to know: it is thanks to the working group windmill parks that the former “Bank without name” could shake off its anonymity. In 2011 an application was requested for constructing windmill parks on the sandbank “Bank without name”.  Because the federal Coast Guard secretary thought it somewhat strange to keep talking about the ‘Bank without Name”, he decided to examine if another name for this sandbank could be found. His quest led him, with a little help of the Coastal Division and the Regional Institute for the Sea (VLIZ), to an ancient nautical chart dating back to 1890.  This chart, located in a school in Blankenberge and painted on canvas, was used to train fishermen. It shows the names of numerous sandbanks and fairways.  The “Bank without name” is depicted as “Lodewijkbank”.  Already, the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) gave the go-ahead for the name change and the Flemish Hydrography also incorporated the name “Lodewijkbank” on the nautical charts.  

Procedures and applications

During the Coast Guard's ten-year-existence, several initiatives were taken to facilitate an efficient cooperation. One of the first instruments to be developed was the notifications matrix. This can be considered an elaborate handbook that stipulates whom the coast guard operators should warn and in which sequence when an incident occurs. This differs according to the incident type. Numerous incidents are included in the matrix, ranging from a collision over an explosive in the nets of a fishing vessel to a stranded seal. 

Another useful application is the database reference points. When people contact the rescue service to report an incident, they do not always use the official name of the location. The database contains all possible names of approximately a thousand places along our coast. These are also linked to identifying marks, coordinates at sea and on land and everything can be visualized on a map. This saves the rescue services valuable time in locating the correct spot to go to. 

Other such examples of effective cooperation can be found within the coast guard structure: at the time of the Ebola outbreak, the coast guard partners implemented a safety procedure to keep pilots or other coast partners safe from contamination when boarding ships coming from countries affected by the epidemic; a 'guide on the water' was published: a brochure with rules and regulations for seafarers and advice and recommendations; etc.

Exercises and operations

Practice makes perfect. This is also true for the coast guard structure. Yearly, both table top exercises (in which an emergency situation is 'imitated' and the participants put on paper how they would react in real life) and exercises ‘in real time’ are conducted by our coast guard partners and in cooperation with partners abroad. An important and expansive operation, which is repeated several times a year is operation Opera. A number of coast guard partners, such as the Navy, Waterway and River Police, FPS Public Health, Sea Fisheries Service, Management Unit of the North Sea Mathematical Models (MUMM) and Customs work closely together and carry out inspections in Belgium’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) along the coast.

To be able to fulfill their tasks in a satisfactory fashion, having appropriate and good equipment at their disposal is crucial for the coast guard partners. The ministry of Defence can justly be proud of their new, multifunctional patrol vessels Castor and Pollux and replaced the famous Sea Kings after years of loyal service with the modern and powerful NH90 helicopters. Fleet can take pride in an impressive list of new vessels: the multifunctinal buoy-laying Zeetijger, the rescue vessel Orka, the rescue vessel Simon Stevin, the imposing Swaths for piloting, etc. These and other coast guard partners do not idle and keep investing in the renewal of their means. 

Marine Spatial Planning

The working area of the Coast Guard is the Belgian North Sea, one of the busiest marine areas in the world which bustles with activity: shipping traffic, tourism, fishery, sand extraction, windmill parks…. To prevent different activities from impeding each other, a marine spatial plan was established for Belgium's marine areas. The plan outlines the Belgian part of The North Sea and its users and aims at reconciling their spatial impact. It is valid for a six-year-period. This way, the government imposes itself the legal obligation to evaluate the plan regularly and to adjust it, if necessary. Simultaneously, all users are informed on what is planned where and what the long term vision is. The plan offers assurance and certainty for those wanting to undertake new activities.

This plan was initiated by the minister for the North Sea. For the execution, evaluation and adaption, an Advisory Committee was set in place. All coast guard partners and other governmental bodies responsible for spatial planning and tourism take part in this committee. Belgium was a pioneer in Europe and the rest of the world in implementing such plan. 

Authority at sea

One of the milestones in the past 10 years is the evolution of the authorities of the governor of the province West-Flanders within the Coast Guard structure.

The agreement of cooperation appoints the governor as chairman of the Coast Guard's consultation body and as coordinator of the Contingency Plan for the North Sea. On account of a number of serious incidents, a European directive was issued that expands the authorities of the governor. This means that the governor can independently take decisions should the contingency plan for the North Sea be activated. In accordance with legislation, from now on the governor has the power to task the captain of a vessel with taking the necessary measures to end a threat to the environment or maritime safety. Naturally, on such occasions, the governor will be surrounded by the coast guard partners to support him in his decisions.

Additionally, at sea, as on land, there is a need for a "governance authority at sea" for the police. This power should be able to take ad hov governance measures in case of illegal activities within the marine areas under Belgian jurisdiction. On land, this role is performed by a mayor on municipal level and by a governor on provincial level. For the sea, Belgium's 11th province, an agreement was reached within the coast guard structure to appoint the governor of West-Flanders as the governance at sea for the police. Legislation was adapted accordingly.