Extra research initiatives by VLIZ on COVID-19 | Flanders Marine Institute

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Extra research initiatives by VLIZ on COVID-19

Added on 2020-05-25
The Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ) is also experiencing the consequences of the Corona pandemic. But COVID-19 also created opportunities. In recent weeks, VLIZ has adjusted its activities to focus on social services and new research in the context of the current crisis. This resulted in a varied package of initiatives:

Photo: VLIZ (Alexander Hooyberg)

1. Beach visits & Corona: a fact check
The Belgian coast is the biggest tourist attraction in the country. But what is the risk of contamination from SARS-CoV-2 when we return to the beach this summer? In collaboration with Ghent University and the Province of West Flanders, VLIZ bundled the available scientific knowledge on the risk of contamination by SARS-CoV-2 via seawater, litter and sand on the beach. The report also detects the knowledge gaps that require an answer in the short term. This policy informing brief substantiates the strategy to reopen the coastal area and beaches. (only available in Dutch)

2. Importance of outdoor activities for mental well-being during the Corona pandemic
The Coronavirus pandemic has a major impact on our lives, including the accessibility of public outdoor spaces. During the semi-lockdown in Belgium, people can still go outside as long as they take into account the measures imposed by the government. But what does being outdoors in different environments do to our mental well-being? Are we moving more or less now than before? Researchers from VLIZ, KU Leuven and UGent started a survey to measure out how, where and how much we visit the outdoor areas, and how these visits affect our health and emotions in the special context of the Corona pandemic. (only available in Dutch)

3. Reduced human activity brings back beach nature
This spring, VLIZ and the Institute for Nature and Forest Research (INBO) conducted an extra monitoring survey across the entire Belgian coast to map the germination of plants on the beach. A third of the beaches showed a remarkable germination of the European sea rocket, a so-called "dune pioneer" that initiates the creation of new dunes. Numbers are 10 to 1000 times higher than in the period 2003-2019, due to the postponement of beach works and the very limited beach visits in the Corona spring.

4. Changes in underwater soundscape during the Corona crisis
Given the reduced activity in the usually very busy North Sea, the underwater sound scape in the sea may look slightly different. Less noise may come from human sources. Possibly more click perceptions of less disturbed marine mammals can be detected now. To map this, VLIZ researchers made sound recordings at various places in the Belgian part of the North Sea, using the use of the LifeWatch observation and data infrastructure and a marine robot from the VLIZ Marine Robotics Centre.

5. Offshore activities in Belgian waters during the corona crisis
How does the corona crisis affect offshore activities in Belgian waters and the Western Scheldt. A comparative analysis was carried out by VLIZ, in collaboration with ILVO, based on freely available AIS data for the periods February-April 2019 and 2020. The shipping intensity decreased in the Belgian part of the North Sea and the Western Scheldt by 13 and 5 respectively. %. This decrease appears to be at least partly due to the corona lockdown, but non-corona bound causes can also be identified. In a new policy informing brief, the analysis was made separate for cargo ships, tankers, passenger ships, fishing and other vessels (maintenance, dredging, research, towing and control vessels).

6. Impact of Corona measures on recreational fishing
VLIZ and the Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (ILVO) have been monitoring the recreational sea fishing sector in Flanders for several years now. As a citizen science initiative this project provides, among others, for the data collection of fish catches by this sector. In the context of the current Corona measures, recreational sea fishermen were questioned within a broader European initiative about the socio-economic consequences for their sector. The project also functions as a platform for communicating government measures to the recreational fishermen.

7. Ongoing and more intense marine observations
VLIZ runs an extensive observation infrastructure, both in the sea and on the beach, including those within the context of the ESFRI projects LifeWatch and ICOS. A measuring buoy at the Thornton Bank continuously measures chemical and physical parameters in the seawater. The research vessel RV Simon Stevin performs similar automatic measurements during its trips. Sensor networks measure the click sounds of porpoises and the movements of fish with an inserted transmitter. On a monthly basis, VLIZ samples a series of fixed measuring stations to analyze nutrients and plankton, among other things. These observations were resumed as soon as the Corona measures allowed this. Observations in this exceptional period may provide a picture of the changed human pressures on the marine environment. Data is openly available, and can be used by scientists who cannot access the sea because of the Corona measures themselves. The VLIZ citizen scientists from Seawatch-B also remained active during the Corona semi-lockdown. They were asked to perform additional standardized observations on and along the Belgian beaches to document this unique period.

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