THE HAGUE, Netherlands, Aug. 2 (UPI) -- The crowded North Sea shipping lanes off the Netherlands this week began operating under a sweeping new set of traffic rules meant to optimize safety.
The Rijkswaterstaat, the Dutch transportation and infrastructure ministry, announced Wednesday the new traffic separation rules had been instituted to ensure safe distances between ships are maintained as they compete for space with new wind farms and oil and gas platforms.
Hundreds of miles of sea routes have been shifted under the changes.
"The Dutch part of the North Sea is one of the busiest shipping routes in the world," the ministry said in a statement. "Moreover, it is now also being used more and more intensively for other purposes, such as wind energy, nature protection and sand extraction.
"In order to keep the waterways safe for maritime traffic and to ensure a more efficient use of the available space, it has been decided to adapt the shipping routes."
After studying the issue for five years, it was determined that "safety was under pressure because more ships entered the sea and ships became larger," project manager Jacques van Kooten told the official Chinese news agency Xinhua.
"There was also a need for use by others, such as wind farms and oil or gas platforms. Safety and accessibility was at risk and the use of the North Sea was not optimal."
The North Sea sees more than 260,000 shipping movements per year, making it one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, with much of the traffic serving Rotterdam. Traffic separation schemes adopted by the United Nations' International Maritime Organization have been in place for decades to regulate traffic so as to reduce the risk of collision between vessels.
They are sorely needed because the North Sea becoming busier with platforms for oil and gas extraction, ferries running between Britain and the Netherlands, fishing boats, pleasure boats, as well as military training areas and natural areas that ordinary shipping must avoid, Dutch newspaper Volkskrant reported.
Anchorages where ships must to enter the Dutch ports also present obstacles.
Under the new rules instituted Aug. 1, a new traffic separation scheme already in force in Rotterdam will be introduced in the approaches of IJmuiden, a port city in the Dutch province of North Holland connected by canal to Amsterdam, ensuring that vessels sailing in opposite directions have their own sea lanes.
The routes will be located farther from the coast and will intersect each other less often while anchorage areas will be relocated or abolished.
Meanwhile, spaces around objects such as oil platforms have been configured differently and "areas to be avoided" and "precautionary areas" have been introduced. Vessels will no longer be allowed to sail in "areas to be avoided" under the new regulations.
"This creates more space in the future for the construction of offshore wind farms," Van Kooten told the newspaper.
The relocation of the shipping routes is being carried out in cooperation with the port authorities, the Dutch Hydrographic Service and the coast guard.